It really doesn’t matter what time of year you are picnicking, as with keeping hot picnic food warm, keeping food cold at a picnic is always a priority.
But there is also the issue of food safety. And don’t think you only need to keep picnic food cold when it is being transported.
The same priority needs to be given to keeping your food cold at home when hosting a garden party, bbq or potluck. It is often at home garden picnics where people are most complacent about ensuring food stays cold.
We look at all the ways you can ensure your picnic food stays cold and fresh no matter if it’s a garden soiree or you’re off on a hiking picnic adventure.
Safe Food Temperatures
USDA Food and Safety Inspection Service recommend the following safe food guidelines:
- Cold foods should be kept at a temperature of 40℉ | 4.44 ℃ and below.
- The safe temperature for hot foods is above 140 ℉ | 60 ℃.
- In between these temperatures is referred to as “the danger zone”.
How to Keep Food Cold at a Picnic
To ensure your food does not spoil, food should not be left at room temperature for longer than two hours. This will be less if picnicking outdoors on a hot day. If food is to be left out and you are unsure, it is advised to check the temperature of the food frequently with a basic food thermometer.
These are some basic tips to ensure your cold picnic food doesn’t fall into the danger zone:
- Make sure your food is already properly chilled prior to packing your picnic.
- Only remove your food from the fridge as close to departure or serving as possible.
- Use insulated picnic accessories to hold cold food at 40℉ | 4.44 ℃ or below.
- Keep food covered as much as possible to keep the cool in and contaminants out.
- Use cooler mats under food or portable ice trays to keep food cold while being served.
- Keep food and food storage containers such as coolers in the shade and limit time in hot cars.
- Always use a food thermometer if in doubt.
- Discard any food that has been left out at room temperature for longer than 2 hours.
Ways to Keep Picnic Food Cold
Depending on the size and location of your picnic, there are lots of simple and efficient ways to keep your picnic food and drinks chilled.
Coolers and Insulated Picnic Bags
Using appropriate coolers or insulated bags for transporting and storing your food until ready to cook or serve is integral to keeping your picnic food at its best.
Depending on the size of your picnic and where it is, there are loads of great insulated bags and coolers for the job. You no longer have to cart a heavy rigid box cooler around if it’s not required.
Think insulated picnic hampers and picnic backpacks, (we have reviewed the best picnic backpacks for 2 and picnic backpacks for 4 people as well as insulated picnic baskets from traditional wicker to modern collapsible picnic baskets). A requirement of a good picnic bag for us is always good insulation.
If you are only carrying a small feast, say for a hiking picnic, there are loads of small insulated food containers and bags for the job that will fit inside or clip on to any hiking day pack.
If it is a small wine and cheese picnic, there are loads of wonderfully practical insulated wine picnic cooler bags and wine totes which come with complete wine and cheese service sets.
Use Additional Cooling
Placing food that is already cold into an insulated bag will keep your food cold for a period of time. But using additional cooling will ensure your food stays colder for longer.
Use Frozen Water Bottles
Freeze some bottles of water and use them in your insulated picnic carrier of choice to keep food cold. As the bottles defrost, you’ll have plenty of chilled water on hand throughout the day.
Use Soft Ice Packs
Again, unless you have a need for it, you don’t have to lug a load of ice around with you. Simple ice packs will do the job very well without the potential of leaking. They are also a lot lighter than ice.
I find soft icepacks are the best as they suit a variety of bags and don’t take up as much room as a rigid freezer block.
You can also buy them in loads of different sizes which is great for small lunch boxes or thermal sandwich bags. Or, if you need a large one for inserting into larger insulated food carriers for your picnic desserts or summer salads.
Tip: If you are worried about condensation from gel ice packs (also known as sweating), wrap them in a plastic bag to prevent any dampness in your cooler. Or, you can opt for no sweat ice packs like the Nordic Ice No Sweat Reusable Ice Packs.
Using Ice to Keep Picnic Food Cold
If you have a need for ice or have no other means of cooling there are few ways to make it hassle-free if you are having a moveable feast. Using ice at home picnics is often a sensible option.
Use Block Ice
If you are loading a cooler box or any of the bags we mentioned earlier (which are great leak free alternatives to a cooler box) block ice in the bottom will last longer.
Wrap it in an additional plastic bag and drain off any water throughout the day as it melts.
Tricks for Using Cube Ice
Cubed ice makes a great gap filler making sure everything stays cold, but it can also be messy. If you don’t want cube ice melting through your cooler, place the cubes in leakproof reusable zip lock bags.
Using zip lock bags will prevent the cubes from melting too fast, stop the ice from becoming contaminated with foodstuffs so you can put it in drinks, and keep your cooler relatively dry and tidy.
If block ice is enough to keep your food and drinks cold. You can always put some cube ice in a thermos flask just for using in drinks.
Organise Your Cooler
A properly organised cooler or hamper is a thing of wonder. It not only shows you to be an alfresco aficionado, it keeps the right things colder for longer and prevents things from cross-contaminating. Not to mention the possibility of a soggy picnic mess.
These are some tips to ensure your picnic food stays cold and transports well.
- Coolers and insulated bags should be kept closed as much as possible unless you need something from them. Food and beverages will stay cold longer if warm air isn’t constantly being let in.
- Where possible, use separate coolers for beverages and perishable foods – A drinks cooler will probably be opened more often.
- Full coolers keep foods colder longer, so pack coolers as tight as possible with cold items – e.g. try not to use a larger cooler than you need.
- Pack freezer packs or block ice on the bottom and place perishable chilled items on top and cover again with freezer packs. Stack accordingly:
- Place raw meat items for cooking in zip lock bags and on the bottom layer to prevent any juices leaking and keep them at their coldest.
- Then salads, desserts, cheese etc on the layers above.
- If using ice to keep perishable food cold:
- Make sure the food is stored in leakproof containers so ice water doesn’t seep in and spoil your food.
- If using cube ice, pack the ice into reusable ziplock bags as mentioned earlier to avoid a big water mess in your food cooler bag.
Use Insulated Food Containers
Insulated storage containers are a no-nonsense way to keep food cold while being transported and double as serving dishes. These are some of the most practical and quality insulated picnic storage solutions to suit all kinds of picnics.
Keep Picnic Food Cold While Serving
You’ve managed to successfully transport your moveable feast keeping it nice and chilled. Once you are ready to serve, you want to relax and enjoy your picnic without worrying about food spoiling.
These are some simple picnic tips to keep your food fresh even when it’s time to serve.
Put Serving Dishes on Ice
When you lay your picnic spread out, there are numerous ways to keep your food cold while serving. The method you choose will depend on the style and location of your picnic but there are simple solutions for all occasions.
Ice Pack & Cold Mats
Simply place an ice pack from your cooler or cold mat under serving plates such as salads and desserts to keep them cold from underneath when you serve.
If you bought you food in an insulated food carrier, leave the dish in the carrier unzipped and place the cold mat under the dish inside the carrier.
Use An Inflatable Buffet Ice Tray
These are a kind of novel way to keep food and drink cold while being served. Obviously, they will not suit every style of picnic but are certainly portable enough for most. Simply inflate and fill with ice. Lay your picnic dishes out, surround with drinks and enjoy. Empty and deflate when you’re ready to leave.
Use 2 in 1 Serving and Ice Trays
A simple solution to serving food and keeping it cold. The lid of these food serving dishes flips to become an ice tray to set your food on keeping food fresh for longer.
Don’t Put All the Food Out At Once
If you don’t need to, don’t lay all the food out at once. Stagger servings and/or portions so food won’t be left sitting out unnecessarily.
Appetisers and snacks first such as finger foods or a charcuterie board, then salads and main dishes, followed by desserts, especially summer desserts. If you have a crowd, try to only put out portions of things like creamy potato salads and replenish as needed.
Keep Food Covered
Keep food covered with its container lid or at least a clean cloth napkin or foil. It will not only keep contaminants out it will keep your food shaded and the cool in.
Put Leftover Food Away When You’re Finished Eating
Whether you plan on taking leftovers home or think there might be a second round of snacking later in the day – put food back into their storage containers and back in the cooler. At least you know it will still be fresh if anyone gets hungry later or want to take food home.
Keeping Food Cold For a Picnic is Simple
Whether you like a lightweight picnic on the go or enjoy a long and lazy feast with a group, there are so many simple ways to keep your picnic food cold and fresh without having to lug heavy coolers and ice.