Food & Home

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What to Pack in Your Summer Cooler—and How

In partnership with our friends at Miami Cocktail Company

Road trips, beach days, picnics, and camping all have one crucial element that can make or break the experience: the cooler (and its contents).

HOW TO PACK A COOLER

PRECHILL IT

We’ve all been there: It’s time to pack the cooler for the first time since last summer and you realize it’s been stowed away in some sweltering garage or attic, and surprise, surprise, it struggles to keep anything cold. You can avoid this by just bringing the cooler inside the night before, so the ambient temperature of your home can bring the cooler’s temperature down, which will make it easier for it to stay cooler longer. If you can stick it in an especially cool spot in your house, like the basement, even better. Similarly, keep everything that’s going in the cooler in the fridge until the very last minute. And packing the cooler itself should be the last thing you do before you hop in the car and go.

THE TWO-COOLER APPROACH

The key to keeping your cooler cold is not opening it too much. That can be hard to avoid if you’ve got all the goods in one giant cooler. Consider divvying up the drinks and the food and storing them separately. Use your heavy-duty cooler for the food and something like this bag from Business & Pleasure Co. for drinks. That way you can reach in for all the canned cocktails and sparkling waters you need without raising the temperature of the food.

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PACK STRATEGICALLY

We like a combination of ice sources—heavy-duty lines the base of the cooler, and loose ice fills the in-between spaces. Put the things you need to keep coldest on the ice packs. From there it’s a bit like a game of Tetris. Wire cooling racks—the ones we use after baking cookies—can help give you level layers for efficient packing. Too many air gaps in your cooler will hasten ice melting (the ice will be working to cool that extra air instead of insulating itself) so fill in those extra gaps with more ice, not more food. The ideal ratio of ice to food in a cooler is two to one.

DON’T DRAIN

It’s tempting to drain the water from the melted ice in your cooler—and if you’re on a longer, multiday camping trip, that’s the thing to do. But if you’re on a day trip or an overnight, don’t: That water is nearly as cold as the ice and will do a pretty good job of keeping things chilled. Cold water will also do a good job at insulating the ice that’s left, keeping it colder than if it were exposed to air.

CURRENTLY IN OUR COOLER

Okay, technically, the popcorn and crackers shouldn’t go inside the cooler, but they absolutely go with everything else on this list.

Miami Cocktail Margarita Spritz

Miami Cocktail Margarita Spritz

The portable marg is a summer sensation. No futzing around with shakers and citrus squeezers and inevitably getting every surface around you sticky—just a delicious cocktail at the ready when you want it. Our pick is from Miami Cocktail Company—it’s clean and crisp like you want a margarita to be, but the elderflower and ginger are exciting new additions. There’s a bit of orange juice to sweeten it in lieu of added sugars, which both rounds out the tartness and nicely echoes the citrusy flavors of the Key limes.

Topo Chico

Topo Chico

In our opinion, the more aggressive the bubbles, the better. Topo Chico wins this category by a landslide.

Bjorn Corn

Bjorn Qorn

Our favorite solar-powered snack. Chances are you’ll devour the majority of the bag en route to your destination, so hedge your bets and bring two.

Mini Tajin with Fruits and Veggies

Mini Tajin with Fruits and Veggies

Hot weather means we are subsisting on cool-crunchy-refreshing fruits and veggies like jicama, cucumbers, watermelon, cantaloupe, and mango—which all happen to taste even better with this Mexican chili-lime-salt blend. Cut up your produce and shower on the tajin when you get to your destination. These mini bottles are both convenient and adorable.

Potter's Crackers

Potter’s Crackers

Thin, crisp, and seasoned just enough to enjoy on their own but not so much that it overpowers what you pair them with. We’re currently loving the caramelized onion flavor.

Grillo's Pickles

Grillo’s Pickle Chips

An obligatory pickle moment. Grillo’s are fresh, crunchy, vinegary, garlicky—basically everything we want.

Bitchin’ Sauce Heat

Bitchin’ Sauce Heat

The name on this tub might raise some eyebrows. And the heat level of this stuff requires a warning. We’ve long loved the original and chipotle flavors but recently gave the Heat a try and it is no joke (we’re talking ghost pepper and habanero). There’s something oddly refreshing about eating spicy food when it’s hot out.

Deli-Style Salads (and Something Sweet)

Even though you have a cooler, it’s still a smart idea to pack foods that do well at room temperature. We take the deli-salad approach and steer away from ingredients that tend to suffer if they sit out too long, so we avoid dairy-based dressings, opt for sturdy greens instead of delicate lettuces, use vegenaise in place of mayo, and keep it mostly plant-based. These recipes will be in heavy rotation all summer long.

Mustard Potato Salad

Mustard Potato Salad

We prefer this French-style potato salad at room temperature.

Chickpea Tuna Salad

Chickpea “Tuna” Salad

Try this in a lettuce cup or with Potter’s Crackers.

Sesame Slaw

Sesame Slaw

A simple slaw that goes with anything and gets better as it sits.

Brown Butter Pecan Blondies

Brown Butter Pecan Blondies

End the day on a sweet note. Blondies are easy to make ahead and pack up, and they’re hefty, so you don’t have to worry about them getting knocked around a bit.

We hope you enjoy the products recommended here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you might, as well. We also like transparency, so, full disclosure: We may collect a share of sales or other compensation if you purchase through the external links on this page (including links to Amazon).

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