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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.

Cooler full of groceries in the back of the Mini coming home from our first grocery run of the trip

Tip #1: How to select the right cooler for YOUR trip

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:

  1. Make a list of the constraints or limiting factors. (Including budget!) In other words, the non-negotiable criteria.
  2. 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.

Tip #2: How to fit more food into your cooler

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.

Tip #3: How to make sure you don’t leave your cooler behind

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:

  1. Use rational shopping tricks to pick a cooler that works for your specific needs.
  2. Don’t waste space on ice: cool your food with frozen food packs.
  3. 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!

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10 comments

1 poetloverrebelspy { 07.20.08 at 2:59 am }

Thank you for submitting your post to Travel on a Shoestring Carnivals. You’ll receive a trackback when the carnival goes live.

In the meanwhile, you and your readers might appreciate the following posts I’ve written about eating on the road:
+ Fighting Hunger on the Road describes how to picnic on the go like a pro, including suggestions for travel-friendly food
+ Budget Eats are my tried-and-true travel food budget savers

Enjoy, and feel free to leave a comment with your own suggestions!

2 Shaula { 07.20.08 at 10:36 am }

Thanks for the links, PLRS. We’re always keen to learn from other travelers.

3 Mike V. { 07.20.08 at 9:49 pm }

Having traveled a bit by motorcycle, I sympathize with your space constraints. My suggestions: Chicken-fried steak. And pie.

Actually, these have nothing at all to do with coolers, or space constraints, but are mandatory road food. Sure, it’ll kill you…but did you expect to live forever? Besides, travelling the nations clogged arteries with, er, unclogged arteries is patently un-American. Do you want the terrorists to win?

Another option: don’t eat. Seriously. Research suggests the only effective way to extend the human lifespan is to eat less…not just less than the average American gourmand, but really a lot less than your hunger requests. I eat once every other day. I also weigh approximately eight pounds and can play the xylophone on my ribcage. The nicest part of this diet, after space savings and musical ability, is that any food of any kind induces feelings of euphoria. Single kernel of dry rice? An ecstasy of excess! Dandelion leaves plucked from the roadside? A gourmet salad the likes of which you can scarcely recall! (nota bene: infrequent eating may reduce your ability to recall things).

Sure, you may periodically lose consciousness, but, hey, where are your priorities? Also, weight loss that allows you to see the outline of your spine through the drum-taut skin of your emaciated abdomen converts directly to fuel savings on the road, so do your part.

That’s just my tasteless two cents; as always, your mileage may vary.

4 Neil { 07.20.08 at 10:05 pm }

Anybody expecting to live forever shouldn’t be traveling by motorcycle–especially after wrapping their hands around a good, greasy chicken-fried steak (hey, everything is finger-food, right?)

Clearly, you’ve developed yourself something of a niche. For one, you can assemble yourself a motorcycle gang of fashion models whose careers on the Italian runways have ended (from runway to roadway), and then you can tour your gang of minute models (in the sense of minute steaks) around the country giving speeches on weight loss (sort of like Tony Robbins, but more like ‘Tony Ribbons’). And if you get hassled by the fuzz, the whole gang can turn sideways and hide behind each other.

Keep on truckin’!!

5 Shaula { 07.20.08 at 11:11 pm }

Mike: having been close to an airetarian in the past out of economic necessity, I don’t advise it. And I can’t say I’ve ever tried chicken-fried steak. (I was shocked to find out it was real and not just something that Roger Miller invented.)

Neil: I think you’re channeling Tom Robbins. (There’s a great Shambhala Sun interview with Tom Robbins in their July 2008 edition. )

6 Neil { 07.20.08 at 11:17 pm }

Chicken-fried steak is just the precursor. Eventually, you work your way up to chicken-fried chicken.

Jason would know. I believe he and Margaret arrived at some sort of consensus on what can be chicken-fried.

7 Ian Welsh { 07.21.08 at 2:11 am }

You southerners are frightening me. I’m scared to google chicken fried anything now.

8 Shaula { 07.21.08 at 11:18 pm }

Would you be less frightened (or more frightened) if we told you that chicken-fried steak is a variant of schnitzel?

Here’s a recipe from Texas for chicken-fried steak if you’re brave enough to try it. (Note that our low-carb diet friends will not be joining you.)

And, if you’re feeling very brave indeed, here’s a recipe for chicken-fried chicken that purports to be from Southern Living magazine, but clearly a yankee snuck in the reference to blue cheese dressing.

We google so you don’t have to!

9 John Loring { 07.24.08 at 2:31 pm }

I’m sure that Neil will find a flaw in this, but would it make sense to get into the habit of keeping your car keys in the travel cooler? That way you would never forget the cooler.

10 Neil { 07.24.08 at 2:37 pm }

It would, but after a bunch of travel over the years, I’ve trained myself to be fanatic about my car keys being in my pocket. If anything else walks away while we’re not looking, we still have the keys–and several other things I don’t let out of my sight.

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1 2paupers » Blog Archive » Carnival of Living Cheaply - August { 07.31.08 at 6:38 pm }

[...] presents Road Groceries: 3 tips to turn your car into your kitchen posted at Your Mileage May Vary, saying, “Here are 3 easy tips to make the most of “car [...]

2 Travel on a Shoestring Carnival: Africa, Middle East, Americas, Asia, Oz #7 — Less Than a Shoestring { 01.30.13 at 4:49 pm }

[...] tips to make the most of “car cuisine” in order to save money on the road in her post Road Groceries: 3 tips to turn your car into your kitchen, posted at Your Mileage May [...]