1. Calculate the food you will need while traveling. Cook meats to the proper internal temperature, cool overnight in the refrigerator, and vacuum seal. Protein containing foods are at the highest risk for bacterial growth. Keep this in mind while packing the cooler and place these types of food in the colder areas of the cooler (bottom). TIP: Freeze 75% of your prepared vacuum sealed meats to further reduce the risk of spoilage and bacterial growth. The other 25% will be used the day you arrive so you can avoid having to thaw out your needed food. Internal Temps: Poultry 165 F, ground beef 160 F, Pork 145 F, Steaks 145 F, Fish 145 F.
2. Proper cooler choice is a must. Choose quality soft sided coolers and remove the hard liner if applicable, so the shape of the cooler can be manipulated during travel. If you are traveling for more than a few days, you will most likely need two coolers. One cooler should be small enough so that it can fit underneath the seat in front of you and the other cooler should be significantly larger, but small enough so it can fit in the overhead compartment. Check the airline website for dimensions of what is acceptable for carry on luggage. NOTE: Never check in your coolers.
3. To prepare for the morning of departure, fill gallon size freezer Ziplock bags 2/3rd the way with ice. Place meats in one cooler and starches in the other. Place the ice filled Ziplock bags on top of the food because cold air travels downward.
4. Once at the airport empty all the ice out of the Ziplock bags before going through the security check point. DO NOT THROW THE ZIPLOCK BAGS AWAY. The TSA will throw away all liquids over 4 oz., ice, and ice packs. So leave your ice packs at home. Once you get through security, go to any fast food restaurant and refill the Ziplock freezer bags with ice. Make sure you bring extra freezer Ziplock bags so you can double bag the ice. Leaking in the overhead compartment of the airplane will not be appreciated by airline attendants. Replace the ice every 2-3 hours depending on the ambient temperature to keep the food safe from bacterial growth.
5. When repacking the cooler, place the ice filled Ziplock bags on top of the food so the cold air will travel downward as described above. Depending on the depth and type of the cooler you may want to layer the ice. Remember do not pack too much ice in each bag. You want the bags to be flat so they cover a larger surface area.
6. If you reach the hotel and there is no refrigerator available or all the food does not fit, purchase a 1.5″ – 2″ inch thick Styrofoam cooler (see picture above). They are $2.99 at most grocery stores. It is a great choice and kept my food frozen for 16 hours at the Nationals. It is one of the best choices you can make when traveling. The small cheap refrigerator in the hotel room sometimes does not keep food cold enough and bacteria can grow on the high risk foods. In that case, I would pack the meats in the Styrofoam ice cooler and the starches in the refrigerator.
7. Throughout your stay in the hotel, replace the ice every 2-4 hours or as needed.
Remember: NEVER CHECK IN YOUR COOLER! YOUR FOOD SHOULD NEVER LEAVE YOUR SIGHT! It is not worth losing your food for a show and having to purchase and cook food in your hotel room. It is certainly not worth the stress the day or two before a show.