RoadTrip America

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Road Food: Articles by Dennis Weaver
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Cooler Cuisine:
Tips for Fresh & Healthy Road Food

Cooler thermometer
Cheap insurance: a thermometer for your cooler

It always begins with a deep-down, gurgling rumble. Then you get sick, sometimes very sick -- like "let's-go-to-the hospital" sick. Even if you are over it in 24 hours, this is not what you want to do on a road trip. But thousands do, and it could be you.

You don't have to be a casualty. A thermometer, a few chuck wagon road rules, and a basic knowledge of which foods are the most hazardous and you can avoid the dastardly occurrence of food poisoning on the road. In this article, we'll tell you how with road rules and an overview of how to keep those foods that you packed safe.

There are three types of microorganisms that might make us sick: yeasts, molds, and bacteria. We are surrounded by all three--they are in the air, the soil, and the water. We cannot avoid them entirely, but we can control their growth.

Bacteria are the big, bad bullies on the block and are far tougher than molds and yeasts. The three bacteria strains that typically cause food poisoning are salmonella, staphylococcus, and botulism. All require a moist environment to grow, and between 50 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, the bacteria load can grow at a staggering rate. Under these conditions, foods with minimal contamination can be dangerously loaded with bacteria in just a few hours. Dry foods are safe, but moist foods, particularly meats and dairy products, carry bacteria -- especially staphylococcus. Botulism is the most toxic -- the poison thrown off by botulism is so powerful that a single teaspoon of toxin could kill thousands of people.

Bacteria and molds can be contained with temperatures. Bacteria are inactive or nearly so at temperatures below 40 degrees. Temperatures above 145 degrees begin to kill bacteria. Molds don't grow below 32 degrees and they die above 140 degrees. Keep cold foods below 40 degrees and hot foods above 145.

So with that quick background, here are our road rules:

  1. Buy a thermometer. They only cost a few bucks. Stick it in the top of your cooler. Make sure that the cooler stays below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Pack a sanitizing solution and use it often. Recognize that there is a difference between clean and sanitized. Use a bleach solution (one teaspoon per quart of water) or a cleaner with bleach to sanitize surfaces. We use Clorox Clean-up -- a lot.
  3. Avoid contamination. Avoid contamination from such sources as raw hamburger juices and unclean utensils. Wash and disinfect your hands often. We use Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer after washing. Sanitize your cooler between trips with water and household bleach.
  4. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Remember that the enemy thrives in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Leaving the food on the picnic table for an hour will allow existing bacteria to multiply. Placing it in the cooler will cause them to become inactive, once the food is thoroughly chilled, only to become active and begin multiplying again if the food is subsequently left out.
  5. Don't try to make bad food good by heating it. It won't work--at least not without extended boiling or a pressure cooker. We can kill the bacteria at high temperatures but the toxins they leave behind can be dangerous.

Now as a practical matter, how long can you keep that food in the cooler? More on Page 2>

Dennis WeaverDennis Weaver -- having burnt food from Miami, Florida to Point Barrow, Alaska -- is RTA's road food expert. He has logged thousands of hours on the roads, trails, and waterways of America including many of Alaska's wilderness rivers and has consistently been elected the trips' "chief cook and bottle washer." Dennis is currently general manager at The Prepared Pantry, a company in Rigby, Idaho, that produces ready-to-eat meals and baking mixes packaged in Mylar. Weatherproof, bug-proof, and critter resistant, they're ideal for both roadtrips and back woods camping. Dennis may be reached at


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