Keeping Food Cold for a Day Away from Home

I asked readers on the Cooking Manager Facebook page for topic ideas. One reader told me about her teenage son, who leaves the house at 6:30 AM and returns at 8 PM. The food provided by his school is expensive and unhealthy. She gives him some cash, but he’s expected to bring most of his food from home. Another reader works as a midwife, so she never knows how long she’ll be away from home and what facilities she’ll have.

People who work in an office usually have access to a refrigerator or microwave. Students, or those who work out of doors or with a series of clients, don’t usually have that option.A

Eating home-cooked food is one of the best ways to eat healthy and save money. But when you’re away from home the entire day, it’s tempting to eat out or rely on processed snacks. Bringing one or more meals from home is doable with a little bit of advanced planning.

Keeping food fresh for long periods is all about regulating temperature to counteract the temperature conditions. You can either start with the food at refrigerator temperature and try to maintain it, or start with the food frozen or partially frozen, planning for it to defrost by the time you eat. You’ll need to experiment to see what works best.

The simplest way to keep food cold is to purchase an insulated container. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just something with padding and a fairly good seal.  Place the cold food in the container along with one or two drinking bottles mostly full of ice, or the frozen food that you want defrosted. Enjoy the cold water with your meal. If the ice is still nearly all frozen by the time you eat, freeze less next time or add some water to the bottle. You can use a sealed, purchased ice pack too.

A hard plastic container can work too. My friend places a frozen leftover portion of meat and rice in an inexpensive lock-type box. In the winter, she starts defrosting it by putting in the refrigerator the night before. She adds a fork and knife (non-disposable), and a fruit, vegetable and drink in a separate container. The frozen food is usually defrosted by her son’s lunch time, and he heats it further in the microwave.

Condensation will form outside of the frozen items as they defrost, so pack accordingly or all of your food will get wet. And keep delicate foods like lettuce from touching the ice packs.

Opening the container will affect the temperature significantly, so if you are preparing more than one meal store them separately with different amounts of ice or degrees of frozenness. A thermos works best for hot drinks or soups, and can be used for pasta and stews. I just saw an insulated pot that would work well for larger amounts of solid foods.

My child’s teacher learned the hard way that the lovely thermos she received as a gift did not have a hermetic seal. It leaked coffee all over her purse and clothes when she was already late for the class trip! Wrap items carefully and keep food away from books and other equipment.

For ideas of foods you can pack, see School Lunch Ideas.

What tips can you share for keeping food fresh all day?


  1. For a long time we used the insulated cases we got at the hospital from the forumula companies along with little ice packs that were I used to transport my milk home from work after I pumped–in other words, long after I was nursing, we still used this equipment. I thought you’d like that efficiency!
    Also, we get lunchboxes/insulated containers with 2 compartments: one for the cold food and one for the not-cold food/food you don’t want condensation on–for ex. crackers.

  2. We also have a thermos that we got as a gift from my husband’s company–these are popular promotions!

  3. Yes, I just thought you’d enjoy my repurposing the gift from the formula company.

  4. Good tips.
    I generally use a beer 6 Pack insulated square bag. I’ve never actually used it for beer…but it’s large enough to put a flat food container on the bottom and stack and ice pack or 2 on top.

    Since cold air drops, the ice packs on top work beautifully.

  5. The other approach is to pack foods that keep well. I have had good experience with popovers. I make them with whole wheat flour and add Parmesan or Tal HaEmek cheese, so they are healthy too. Vegetarian shnitzels keep well too, but they are not so healthy.

  6. I’d like to find a container that keeps cold food cool and hot food warm.