I've been traveling and doing day or weekend trips with my partner and kids a lot lately and while sandwiches fill everyone up cold food can get extremely boring.
Sometimes it's cold or sometimes you just feel like a warm meal to lift your spirits and fill you up. But keeping food how while traveling can be tricky.
But with the right techniques we can prep food the night before, warm it up in the morning and then still have hot food at lunch or even (if we are lucky at dinnertime).
Safety Advice: Keep Food Above 140ºF (60ºC)
One of the biggest things to be aware of when trying to keep food hot when traveling is the temperature of your food.
According to the USDA food that is above 140ºF (60ºC) tends to stay safe indefinitely as bacteria struggles to grow at all in such hot temperatures.
However, once temperatures drop below 140ºF (60ºC) they enter what's known as “the danger zone”. This is the temperature range where bacteria can grow spoiling your food and even potentially making you sick.
So you want to avoid keeping food “warm” while traveling. You want to either keep it cold and below 40ºF (4ºC) or keep it hot and above 140ºF (60ºC) which is about the temperature of a barista made cup of coffee.
It's hard to do this perfectly when traveling but luckily there is some leeway here. Once food enters the danger zone you should eat it within 1-2 hours to ensure it hasn't spoiled.
Some foods are less likely to spoil (eg. vegetables) while other foods are more likely to make you sick (eg. chicken, rice, leftovers).
You'll also want to make sure if you're going to take leftover dinner with you traveling that the night before you cool it down as quickly as possible. Don't leave it in the danger zone the night before then again the next day.
Be smart with your hot food and you should be fine.
How To Keep Food Hot While Traveling
So now that we've covered the important safety tips how do you actually keep food hot while you're traveling?
There are actually a lot of different methods you use and depending on what type of travel you're doing and how much stuff you can take with you.
Car travel gives you a lot more options than backpacking for example.
Below are 10 different ways to keep food hot while traveling.
1. Aluminum Foil and Towels
The easiest and most common method for keeping food hot while traveling is wrapping up the food in aluminum foil and towels.
This will help to keep your food hot for a few hours or if you're traveling with a large quantity of dense food (eg. a soup or casserole) it can stay hot even longer.
Before you leave heat up your food to an extra hot temperature and put in an air tight container. Then wrap the container in multiple layers of aluminum foil.
Aluminum is a great reflector of heat radiation. So it will reflect back the heat coming from the food.
Aluminum isn't good at stopping heat transfer through conduction though. This is why you always want to wrap your food in towels or warm clothing.
The combination of the two insulators should keep your food hot for hours at a time while you're traveling and you can happily have a healthy hot meal on the go.
2. Use a Thermos
A vacuum insulated thermos is one of the absolute best ways to keep food hot when traveling.
They are made from double walled stainless steel and in between the inner and outer wall they suck out the air to make a near vacuum.
A vacuum is THE BEST insulator known to man and will trap more heat than anything else. It's way more effective than aluminum foil and towels.
Preheat your food as hot as possible before putting it in the thermos and then quickly close your thermos so no steam or heat escapes.
For even better results wrap your thermos in aluminum foil and towels or warm clothing and keep it away from any cold drinks or cold items you may be taking with you.
A thermos can often keep food hot when traveling for up to 6-8 hours.
There are a variety of different brands out there. I personally recommend the Hydro Flask Food Flask or the thermos food flask if you want to buy one yourself.
3. Thermal Bags
Thermal bags are in affordable and lightweight way to keep food hot while you're traveling.
They keep food insulated using a similar method to the aluminum foil and towel.
The foil of the thermal bag helps to trap heat in and usually there is a layer of plastic or cardboard that helps to insulate the food further.
The great thing about thermal bags is – when you're finished eating they are extremely lightweight and pack away small so they don't take up much room.
To keep food hot out for longer in a thermal bag wrap it in a towel or warm clothing and it will trap even more heat.
4. Add a Reusable Heat Pack
When traveling, reusable heat packs are a great way to keep food extra warm.
You can carry them with you and just activate them when you need them.
They aren't enough to warm up cold food but they do add thermal mass and will help keep your food hotter for longer.
Put them adjacent to your food and then wrap both your food and the heat pack in aluminum foil and towels.
You can get single use heat packs that you shake to activate or you can get reusable instant heat packs. I personally like the reusable ones because you can reset them easily by placing them in boiling water.
5. Add a Hot Water Bottle
The more thermal mass you add to your food the longer it will stay hot for. A hot water bottle is the perfect way to add a lot of heat and to keep your food hot for longer while traveling.
You can use a plastic bottle with warm water or you can use a single wall stainless steel bottle with boiling water to keep your food extra hot.
You can also use a traditional hot water bottle if you've got one handy.
Put your hot water bottle next to your food and wrap them all in aluminum foil and a towel to keep everything hot.
The image above shows me filling up a vacuum insulated Hydro Flask with boiling water. Because of the vacuum insulation the Hydro Flask doesn't omit much heat and so these wouldn't actually be good for keeping food hot while traveling.
6. Wrap Your Food in Warm Clothing
If you're traveling around chances are you've got warm clothing with you anyway.
Warm clothes are designed to be great insulators to keep your body warm and they can also be used to keep your food warm to.
Wrap your food in multiple layers of warm clothing to keep it hot while you're traveling.
7. Wrap in Newspaper or Cardboard
If you don't have any aluminum foil, towels or warm clothing that you can wrap your food in then newspaper or cardboard is a great backup option.
Paper is actually a really good insulator and a few layers around your food can help it to stay hot for longer.
This is a great option if you're on the road. You can either buy a newspaper or you can often get old newspapers that no one wants and use it to keep your food warm for free.
8. Use a Cooler
If you're traveling in a car and can take a cooler with you then this is going to be one of the absolute best ways to keep your food warm.
A good cooler and the right preparation can keep food hot while traveling for up to 8+ hours. So you could prep food in the morning and it still he hot when dinnertime comes around.
I've done a full article on the best ways to keep food hot in a cooler but the basics are pretty simple.
- Pre-heat your cooler with warm water
- Heat up your food as hot as you can make it
- Wrap food in aluminum foil
- Add in some hot water bottles or hot bricks
- Wrap everything in towels
- Place in your cooler
- Keep the lid shut
9. Trap The Steam
Hot food lets off a lot of steam but as steam escapes those little water molecules take a lot of heat with them making your food colder faster.
But trapping the steam and not letting it escape your food will stay hotter for longer.
Use an airtight container or wrap your food in aluminum foil or plastic wrap in order to keep in the steam.
10. Make Your Food Extra Hot
Remember that no matter what technique you use to keep your food hot while traveling it is going to cool down over time.
This is why you want to go ahead and make your food hotter than then temperature you ultimately want to eat it at.
If you make it at the perfect eating temperature it will cool down over the course of the day and be too cold to eat at a later point. It's also more likely to enter the “danger zone” and allow bacteria to grow.
When prepping your food make it extra hot. This both protects it from spoiling and ensures that it's still going to be warm and delicious when it comes time for you to eat it.