On the Water Eating: Best Foods for Your Boat's Cooler

A day on the water is a day well spent whether you're on the coast, a river or an inland lake. The boat itself might be a graceful sailboat, a high-powered ski boat or a crowd-friendly pontoon, but they all have one thing in common: If you're out for more than a few hours, you’re bound to get hungry. Here are a few tips on getting the most out of – and into – your cooler while on the water.

Things to Eat Cold

Light, cold foods are the most practical option for outings of a few hours, and they'll help you stay active until your main meal during longer days. They can include trays of cold cuts and cheese, sliced sausage or cold rotisserie chicken, and sandwiches or wraps. Salads are also good candidates for a day on the water, from sturdy chicken or potato salad to leafy green salads. Pack all these into the cooler in space-efficient flat containers rather than serving dishes. You'll have a lot more room for food, and also for ice or cooler packs to keep things at a food-safe temperature.

Things to Warm Up

Cooking hot meals on the boat requires a little more planning. Taking meat, fish or poultry in your cooler to cook from raw can be inconvenient because there's always a risk that they'll leak their juices into the cooler and onto your other foods. Whenever possible, think in terms of foods that can be cooked and cooled in advance, then reheated on the boat. If you have access to a grill, pre-cook ribs or chicken and reheat them for dinner with your choice of sauce or glaze. If you have 12V power and a power inverter, you can bring a slow cooker or electric roaster from home and use it for hot dogs, hamburgers or casseroles.

Packing and Prioritizing

Plan on taking at least two coolers, one for beverages and one for food. You'll be in and out of the beverages cooler constantly, letting warm air in, and food requires a more stable temperature to remain safe. Pack items for your main meal at the bottom where they'll stay cold longer. Lighter foods for earlier in the day can stay near the top, especially green salads or cut vegetables that don't need to be kept quite so cold.

A Few Tips

  • Use a probe-type LCD thermometer to monitor the temperature of your most perishable foods. Put the probe in the lower layer with your food, making sure it's in contact with the food rather than ice or a gel pack. Clip or tape the LCD readout to the cooler and check it periodically. Some models can sound an alert if the temperature rises above a food safe 40° F.
  • Block ice will last longer and stay colder than cube ice but it takes up more space. Make the best use of your cooler by custom-freezing block ice at home in plastic containers that match the size of your cooler.
  • Freeze water bottles and use them to keep your food cold. As an added bonus, you can drink them after they thaw.
  • If you opt for ice over gel packs or bottles, double-bag your food to prevent melted water from getting into your food. Not only will it make your food soggy, but it can pick up bacteria from other foods, the containers or the cooler itself. Set a cooler rack over the ice and prop it in place with containers when possible, then set your bagged foods on top of the rack where they'll stay dry.
  • Bring along an instant-read thermometer or probe-type grilling thermometer to test any foods you serve hot. Meats cooked fresh should reach at least 145° F for food safety, while poultry should reach 160° F. Casseroles or other prepared foods should reach 165° F.

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