Summer is drawing to a close, but there’s still plenty of time for outdoor fun. We talked with some of the area’s cooler-packing pros about what Mainers should keep in their coolers for end-of-summer gatherings. They recommended a variety of standout foods and beverages, many Maine- or New England-made, to ensure deliciously memorable beach and camping trips, bonfires and boating excursions.

The packing principles for each of these trips are essentially the same. You want to keep your food and beverages below 40 degrees for the duration to prevent bacterial growth and spoilage. You also want to keep them dry and organized enough so you don’t have to spend 10 minutes rummaging around to find the bacon.

Here are some fundamental cooler packing tips to keep your cooler and its contents properly chilled:

Use a separate cooler for beverages. The drinks cooler sees a lot more action than a food-only cooler. If you keep your beverages in the same cooler as the food, the lid will be opening every time someone grabs a can or bottle, melting the ice and raising the temperature faster.

Chill the coolers first, if possible. Before packing anything into it, place your cooler in the coldest place you can find, whether it’s down in the basement or a space in a chest freezer. Chilling the container first will keep everything cold longer.

Freeze what you can. Food that won’t be needed until later in the trip should be frozen before packing, so it helps maintain the low temperatures in the cooler. The colder your food is when you pack it, the less likely it will spoil.


Use block ice on the bottom. Blocks of ice melt slower than cubes and make an excellent cold foundation for the cooler. Fill casserole or loaf pans with water and freeze, then place the blocks of ice on the bottom of the cooler. Top with a layer of cardboard or a thin piece of wood for insulation. For short trips or small coolers, freezer packs will work in place of block ice.

Add plenty of ice cubes. Most experts recommend following a ratio of 2/3 ice to 1/3 food in the cooler. But it won’t do just to put your food in the cooler then dump your ice on top. How you arrange the food and ice makes a big difference, so…

Pack in layers. Use the bottom layer for foods you’ll be eating later in the trip or the most perishable items. Top with a layer of ice, being careful not to leave any large air pockets that will melt the ice faster. Another layer of food, then more ice, repeating as needed.

Consider layout. When packing lots of different kinds of food and drinks for longer trips or larger gatherings, create zones if possible. Place meat and fish to the right, for instance, and dairy to the left, with fruits and veggies and beverages in the top layers. However you organize, the idea is to be able to find what you need easily when the time comes.

Fill the cooler completely. Or as close as possible – the less air between the top layer and the cover of the cooler, the better for keeping items chilled. Place a damp towel or a reusable freezer sheet over the top layer of ice for added insulation.

Prep ingredients ahead. If you plan to do any cooking, prep ingredients like chopped onion and garlic, sliced veggies or skewered meats beforehand and store them in airtight, watertight containers.


Drain melted ice regularly. Pour off water about twice a day for longer trips (3-7 days) so the ice stays frozen as long as possible and any unpackaged food doesn’t become waterlogged. Refill with fresh ice as often as needed (or possible, if camping remotely).

So now you know how to pack the cooler, let’s get to the fun part – the goodies inside. Here, we fill your cooler with ideal local and regional foods and beverages for three different outings – a day trip to the beach, a camping trip, and a portable cocktail party.

Customers order food at the counter at Higgins Beach Market in August. The market is an excellent place to stop to pick up items to fill your cooler. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer


Joanne Chessie, manager of Higgins Beach Market in Scarborough, has helped countless customers fill their beach coolers this season. One popular approach: Pack cheeses and sliced meats for an ad hoc charcuterie board.

Higgins Beach Market carries three kinds of salami from New Hampshire’s Short Creek Farm, and soppressata and prosciutto from Daniele out of Rhode Island. The store also sells house-made mustard and bread-and-butter-pickles.

“We’re a beachside market that gives you food you’d expect elsewhere,” Chessie said, explaining that the market was bought last year by Big Tree Hospitality, the restaurant group that owns Hugo’s, The Honey Paw and Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland.


At Rosemont Market and Bakery, director of operations Erin Lynch agreed that the simple, snacky meat-and-cheese formula is a winner for beach coolers. She recommended spreading Fredrikson Farm goat cheese on one of Rosemont’s house-baked baguettes. Lynch said some of Rosemont’s packaged foods, like its sesame noodle salad ($8.49/16 ounces) – a vegetarian dish in a waterproof container – are ideal for beach trips.

At Beach House Market and Deli in Scarborough, owner Chris Bailey said the 6-ounce Boar’s Head Charcuterie Trio ($13) is a big seller with beachgoers. “It’s on the cheap side, and it’s good quality,” Bailey said. Beach House also makes a Dill Pickle Pasta Salad ($6.95/pound) with dill and horseradish pickles in a sour cream and dill dressing he says is in demand with his customers.

Steffan Margagliotta, 8, picks out a drink to take to the beach at Higgins Beach Market. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

For beverages, Chessie recommended Maine Mules from Maine Craft Distilling, featuring the company’s own rum and ginger beer, as well as Ginger Cleanse Kombucha from Root Wild in Portland.

Keep young kids happy with plenty of juice boxes in the cooler, and panino or hummus snack packs, Chessie said. Lynch recommended Paipo Pops, a Portland popsicle company that uses local ingredients as much as possible, to please kids and everyone else when it’s time for a sweet treat.


Packing a cooler for a camping trip takes some more planning, since you may be gone for several days without easy access to fresh ice. If you bring prepared meals like chili or stew, freeze them first. Zack Lockhart, a camping department staffer at Maine Sport Outfitters in Rockport, said he likes to bring fresh ingredients like sliced green onion or chopped fresh herbs – sealed tightly in plastic bags and packed on top so they don’t get crushed – to lend simple vibrancy to campfire meals.


For an easy but special camp dinner cooked in a cast-iron skillet over open flame, Lynch suggested a 12-ounce ribeye ($22.99) from Highland Farm in Scarborough. Even easier: all-beef, gluten-free frankfurters from Pearl in Massachusetts ($8.99/package of six). “The first ingredient is beef. They’re some of the best I’ve ever tried,” Lynch said. Stuff the fire-roasted weenies into Rosemont’s house-baked hot dog buns ($6.99/six).

Fresh summer fruit like peaches or wild blueberries hold well in a cooler if kept near the top in sealed containers so they don’t get crushed or bruised, and make quick, easy snacks for kids and adults.

As for drinks, Chessie suggested the Mojito IPA (5.2 percent ABV) from Nonesuch River Brewing: “They’re a little lighter in alcohol so you can have a couple while camping and not fall in the fire.”


The adult beverage cooler is a critical component at summer gatherings. To keep folks happy, count on stocking at least enough for one drink an hour per person. To keep them hydrated, have plenty of bottled water in the cooler as well.

Adrian Stratton, general manager of Old Port Spirits and Cigars on Commercial Street, said his store packs coolers on request for corporate outings and other clients.


Stratton suggests a mix of Maine-made adult beverages including beers, wines and hard seltzers available in cans, which are lighter to carry than bottles and shatterproof, too. Stratton also advised choosing screw-top wine bottles, if not using canned wines, so you won’t need to pack a wine opener also.

In general, Stratton said it’s wise to go with plenty of lower-abv or “session” beers (under about 5 percent ABV), particularly at outdoor gatherings where heat is a factor. With less potent beverages, guests can drink more freely for longer without becoming intoxicated or dehydrated. His picks:

Allagash Brewing Company, River Trip Pale Ale, in 12- and 16-ounce cans, 4.8 percent ABV. A sessionable Belgian-style ale made with coriander, with hints of citrus and melon.

Bissell Brothers Brewing, The Substance Ale IPA, available in 16-ounce cans, 6.6 percent ABV. “Just a great all-around drinking beer, one of our favorites,” Stratton said.

Bunker Brewing Co., “Machine” Czech-Style Pilz Beer, available in 16-ounce cans, 5.2 percent ABV. “Light and crisp, this is our top-selling pilsner in the store,” Stratton said.

Blue Lobster Wine Company, Blueberry Infusion, a red wine blend infused with wild Maine blueberries, available in four-packs of 355-milliliter cans.

Blue Lobster Wine Company, Rosé Wine, available in four-packs of 355-milliliter cans. A blend of three grape varietals with notes of citrus, strawberry and watermelon and a crisp acidic finish.

Dasch Seltzer, Blueberry, in 12-ounce cans, 6.3 percent ABV. Made with a cane sugar base, featuring a refreshing, subtle sour taste.

Wild Maine Hard Seltzer, Lemonade, 16-ounce cans, 5 percent ABV. Made from six-times distilled vodka, gluten-free.

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