Tips for Transporting Food

Transporting food doesn’t have to be difficult. I’ve put together a post with all my tips and tricks for transporting all your favorite food items to make it as easy as possible!

A woman in a doorway with a thanksgiving dish to pass

Whether you’re bringing a dish-to-pass for the holidays, a tasty side for a picnic or even a lunch for work, we all come across times where we need to transport food. It’s important to do this the right way for a few reasons:

  • Food safety: No one wants food poisoning. If you haven’t experienced it yourself, trust me when I say, you don’t want to. It’s the most miserable experience. These tips will help avoid it.
  • Fresh food always tastes better: Food always tastes better when it’s served as intended, whether that be hot or cold. And properly transporting food will help protect your car from unnecessary spills (once again, speaking from experience).

So let’s go through all the basics.

Temperature safety

When food goes above or below certain temperatures for extended periods of time, it gets out of what is called the “temperature safety zone.” When this happens, bacteria can grow very quickly in food, some of which can make you and your friends and family very sick. Cold foods should be kept below 40°F and hot foods should be kept above 140°F. You can read more about this at the USDA’s website.

Packing a cooler to keep cold food cold

The best way to keep cold food cold, is by storing it in the refrigerator. But in most cases, refrigeration isn’t available in vehicles (certainly not for average uses!). That’s where your trusty cooler comes in. Any good cooler will be insulated and will help keep your food cold longer. Here are some great tips for loading your cooler properly:

  • Pre-chill the cooler first: If possible, add some ice or extra ice pack (not the ones you’ll be using the day-of) into the cooler overnight. This will get it nice and chilly before the food actually goes in.
  • Pre-chill your food: This same rule goes for the food. If it’s already chilled, it’ll stay chilled longer.
  • Wrap the food in plastic wrap and then in newspaper: I know this sounds unconventional, but a family friend once told me that newspaper makes a surprisingly good insulator, especially for small containers. The plastic wrap also keeps things from shifting too much in transit.
  • Know where to place your ice packs: Line the bottom of the cooler with flat ice packs or bags of ice (smaller is better). If you can add some on top, even better!
  • Be mindful about what food you’ll remove first: Try to pack things at the bottom that you will be using last. that way they stay colder longer. Also put foods that need to stay cooler (like mayonnaise-laden foods!) closer to the bottom.
  • Place the cooler in a safe place in the car: If possible, avoid the trunk. You’ll have more control to prevent it from falling if it rides in the passenger seat or back seat (and avoid heat from the road). It’s also a more temperature controlled environment in the car. You can also wrap it in blankets to keep it in place and provide additional insulation.
  • Be sure to clean the cooler between every use: to avoid any potential bacteria growth.

Keeping hot food hot

A cooler can also come in handy if you’re transporting hot food (insulation is insulation, amitrite?). Now there are two options for how you can go about transporting hot food. You can cook it just before leaving or you can cook it in advance, cool it and refrigerate and reheat it at your destination just before serving. Cooking and cooling in advance is the optimal option, specifically for long trips, but either option works.

  • Choose your dish wisely: Ceramic baking dishes hold heat longer than metal, but if you’re looking for a disposable, pan, foil pans work great.
  • Don’t forget crossover cooking: Food continues to cook from residual heat, so take this into account if you’re not serving it right away.
  • Insulate it well: A cooler or Insulated Casserole Carrier is great but in a pinch you can always wrap it a towel or blanket (the newspaper trick isn’t optimal for hot foods because paper and heat aren’t a good combo).
  • Use hot pads or dish towels: They’re great to place between dishes and help you avoid burning your hands.
  • If possible, use a slow cooker: Slow cookers are great because even if you don’t cook the recipe in there, you can heat them before adding the food and keep the food warm even after arriving.
  • If packing multiple dishes: Pack them tightly to keep them warm.

Other tips and tricks for transporting food

  • If you’re serving something cold can use frozen components (like frozen veggies in a salad) add the veggies frozen and they can thaw before serving.
  • Make note of items in the recipe that should be done just before serving like dressing a salad or adding certain ingredients. Bring those separately and do them just before serving.
  • Use quality containers with covers that actually stay on.
  • If you are using disposable foil pans, use chip clips or binder clips to secure it shut.
  • Be smart about the vessels in which you transport foods. Use muffin tins for cupcakes, egg cartons for deviled eggs etc.
  • If your slow cooker doesn’t clamp at the top, place it in a towel-lined box to avoid spills- this rule goes for most containers- better safe than sorry!
  • For bite size foods or anything that can more around, place them on a sheet pan and wrap it tightly and completely with plastic wrap to hold them in place.

Now go, cook and transport with confidence!

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