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 / Updated  / Source: TODAY
By Madelyn Fernstrom

Whether you’re driving to the beach, heading for the pool, or spending a day at the park, most people like to “pack and carry” family food favorites in a cooler.

Using a cooler can save you money, upgrade your nutrition, and boost convenience whether you’re hungry or thirsty. Before you pack, check these five tips for the perfect cooler:

Keep It Clean

Start with a clean cooler. The day before use, wash it down with a mix of vinegar and water or mild soap (like dishwashing liquid) and water. Include a final water rinse and wipe clean and dry. Use a clean sponge or paper towels, and leave the cooler open overnight. Avoid harsh detergents, window cleaners, and other cleansers designed for general household use. Follow the same process when you’ve emptied your cooler to make preparation easier for the next use.

Keep It Cold

Start with your cooler at room temperature. Keep it inside your home the night before use and avoid super hot areas like a garage or attic. Fill your cooler with ice packs or blocks of ice/ice cubes (in plastic bags to contain water leaks). Try freezing water bottles, or drink boxes before placing in the cooler to optimize cooling.

Keep the cooler in your car, not the trunk. And wrap in a light blanket for extra insulation. Avoid leaving your cooler in a hot car, or out in the sun. When outdoors, keep in a shaded spot, or even bury in the sand if there are no shady spots around.

Snack cooler
Keep the cooler in your car, not the trunk. When outdoors, keep it in a shaded spot.TODAY

Keep It Full

A cooler that is packed full will maintain cool temperatures longer than one that is only partially filled, according to the FDA. Simply pack your cooler up to the top for easy closure. Keep it comfortably full for optimal cooling. Overfilling - when it’s hard to close - might compromise cooling ability.

Keep It Closed

Every time the cooler is opened and foods are exposed to hot air, cooling can be compromised over a few hours. To avoid this, try using two coolers — one for drinks and one for foods. Because drinks are consumed more often, you’ll optimize the coolness for your foods, and avoid significant temperature changes that might impact food safety.

Keep it safe

Chill all foods and beverages before you put them in the cooler. And if you’re using the cooler for an extended time, it’s a good idea to keep a refrigerator thermometer to monitor the temperature when you include perishable foods.

  • Avoid consuming any perishable foods if the temperature in the cooler is above 40 degrees: that makes them vulnerable to bacterial contamination.
  • Layer your foods and drinks with ice packs or ice. The coldest part of the cooler is the bottom (cold air sinks!).
  • Keep “finger-friendly” snacks that do double-duty for children and adults. Include a variety of fruits and vegetables, cut up in plastic bags or containers.
  • Fresh grapes, berries, and apples are particularly suited for travel. Include dried fruits and low-sugar cereals, low-fat cheese sticks, and single serve bags of nuts (all kinds).
  • A combination of nutrient-rich choices, convenience, and treats can all be included in your cooler.

And monitor your snacking. Just because you have a cooler, it’s not a free for all for eating day and night. Especially for your kids, monitor access to the cooler, and plan for snack-time.

Follow Madelyn on Twitter: @drfernstrom