Packing a cooler for a relaxing, sun-filled day at the beach is like playing Tetris. But no matter how adept you are at puzzles and video games, inevitably you give up on stacking all those multishaped containers neatly, resorting to lugging a poorly organized cooler — along with multiple bags — across the hot sand.
"You don't want to feel like you're working a job by the time you get to the beach," said Nikki Boyd, a professional organizer in North Carolina and the author of "Beautifully Organized: A Guide to Function and Style in Your Home." "Keep the cooler compact, and make it work for you as efficiently as possible."
With a little planning and a few expert tips, a day at the beach can actually be relaxing.
Choose the Right Cooler
To master cooler Tetris, choose a cooler with one large insulated interior. Lauren Rivard, founder of the Picnic Collective, a picnic catering company in Costa Mesa, California, recommends avoiding coolers with multiple compartments, like the soft, collapsible coolers with various sleeves and pockets, which only take up valuable space.
Use lightweight, reusable containers that fit the shape of your cooler (rectangles and squares are the way to go). Glass containers are not recommended since they are heavy and not safe to use outdoors. Place heavier, perishable items on the bottom, and slip in smaller round shapes, like cans and thermoses, in the nooks and crannies.
Keep Things Cool All Day
Alanna O'Neil, a photographer on Maui, Hawaii, and the author of "The Art of Picnics: Seasonal Outdoor Entertaining," suggests creating a cold cooler by freezing all noncarbonated drinks and chilling carbonated drinks in advance. "Start with a solid base of something cold, like a layer of frozen water bottles or frozen ice blocks," O'Neil said. (Just be sure to use freezer-safe bottles.) The frozen foundation helps keep items balanced and melts less quickly than ice cubes. Packing your cooler to the brim works to your advantage: "The more solid it is as a unit, the cold air will stay trapped longer," she said.
Once the cooler is packed and the gaps are filled in with ice, keep foods you'll reach for most often, like dips and chips, on top to minimize opening the cooler and melting the ice. (You can, of course, pack dry goods in a separate bag or transfer them to a container to keep dry — and limit trash on the beach — and pack in the cooler.) Boyd, the organizer, also suggests designating an area for drinks and giving them sections so you're not wasting time digging for what you want. "If you want to get fancy," she said, "you can label the lid of the cooler so when you lift it up, everyone knows the arrangement of the beverages."
Pack Beach-Proof Foods
When choosing a sandwich, consider ingredients that can withstand hours outdoors and won't get soggy. Salted butter, like in a ham and jam sandwich, holds up against the elements at the beach much better than mayonnaise on a sandwich. O'Neil likes to wrap sandwiches in parchment paper and for extra assurance slips them into reusable bags to keep out condensation.
Hearty grain or pasta salads, like farro or orzo tossed with artichokes, olives and hard-to-melt feta cheese, travel well. The tangy and briny flavors of store-bought marinated artichoke hearts, olives and feta balance and complement the sweet jammy notes of the sandwich, if you choose to serve them together.
And a cooling, creamy, ranchy dip — made from a mix or with fresh herbs and yogurt — is the perfect companion to salty chips for snacking on all day in between ocean swims.
Chilled fruit is nonnegotiable for a beach picnic, and Rivard, Boyd and O'Neil agree that frozen grapes are the way to go. Pack them in reusable bags and store on the top layer of the cooler so they keep things cool but don't get crushed as they thaw. To save space, Boyd recommends cutting fruits like watermelon and pineapple into bite-size pieces and skewering them on sticks, like kebabs, for easy-to-grab individual servings stored in a container.
For a late-afternoon pick-me-up, Rivard recommends storing your favorite iced coffee in a chilled insulated flask to serve with a sweet treat at the end of the day. Individually wrapped Rice Krispies Treats are hard to crush; cut them in square or rectangle shapes for easy storing. Enjoy, then pack everything back up — in perfect Tetris formation — and make the journey home salty, sandy and content.
Fresh Ranch Dip
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 5 minutes
1 (16-ounce) container plain Greek yogurt, preferably full-fat
1 large garlic clove, finely grated
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh dill leaves
2 tablespoons thinly sliced chives
1 small lemon
Kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
Potato chips, Persian cucumbers or other crudités, for serving
Place the yogurt in a medium bowl. (Save the container for storing your dip.) Add the garlic, dill and chives. Add 1/2 teaspoon of lemon zest and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and season with salt (about 1 teaspoon). Stir to combine, and taste for seasoning. Be mindful not to oversalt if you plan to serve this with salty chips. Serve right away, or transfer back to the container, cover and store in the fridge for up to 1 day.
— By Naz Deravian
Artichoke and Olive Farro Salad
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 45 minutes
Kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal) and black pepper
1 cup quick-cook, pearled or semi-pearled farro, rinsed and drained (see tip)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more as needed
1/3 cup pitted kalamata olives, sliced in half lengthwise
About 1 cup (5.4 ounces) marinated quartered artichoke hearts from a jar, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup crumbled feta
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill leaves
1/4 medium red onion, finely chopped (about 1/3 cup)
1/4 cup thinly sliced chives
Set aside a sheet pan or a large plate. Bring a medium pot of well-salted water to a boil. Add the farro, and give it a stir. Reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook according to package instructions, skimming off any foam that rises, until the grains are tender and plump. Depending on the type of farro used, this can take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. Drain the farro, and transfer to the sheet pan or plate; spread out and cool to room temperature, 10 to 15 minutes. (If the farro is left to cool in the strainer, it will keep cooking, take longer to cool and turn mushy.)
Transfer the farro to a medium mixing bowl. Add the vinegar, oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and stir to combine. Add the olives, artichoke, feta, dill, red onion and chives, and season with black pepper to taste. Stir and taste. Add more salt, vinegar and oil as needed.
Serve right away, or store in the fridge for up to 2 days. The farro will absorb the vinegar and oil the longer it sits. Adjust seasoning, vinegar and oil before serving.
Tip: If using orzo, use 1 1/4 cups and follow package instructions for cooking. Drain and cool as instructed in Step 1.
— By Naz Deravian
Ham and Jam Sandwich
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 10 minutes
1 baguette (20 to 24 inches long)
4 tablespoons salted or unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/3 cup fruit jam or preserves, such as cherry, peach or orange
8 ounces sliced ham, preferably smoked or Black Forest
Cut the baguette into four equal pieces by cutting the baguette in half crosswise, then cutting each half in half. Slice each piece through the middle to split it. Arrange the pieces cut side up.
Spread butter on the tops and bottoms of each quarter. If using unsalted butter, sprinkle lightly with salt. Spread Dijon on one side and jam on the other. Pile the ham on the bottom pieces, then season with black pepper. Top the sandwiches, and press firmly. Wrapped and refrigerated, the sandwich will keep for up to 1 day.
— By Ali Slagle
Caramelized Brown Butter Rice Krispies Treats
Yield: 30 to 50 treats
Total time: 15 minutes
8 ounces butter, salted or unsalted, preferably cultured, plus extra for pan
2 (10 1/2-ounce) bags marshmallows (see note)
1 (12-ounce) box Rice Krispies cereal
Line rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper or wax paper, or butter it well.
In a large pot, melt butter over medium-low heat. It will melt, then foam, then turn clear and golden and finally start to turn brown and smell nutty. Watch closely and stir often.
When butter is evenly browned, stir in marshmallows. (If using unsalted butter, stir in 1/8 teaspoon salt.) Melt and cook, stirring often, until mixture turns pale brown, then stir constantly until lightly browned but not dark, 3 to 5 minutes.
Turn off heat, add cereal and mix well, preferably with a silicone spoon or a spatula. Scrape into prepared pan and press down lightly. If necessary, butter hands to press mixture flat. Let cool, and cut into squares or bars.
Note: Most marshmallows contain gelatin. For a vegetarian version of these treats, be sure to use vegan/vegetarian marshmallows available at most health-food stores.
— Recipe from Colin Alevras; adapted by Julia Moskin