Dave and I have done a lot of extended trips where we only had a cooler for storing food — no refrigerator. Four times, we’ve gone without a refrigerator for two months or more — plus lots of shorter trips. We eat well on these trips — not just a bunch of dehydrated meals. Here’s how I do it.
In short, rather than placing food directly on the ice — which will melt and you’ll end up with your food sitting in water — it’s far better to get some racks or grates and put your food in bins on the racks.
Before heading to the store, measure the length and width of your ice box or cooler (I’m just going to call both an “ice box” from now on). If it’s not a rectangle, sketch the space and write down the measurements.
Depending on the size space and your “handy-ness” you can either use several plastic-covered wire “organizers” as shown in the picture, or you can cut wire shelves or grates to size and mount 1×1 strips for the shelves to rest on (you need to be able to easily remove the shelves to replace ice and clean the box, so don’t mount them permanently).
If you use racks like I did, they don’t have to 100% fill the inside of the ice box. They just have to sufficiently fill the space to form a solid base for the bins. Two things are important, however — you want all the tops to be level, without protrusions that will interfere with your bins, and you want the racks 5″ to 6″ off the bottom of the ice box so that sufficient ice can fit under them.
If you want a heavier-duty shelf, wire closet shelves are available in most home improvement stores and they can be cut to whatever size you need. They are much sturdier if you’re trying to span a larger distance.
Then get some bins to hold your food. I like the Sterilite bins shown, with solid bottoms (less bruising of produce than having holes in the bottom) and ventilated sides (to allow the cold air to circulate). I got both the racks and bins in the housewares/storage department in Wal-mart.
Think about what you’ll want to store in the bins and size them accordingly — for example, if you like celery, you’ll need a bin that’s big enough for it!
Block ice will last far longer than cubes, although cubes will chill things faster. For food storage, get block ice when you can — it will last 5 to 7 days in a well-insulated ice box even in 90-plus-degree weather (and longer if it’s cooler). Cube ice will only last one to two days. If you freeze the blocks yourself, remove them from any plastic containers (like milk jugs) before putting them in the cooler — the plastic insulates the ice and less cold gets to your food (see my tips for making block ice).
Put the ice under the racks and the food in the bins on the racks. If the ice box has a drain, leave it closed except when you need to drain water out (and it’s not a bad thing to have some water around the ice — it’s colder than the air). Leaving the drain open will just let hot air into the ice box. As you can see in the photo at right, I could only get cube ice where we were and it’s already melting.
To preserve your ice and food, it’s best to put drinks in a separate cooler — you’re likely to get into them far more often than into the ice box for food, so you won’t lose as much cold from the food storage. And if the ice melts on the drinks because of opening the cooler more often, you can still drink the drinks whereas food will spoil if the ice melts faster than you expect.
I use the cooler primarily for produce and dairy items (you can also store pre-frozen commercially vacuum-sealed meats for a few days). What looks to be a bottle of ketchup in the photo above actually holds milk — it’s a much better size to fit in the cooler than the box it came in (read more about boxed milk)!Depending on the depth of your ice box, you can also get stacking bins and have a double layer. Put the things that need to stay the coldest on the bottom. Not only is it nearest the ice, but hot air rises, so it’s always warmest at the top.
Although I used this system when camping, our meals certainly didn’t seem like we were “camping out.”