Your safety matters to us
With the weather warming up and cookouts and picnics coming out, it’s important to keep your food safe. The best way to keep yourself and your food safe this summer is by not eating food that has been sitting out in the sun for more than an hour and a half, sticking a kitchen thermometer at the top of your cooler to make sure the temperature doesn’t drop below 40 degrees, and considering the source of your food.
- No concern about bacteria ruining the day! Enjoy your picnics without worrying about the food in your cooler because you’ll know just how high the temperature can get and how long the food can sit in the cooler.
- You can trust your own judgment. You don’t have to be afraid to eat food that has been sitting out in the sun if you know where it came from or how long it has been out.
- It might last longer than you’d think. As long as your cooler is kept cold, your food could last as long as a couple weeks. You won’t have to play a guessing game because we’ll give you all the details you need.
A Note About Food Safety this Summer
Personally, if the food has been sitting out in the sun for an hour to an hour and a half or more, I consider it potentially hazardous, and I will not eat it.
When food is left out at a picnic, it’s still sitting there in the sun while you go to chat and hang out with friends, and it is very likely to go bad while you’re distracted. It’s not as bad if it’s left in a cooler, but that’s only if you’ve been careful.
It’s honestly left up to your good judgment. Consider the source. Did the food come from a grocery store deli or shelf, or was it homemade and sat out on the counter before going out into the sun? Most often, packaged foods last a little better out in the sun than the homemade foods.
How to Keep Food Safe in Your Cooler
There are two conditions to keep a careful eye on when it comes to perishable, or potentially hazardous (as in has potential to grow bacteria), food: moisture and temperature.
Keeping the Cooler's Moisture Out of Your Food
While it’s important to keep your food close to the ice to keep it safe and cool, you also need to make sure it’s carefully contained or packaged, so the moisture doesn’t get to it.
Keeping the Temperature of Your Cooler in Check
Perishable food should be kept at 40 degrees or colder. Most coolers or ice chests are not reliably that cold and you should not try to keep food as long in the cooler as you do at home in a refrigerator. When leaving your food in a cooler, you can ensure that the temperature is staying below 40 degrees by filling it with lots of ice, keeping the most perishable food closest to the ice, and sticking a kitchen thermometer at the top of the cooler to ensure that it’s at 40 degrees or below.
How Long Can You Keep Food in the Cooler?
The following is a general guideline for keeping food in a cooler. It assumes that your cooler is very cold, keeping the foods at 40 degrees or colder, and filled with lots of ice. That gives you a slight margin for error to accommodate for the kiddies pulling pops out regularly, the cooler being left in the sun, loads of warm food placed in the cooler, and other cooler hazards.
If you know your cooler has been above forty degrees, play it safe and discard potentially hazardous foods such as meats and egg-based dressings. Perishable foods become potentially hazardous when they have been at 40 degrees for longer than four hours. I would play it safe by setting the cut-off time at three hours.
Want to Learn More?
The summertime fun shouldn’t have to end with food poisoning. Learn other ways to keep your food safe and get two free eBooks on making great potato salads, burgers, and fries. You’ll stand out all of the picnics, camp-outs, and barbecues for sure!
Keep reading below for more.
- Fish, poultry, and ground meat: These are both very perishable and potentially hazardous. Do not keep these foods in a cooler for more than a day or two—never over two.
- Steaks and chops: These should keep for three or four days in a cold cooler.
- Cured bacon and lunch meat: The cured nature of these meats will keep them safe longer. Use within a week of being in a cooler. Be cautious of deli meats that may not be cured and will not keep as well.
- Milk: Milk may keep for a week in the refrigerator but do not plan on keeping milk in the cooler for more than two or three days unless kept right by the ice and the cooler is kept well below 40 degrees the entire time. Smell or taste the milk before using it to make sure that it is still fresh, especially if you are using it in cooking where spoiled milk may not be noticed.
- Cheese: If kept in its original packaging that is air and moisture tight, the cheese will keep a long time—harder cheeses longer than soft cheeses. You can plan on keeping cheeses in a cooler for a week or longer. We have taken cheeses on backpacking trips in the mountains and river trips with no refrigeration for four or five days.
- Yogurt, sour cream, and cream cheese: Plan on using these within a week.
Eggs & Butter
- Eggs: As long as they are kept cold, your eggs should last one to two weeks in a cooler. Discard any eggs that have cracked shells. Remember that eggshells are porous. Do not let the eggs sit in water in the bottom of the cooler where they may become contaminated.
- Butter and margarine: Margarine will keep longer than butter. You should get two weeks or more from your margarine and at least a week from your butter. Butter will become rancid. It will also absorb odors from your cooler. Store your butter in zipper-type plastic bags. Do not let it become wet.
Fruits & Veggies
- Ripe fruit: For keeping qualities, there are three classes of fruit. Berries and cherries will only keep for one or two days. Soft fruits—grapes, melons, pears, peaches, plums, and apricots—should keep for three or four days. Apples and citrus fruits will keep for a month.
- Fresh vegetables: Broccoli, peas, summer squash, and lettuce will keep for two or three days. Carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, and green peppers will keep for a week. Potatoes, winter squash, and dry onions will keep for a couple of months and do not need to be refrigerated. The ideal storage for these vegetables is 50 to 55 degrees.
Foods that Can Be Left Out of the Cooler
Here is a list of fruits and vegetables that will keep without refrigeration or being kept in a cooler. For more information on how to properly store these foods outside of the cooler, you can read this article.
- Got Fruit? Fabulous Dessert Recipes for Your Summer Fruits