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Cooler rules make trips more palatable


Vacation-starved travelers packing munchies in the cooler for their summer road trips might be tempted to load in everything but the kitchen sink.

But before you start cramming the Coleman, veteran traveler Janet Groene, an expert on the finer points of cooler cuisine, has a little advice:

Skip the bananas. After two days smelling them in a cooler, where they're getting progressively more bruised and squishy, nobody in the car will eat them. You may end up pitching the fruit in a rest-stop trash bin just to get it out of the car.

If you want to pack bananas for your road trip, add them to a mixed-fruit salad so their soft, aromatic qualities will become an asset, not a nauseating detriment. Pack some disposable spoons and bowls, and encourage your crew to chew on the salad within 24 hours.

The banana lesson is just one pearl of "ice chest-management" wisdom dispensed by Ms. Groene, author of "Cooking Aboard Your RV" (Ragged Mountain Press/McGraw-Hill, 1993) for long-road-trippers and "Cooking on the Go" (Hearst Marine Books, 1980) for sailors.

"The last thing you want is something smelly in the car if you're feeling a bit queasy," cautioned Ms. Groene (pronounced GRAIN-nee).

During spring and summer vacation season, when thousands of American families will load up the kids and the cooler in the car, it's a good time to consider the do's and don'ts of eating in an automobile.

Do eat fruit, Ms. Groene said. It'sflavorful, nutritious and usually appeals to road-weary palates. Plus, fruit doesn't spoil quickly, and if it does, it usually won't pose a health or safety hazard unless it's mixed with chicken, fish or egg products.

But don't pack fruit that crushes easily or has lots of stems, seeds orpeels that will need to be discarded. Ms. Groene advises that fruit should be peeled, washed and otherwise made ready-to-eat before it's put in the car.

Be sure to pack a clean, damp washcloth in a separate bag for wiping fingers or faces.

Dried fruit, such as raisins, apricots, prunes or cherries, is a good alternative to fresh fruit. Juices, canned fruit in natural juice and individual servings of a low-sugar fruit cocktail are other sensible choices. Ms. Groene suggests buying fruit juices in individual square boxes that pack neatly into the bottom of a cooler and don't crush easily.

Practicality, palatability and safety are the three top concerns for dining a la car seat. Practicality means planning foods that are convenient to eat under cramped or less-than-ideal conditions, such as in a moving sedan or at a rest-stop picnic table. Sandwiches are an excellent choice, as are ready-made meat, chicken, tuna or pasta salads.

Pack sandwiches in individual plastic bags; if you have small children who can't finish a whole sandwich, bag both halves separately for two meals.

The old standby, a peanut butter sandwich, is a another practical food for car trips. For travelers who like to nibble rather than eat a meal, dips and ready-to-eat vegetables such as carrot sticks, celery and cauliflower are good alternatives to sandwiches.

Be practical. Spaghetti with red sauce may be delicious, but it isn't sensible to dish up in the back seat. Neither is cold fried chicken, hot soup, barbecued beef or ribs, sloppy Joes or pita sandwiches -- all of which are likely to create more mess than nourishment.

Avoid foods that require complicated assembly, such as Dagwood sandwiches or cheese-and-cold-cut plates, because they're likely to end up on the car carpeting. Plus, the farther your destination, the less practical assembling these foods will become.

Palatability is another key consideration. Is the food going to still taste good and be appetizing eight or more hours after you packed it in the cooler?

Foods made with raw onions, lots of garlic, smoked fish, cucumbers or hard-boiled eggs aren't good travel companions because they become stronger tasting the longer they sit.

Rudimentary knowledge of food safety is critical when packing for an extended auto trip. Don't pack any raw meat, chicken, fish, shellfish or eggs in your cooler, unless you plan to stop in a few hours and cook it.

Don't pack hot food in a cooler along with cold items, because mixing the two will create a warm environment perfect for bacterial growth. Don't consume any food you suspect may be spoiled -- getting food poisoning is no way to enjoy a vacation.

Minivan or sport-utility drivers or anyone with room to spare may want to consider investing about $100 in a 30- to 40-quart thermoelectric cooler that will plug into the automobile's cigarette lighter. These ingenious devices act like portable refrigerators and consistently keep food cold without ice.

Ms. Groene also suggests that travelers avoid putting cold food in hot coolers. "It's not going to do you much good to put ice in the cooler if it's hot from being stored in the attic," Ms. Groene said.

Before leaving home, travelers should thoroughly chill the cooler with extra, "sacrificial" ice, she said.

As far as Ms. Groene is concerned, there isn't much chilling difference between real ice and the frozen blocks made from chemical substances. Both will melt eventually and must be refreshed periodically.

If you're using ice, avoid soaked sandwiches and pulpy poundcake by packing them in square or rectangular waterproof containers or self-sealing plastic bags. Packing ready-to-eat frozen food also keeps the ice chest cold -- when it thaws, you can eat the food.

Jim Reid, a spokesman for the Coleman Co. in Wichita, Kan., makers of coolers and insulated beverage containers, suggested freezing water or reconstituted juice in clean milk jugs or cartons to keep things cool. Solid blocks of frozen liquids last longer than crushed ice, and as they melt, you can drink them.

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