Cooler Cuisine: 3 tips to turn your car into a road-trip kitchen
Building a “road kitchen” for our Mini Cooper that fits in alongside our suitcases and the supplies for Neil’s mobile office has turned out to be a fun challenge on our road trip. These 3 tips are the best tricks we’ve worked out for making our road kitchen efficient, effective, and hopefully fool-proof.
No one else can tell you what equipment is right for the trip that you’re taking. Unfortunately, there’s just no universal answer. And nobody had a pre-fab answer for us when it came to buying a cooler for the Mini.
The best way we’ve found to research equipment:
- Make a list of the constraints or limiting factors. (Including budget!) In other words, the non-negotiable criteria.
- Make a separate list of features or options we’d like to include if we can, but that are not essential. In other words, the bonus list or negotiable criteria.
(We have great success following these steps for making any kind of significant purchase, not just travel gear. For big ticket items, we also make sure to get at least 3 competitive quotes.)
Going on a long road trip in our Mini Cooper makes it vital that we use our limited storage space efficiently. Any time we consider buying new equipment for the trip, we measure the utility of the item against how much space it takes up and how much weight it adds to the car.
When we researched which cooler to buy for this trip, the need for low weight, compact size, and high function dictated our non-negotiable criteria:
- Cooler can’t waste space with thick walls or a bulky lid.
- Cooler should “disappear” when it is not in use.
- Cooler should still hold “enough” food to be useful.
We chose up a “California Innovations 36 Can Collapsible Cooler With Easy Access Lid” at the Gander Mountain outdoor supplies store north of Richmond.
- The cooler’s high density thermal insulation makes the walls thin and soft.
- The cooler collapses down to take up about 60% less space when empty.
- The cooler dimensions (13.50″ x 11.25″ x 11.62″) let it fit easily in the well of the hatchback. We discovered today that it holds exactly one paper bag worth of groceries.
There are just two of us on the trip, and we’re happy to make frequent provisioning stops along the way. In fact, we are looking forward to shopping at road side stands and farmers’ markets. One bag of perishable food at a time is plenty for us.
Our verdict: following these steps to select the right cooler helped us buy a cooler that is “just right” for our needs.
Our cooler is clearly too small to fill up with ice!
When we’ve previously gone on day trips or weekend trips (before this road trip), we’ve frozen plastic water bottles the night before we left to throw in the cooler as ice. Once they thaw we either drink them up or refreeze them to use again.
The problem is: we don’t have room in our cozy cooler for frozen ice bottles if we want to fit in much food. And not every place we stay has a freezer, so we may not be able to freeze the water over night. Plus, we’re doing our best to avoid plastic and disposable items on this trip.
Then Neil came up with a brilliant solution:
Cool the food with frozen fruit.
Frozen fruit is essentially edible ice. We buy a pack or two of frozen fruit and throw it in the cooler with the food. When the fruit thaws, we can eat it at night for desert, or for breakfast the next morning. And, if we want to cool a drink during the day (we’re experimenting with brewing iced tea in the car), we can just pop in a few frozen berries as ice cubes. Plus the small particles of frozen fruit make it literally more flexible than a gel pack or a frozen bottle of water: we can mold the frozen fruit around rigid objects in the cooler so it wastes less space.
The only drawbacks to this method so far are that we need to make sure we get to local grocery stores before they close at night to stock up on frozen fruit. And, while it feels silly to buy frozen fruit in the summer when so much fresh fruit is available, we’re making sure to eat lots of fresh fruit, too, and buy frozen fruit that is out of season to increase the variety of our diets.
We really don’t want to drive miles down the road only to realize that we left our cooler behind in the last rest stop (or in the last state). We can both get a little dopey when we’ve driven for a long time or when we’ve put off eating (okay, I’m much worse for this than Neil is), so we don’t want to rely on memory or luck to make sure everything makes it back in the car.
When we bought the cooler (and our other equipment for the trip, too), instead of looking for “pretty” colours or “nice” designs, we’ve tried to buy things in hazard hues: hunter orange, road sign yellow, danger red.
We really don’t have a penchant for flourescent colours. (Or for 80’s Euro-pop, thanks for asking.)
What we have is an allergy to camouflage.
We didn’t want equipment that would be drab, or unobtrusive, or similar in colour to asphault or picnic tables or browning lawns. We wanted obnoxiously bright gear that stands up and yells: “Yo! Don’t drive away without me.”
Fashion statements are all well and good, but we’ll take function over form any day.
Neil is an an exceptionally good load master and he hasn’t left anything behind yet, but we also both prefer to set up systems and protocols to make life easier. We both like the fact that our bright coloured gear is shortens the odds in our favour.
. . .
To recap, our 3 best cooler tips are:
- Use rational shopping tricks to pick a cooler that works for your specific needs.
- Don’t waste space on ice: cool your food with frozen food packs.
- Choose obnoxious colours so you can’t overlook your cooler.
Will these cooler tips work for you? As with all the advice on our site, your mileage may vary. If you try out any of our tips, we’d love to hear how they do or don’t work out for you.
And, we’d love to hear your best suggestions for making the most of road trip coolers. Please share!