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Cheapest way to keep frozen foods from thawing out in my car?

The waits at those red lights seem even longer when you've got ice cream or frozen food in the trunk....

I'm on a budget and am assuming I need 2 things: a cooler and one of those gel ice packs you keep in the freezer and pull out when ready to use (since I don't want to have to buy and dispose of ice)

Can anyone recommend cheap options for each?

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  1. During the summer you ought to be able to find very inexpensive styrofoam ice chests just about anywhere. My local supermarket has them for about $3--and that's NYC prices which means you ought to be able to find them for half that in most of the rest of the country.

    The cheapest way to acquire gel packs is to ask for them when you buy meat or fish at a good butcher or fishmonger. Around here--NYC again--it's not at all unusual for people to ask that meat and fish be "packed for traveling." Sometimes there's a small charge, but usually not.

    1. styro cooler, about $2. and 2 ice packs about $3.

      1. Go to the seafood dept. of your local market and they usually have fish that has come in styro-type containers or they sell reusable insulated shopping bags fairly cheap and keep them in your trunk. Most grocery stores have ice machines for the seafood or meat dept. and will give you a small bag to keep your stuff on ice till you get home. (No they probably aren't going to "give" you 10 lbs. of free ice--they want to sell that to you).

        I got one of those freebie KFC insulated bags and keep it folded in my trunk. Go to a place like Costco and I'll ask the food court if I can have a small bag of ice for my cooler and they say no problem.

        2 Replies
        1. re: monku

          Get a gallon freezer bag, or smaller, fill it about 3/4 full with water, and freeze. It'll freeze in about 18 hours, combine with the styrofoam cooler, and it lasts a long time, plus can be re-used over and over.

          1. re: monku

            I thought I was the only person who asked the fishman for the foam containers! I usually use them all summer long, and then recycle them.

          2. I keep plastic yogurt tubs filled with water in my freezer. When I need an ice pack - voila: ice pack. If I need more room in the freezer, I take them out until I have room for them again. My cooler is an old one I got at a garage sale.

            Another tip. If you have a large freezer, keep a big wet towel in a plastic garbage bag in the freezer. This is a good thing to put in your cooler. It keeps things cold for a long time. Remember - the less warm air circulating in the cooler, the better. So tuck that frozen towel around your ice cream tubs when you pack them into the cooler.

            You get home, you either replace the towel in the freezer or hang it out to dry.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Nyleve

              That's a great idea for the towel (though my freezer isn't big enough for a large towel). Clever! I'll bet I could use a smaller one for ice packs for injuries, too, that would wrap around the body part better.

              1. re: chowser

                That's the alternate use - the iced towel for sore body parts. I keep a big one in my chest freezer for whatever I need it for.

            2. I found a silver hot / cold bag at Stater Brothers for under $4.00. I've had it for years and did see some at the store today.. It folds up easily and best of all no ice is needed. You can put frozen and cold things together and it keeps it cold for several hours. I carry it around in my trunk so I always have it with me.

              5 Replies
              1. re: Cinnabon

                Thanks for all the suggestions everyone....very helpful!

                1. re: Agent 510

                  those silver hot/cold bags are ideal because you can pack the groceries directly into them in the store. no need to deal with transferring the items to a cooler (or exposing them to the hot summer air) when you get to the car.

                2. re: Cinnabon

                  I have the same bags. They are cheap, and they work. I wouldn't leave ice cream in there for hours, but it certainly suffices to at least get home without melted ice cream. I have kept other things in there for longer -- things like milk, hummus, frozen vegetables -- and they stay cold/frozen for quite a while.

                  1. re: valerie

                    I have similar bags from trader joe's, i think they cost me a buck or two. THey keep things cold for up to 4 hours, no ice pack necessary, as long as it was frozen/cold when it went in. If the top closes - that's the only issue I have with them - if you put a lot of stuff in them they don't close. (they have velcro across the top)

                    1. re: jujuthomas

                      Mine don't have velcro but they do have a plastic thing that closes. You can't fill them to the very top, but they are cheap enough so I keep 2 bags in each of my cars. If I had to resort to using ice packs, I would never remember to put them in the car before I left the house, so these bags are a great, cheap option for me.

                3. I have 3 different sized hard-walled coolers and here in Florida they are almost essential to life, or at least every trip to the fish market. Home made Zip-Lock ice packs, and gel packs, or sometimes a couple trays of ice cubes, make life easier, and the fish market doesn't have to be my last stop on the way home. The styro coolers will eventually tear apart and sweat too much, so at least one permanent cooler would be a good investment. Interestingly, I have noticed a few non-fancy supermarkets now selling dry ice, and that would be wonderful for long hauls.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Veggo

                    Veggo, I agree. I suggested styrofoam on budget cosiderations, but they do come apart plus are easily damaged. Due to my recent marriage, we now have seven or eight, from lunch size to 48 quart. They last years, even decades, in Texas where I am they're a must.

                    1. re: James Cristinian

                      Congrats on the nuptials, and that your new union makes you the "Brady Bunch" of coolers!

                      1. re: Veggo

                        I'll have to name them. I'll name the pretty, new one Marsha, and the one with the broken handle, Jan.

                  2. Or fill empty milk cartons/jugs with water and freeze. These have the added bonus of filling up your freezer in case the power goes out.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Erika L

                      My husbands aunt taught me the trick about freezing bottles of water. We use plastic juice containers (smaller than milk cartons - if you use gallon jugs anyway). Putting a couple in a cooler really makes a difference. Saved us when we had to eat out of cooler for a couple week after the hurricane.

                      I also have this bag that I got which is insulated and keeps things cold for up to 2 hours. it also keeps things hot! Here is where I got it;


                      I got the largest one and it is really big! If you are into bringing your own bags to the grocery store this place has the best deal and is not expensive.

                      1. re: danhole

                        We used the paper milk cartons, we rinsed them out, then filled and froze them, peeled off the paper, and voila, huge ice blocks.

                    2. All of the above plus, unless no other room, put it in the car itself not the trunk.

                      1. Agent 510 - I moved to AZ in 1985 and have learned a couple of trucs about transporting frozen and chilled food. Several posters have already mentioned inexpensive coolers and freezing water in milk jugs or other containers. Use gal or qt containers, it won't matter as long as you have several. When your finances improve, you can buy a decent cooler, meantime the el cheapo is OK.

                        One important information item is missing - you mention "... got ice cream or frozen food in the trunk ....."
                        Put it inside the car - where the AC is running - NOT in the trunk (where the hot sun beats on it for the entire trip). There's likely more than a thirty degree difference between the inside of your car and the trunk. That's the difference between vanilla soup and vanilla ice cream.

                        When running errands, schedule your grocery shopping last and head straight home from the store.
                        Pre-chill your cooler by putting the ice jugs in there a while before you go to market. Take a blanket, quilt or other heavy item and use this to insulate the cooler filled with your food.
                        Park out of the sun as much as possible. If sun is unavoidable, place the (blanketed) cooler in a shaded spot in your car; never in the sunlight.
                        Have all your groceries bagged by "Chill Factor" and place the bag of frozen food directly into the cooler. This way you don't have to spend time in the scorching parking lot sorting your food. Shut the lid quickly and firmly, covering it with your blanket.

                        I've had good luck following these guidelines for almost 25 years and hope they work as well for you.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: Sherri

                          Yes! When I'm trying to keep something cool in my car I put it on the front passenger side floor and direct the air conditioner vents towards it.

                          1. re: Sherri

                            Also, if you have a reflective windshield screen, place it over your cooler so sunlight coming through windows doesn't shine on it directly.

                            1. re: Sherri

                              Good point about 'bagging by chill factor'. Most baggers seem to think that you want to chill your canned goods with the frozen food on the way home. A doubled paper bag with all the frozen stuff and a bag of chips or a 4 pack of TP sealing the top will keep the groceries frozen on a half hour trip home.... Mixed frozen and room temperature canned goods will be thawed before you get to the car...

                            2. i've had great results the few times i've flown somewhere with meat products for folks back home, same goes for seafood, wrapped in layers and layers of plain old newspaper. probably not the easiest option for return trips from the grocery store though...

                              1. The restaurant supply store near me has insulated food delivery bags and a temperature retaining pack that can either be heated or frozen. I would guess very durable as they are made for rugged use, so the cost over their lifetime is very reasonable.

                                1. My favorite cooler bag is one I got from Trader Joe's for $6. It holds about two bags of groceries. I usually get around New York on foot and by public transportation, so I carry it on all my shopping trips, and have had no trouble keeping things frozen for an hour or more, even without ice packs, but if it's particularly hot or I know I'll be carrying something frozen or particularly perishable, I'll throw in a blue ice pack or two. Sometimes I'll also bring a small lunchbox sized cooler with an icepack inside the larger bag, the small one for frozen items or fish or meat and the large area for things that just need to stay cool.

                                  If you use frozen water bottles instead of blue ice packs, fill them with salt water, and they'll freeze at a colder temperature.

                                  Once when we spent the summer on Moloka'i in Hawai'i, which is all pretty rural, so shopping areas are few and far between, and the temperature is usually about 80 degrees, so we kept a cooler in the car all the time and tossed in some ice packs, if we thought we might do some shopping for food while we were out, and we eventually realized that all the locals had plastic coolers in their cars.

                                  1. A very cheap (i.e. free) source of ice packs and styrofoam is, believe it or not, your doctor's office. Vaccines and drugs often come in styrofoam coolers packed with potentially reusable ice packs that are discarded. The best time of year to ask is when the flu vaccine comes in. Pediatricians and large practices usually get the most frequent deliveries and the biggest styrofoams, by the way, and, since they are designed to be shipped as freight, the styrofoam is thicker than those cheap supermarket boxes.

                                    On another tack, when we tried to keep things cold on a California road trip in near 100 degree weather, I found that putting the food and plastic bags of motel ice machine ice inside a silver insulated hot/cold bag and putting that into the styrofoam box let the ice last the whole day.

                                    And, the easiest cold pack for carrying around town is to freeze 1/2 liter bottled waters. As they melt, the food stays cold and ice water for drinking appears miraculously in the bottles!

                                    1. Best thing I've figured out is using an old soup, soy milk 1-qt semi-soft containers with frozen water. I use 2-3. They stay colder for longer then blue ice and no real costs except water and the freezer. If it defrosts, it just turns to liquid in a safe container that stays shut...duct tape the spout if you're unsure. I even use filter water in case I might want/have to drink it on the road. I've found the lids on tuberware type containers pop open.

                                      Beyond that I use a soft-sided cooler, not cheap but not crazy. I have a 10-yr old one that still works and has paid for itself easily. I think Trader Joe sells a version. The advantage besides folding up small is you can place an item inside, place the ice block over it and then squish the whole deal down, (something heavy over it), insuring frozen items stays cold.

                                      1. How long are we talking? Half an hour or so? Those silver foil bags they sell in the supermarket keep cold stuff cold for long enough for me to carry it home from the store by hand. Publix has an insulated zippered shopping bag that has a nice carry handle and it does the same job. No need to take your own ice unless you need to keep stuff cold for a long time. The frozen stuff will keep itself cold in the insulated bag for an hour or so.