How to Pack the Perfect Beach Cooler



Packing a cooler for a relaxing, sun-filled day at the beach is like playing Tetris. But no matter how adept you are at puzzles and video games, inevitably you give up on stacking all those multishaped containers neatly, resorting to lugging a poorly organized cooler — along with multiple bags — across the hot sand.

“You don’t want to feel like you’re working a job by the time you get to the beach,” said Nikki Boyd, a professional organizer in North Carolina and the author of “Beautifully Organized: A Guide to Function and Style in Your Home.” “Keep the cooler compact, and make it work for you as efficiently as possible.”

With a little planning and a few expert tips, a day at the beach can actually be relaxing.

To master cooler Tetris, choose a cooler with one large insulated interior. Lauren Rivard, the founder of the Picnic Collective, a picnic catering company in Costa Mesa, Calif., recommends avoiding coolers with multiple compartments, like the soft, collapsible coolers with various sleeves and pockets, which only take up valuable space.

Use lightweight reusable containers that fit the shape of your cooler (rectangles and squares are the way to go). Glass containers are not recommended since they are heavy and not safe to use outdoors. Place heavier, perishable items on the bottom, and slip in smaller round shapes, like cans and thermoses, in the nooks and crannies.

Alanna O’Neil, a photographer on Maui and the author of “The Art of Picnics: Seasonal Outdoor Entertaining,” suggests creating a cold cooler by freezing all noncarbonated drinks and chilling carbonated drinks in advance. “Start with a solid base of something cold, like a layer of frozen water bottles, or frozen ice blocks,” Ms. O’Neil said. (Just be sure to use freezer-safe bottles.) The frozen foundation helps keep items balanced and melts less quickly than ice cubes. Packing your cooler to the brim works to your advantage: “The more solid it is as a unit, the cold air will stay trapped longer,” she said.

Once the cooler is packed and the gaps are filled in with ice, keep foods you’ll reach for most often, like dips and chips, on top to minimize opening the cooler and melting the ice. (You can, of course, pack dry goods in a separate bag, or transfer them to a container to keep dry — and limit trash on the beach — and pack in the cooler.) Ms. Boyd, the organizer, also suggests designating an area for drinks and giving them sections so you’re not wasting time digging for what you want. “If you want to get fancy,” she said, “you can label the lid of the cooler, so when you lift it up everyone knows the arrangement of the beverages.”

When choosing a sandwich, consider ingredients that can withstand hours outdoors and won’t get soggy. Salted butter, like in a ham and jam sandwich, holds up against the elements at the beach much better than mayonnaise on a sandwich. Ms. O’Neil likes to wrap sandwiches in parchment paper, and for extra assurance slips them into reusable bags to keep out condensation.

Hearty grain or pasta salads, like farro or orzo tossed with artichokes, olives and hard-to-melt feta cheese, travel well. The tangy and briny flavors of store-bought marinated artichoke hearts, olives and feta balance and complement the sweet jammy notes of the sandwich, if you choose to serve them together.

And a cooling, creamy, ranchy dip — made from a mix or with fresh herbs and yogurt — is the perfect companion to salty chips for snacking on all day in between ocean swims.

Chilled fruit is nonnegotiable for a beach picnic, and Ms. Rivard, Ms. Boyd and Ms. O’Neil agree that frozen grapes are the way to go. Pack them in reusable bags and store on the top layer of the cooler, so they keep things cool but don’t get crushed as they thaw. To save space, Ms. Boyd recommends cutting fruits like watermelon and pineapple into bite-size pieces and skewering them on sticks, like kebabs, for easy-to-grab individual servings stored in a container.

For a late-afternoon pick-me-up, Ms. Rivard recommends storing your favorite iced coffee in a chilled insulated flask, to serve with a sweet treat at the end of the day. Individually wrapped Rice Krispies treats are hard to crush; cut them in square or rectangle shapes for easy storing. Enjoy, then pack everything back up — in perfect Tetris formation — and make the journey home salty, sandy and content.

Recipes: Fresh Ranch Dip | Artichoke and Olive Farro Salad | Ham and Jam Sandwiches | Caramelized Brown Butter Rice Krispies Treats

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