Transporting hot food and keeping it warm can be a challenge if you don't know what you are doing. If you don't store your food properly it can go cold, or worse can actually go off, while you're transporting.
But there are multiple ways to keep food warm when transporting that are simple to do yet quite effective.
I want to share my top 15 ways of keeping food warm on the go so it'll stay hot, delicious and safe to eat until you reach your destination.
Safety Tip: Keeping Warm Food Safe To Eat
When it comes to keeping food at a warm temperature for an extended period of time you need to be extremely aware of food safety and bacteria growth so your food doesn't go off.
The USDA recommends that you keep food above 140°F (60°C) that bacteria struggles to grow so much that you can keep food indefinitely at this temperature without issue.
However, temperatures between 40-140ºF (4-60ºC) is known as “the danger zone” and this is the temperature that bacteria can multiple and spoil food and even give you food poisoning.
Reheated food and certain meats have different danger zones which you can see in the image above.
Once food is in the danger zone you should eat it within 1 to 2 hours to ensure that it hasn't spoiled.
So when you're trying to keep food warm for transport you need to ensure that it is above 140°F (60°C) for as long as possible. Once it enters the danger zone you want to eat it within 1 to 2 hours otherwise your food may spoil.
The 15 Ways To Keep Food Warm When Transporting
There are lots of different ways you can keep food warm when transporting it and you don't just have to use one method.
In fact it is recommended that you combine multiple methods listed below to get the best results.
Have a read through the list and choose the techniques that best suit you, the food you're trying to keep warm and your situation.
Depending on how much food you have, how long do you want to keep it warm, how hot the food is overall and a variety of other factors can affect which techniques will work best.
Use common sense when keeping food warm for transporting and you should be fine.
1. Wrap In Aluminum Foil and Towels
One of the best ways to keep food warm is to immediately wrap it in aluminum foil and towels.
Whether you use other techniques like putting your food in a cooler, or using external heat sources insulating your food as close to the heat source as possible will give the best results.
A towel wrapped directly around food will likely work better than placing your food in a large cooler. Even though a cooler has better insulation than a towel because the towel is directly near the hot food it will work better.
Wrapping your food in aluminum foil both traps the steam and it helps to trap heat radiation from escaping. Aluminum is great at reflecting heat radiation and so it will reflect it back into the food keeping it warm.
However, aluminum foil is not good at stopping heat loss through conduction and so a towel is needed to add that extra layer of insulation to your food.
Wrap a tea towel or multiple towels around your food and this will help trap in the heat and keep your food hot for longer.
If you're not going far and you don't need to keep your food hot for too long then this may be enough to keep your food warm during transport.
However, if you're traveling a longer distance and need to keep food hot four hours then you'll want to use some of the tips listed down below.
2. Use A Hard Cooler
While coolers are usually used to keep food cold they can also be used to keep food warm.
The same insulation that keeps the heat out when you're trying to keep your cooler cold for a long period of time also works to keep heat in and keep food hot.
The higher quality the cooler the better it will work at keeping your food warm. The best coolers for holding ice will also be the best coolers for keeping food warm.
You also want to make sure that you have an appropriately sized cooler for your food. If the cooler is too big it won't keep the food warm as effectively.
You still want to wrap your food in aluminum foil and a towel to keep it hot for longer. This will also protect the plastic of your cooler from the extreme heat of your food.
If you're using a high-end cooler with thick insulation then preheating the cooler is also a good idea. To do this, fill the cooler with warm water (but don't put boiling water in your cooler) for about 30 to 60 minutes.
Discard the water and then place in your hot food. Because you've preheated the insulation in the cooler it will help the food stay hotter for longer.
For the best results also add an external heat source to your cooler like a hot water bottle or hot bricks (which we will talk about later).
3. Use a Soft Cooler
Another alternative is to use a soft cooler instead of a hard cooler.
The benefit of these is that they tend to be smaller and lighter and more portable for carrying food.
However, you do need to be careful with soft sided cooler's as the plastic can melt more easily. You'll need to ensure your food is wrapped well with towels to protect the cooler from the extreme heat.
Soft sided cooler's on really worth pre-heating so you don't need to worry about that.
4. Add Hot Water Bottles, Heat Packs or Hot Bricks
Rather than just relying on the food itself as the only source of heat a better way to keep food warm for transport is to add an external heat source.
Hot water bottles, heat packs and hot bricks are all great external heat sources to keep your food warm.
Pre-heat your hot water bottle, heat pack or hot bricks and place next to your food and then wrap them all in a towel together.
This'll trap the hot food with the extra heat source and because there is so much heat energy it'll take a long time for it to cool down.
Combining an external heat source like hot bricks with a towel and then placing in a cooler you can sometimes keep food hot for as long as 8+ hours.
5. Use a Portable 12V Food Warmer
You can purchase 12 V food warmers that are designed to plug into your car outlet and keep food warm while you're driving.
Things can be effective to keep a small amount of food warm but don't really work for giant dishes made for lots of people.
A downside of these is they tend to not be the best quality products. They aren't super durable and if you're going to be using them often they are very prone to breaking.
6. Use an Insulated Thermos
For small amounts of food and insulated thermos or similar brand is likely going to be the best way to keep that food hot for hours at a time.
There is no better insulator than a vacuum and thermoses are amazing at trapping heat and keeping food warm on the go.
They are made from a double walled stainless steel with the vacuum in between the inner and outer wall. They come in a variety of sizes and a variety of different brands.
I personally recommend the Hydro Flask Food Flask or the thermos food flask if you want to buy one yourself.
7. Use a Thermal Cooker
A thermal cooker is a large pot that is designed to slowly cook meals without the need for electricity. However, thermal cookies can also be used to keep food warm during transport.
A thermal cooker uses the same vacuum insulation technology as a thermos but because it can hold so much food it can he keep food hot even longer than a thermos can.
Some thermal cookers even come with bottoms that are made of cast iron. These can retain even more heat and keep your food hot even longer.
You want to start with your food extra hot, near boiling point, and if you do it should be able to stay above 160°F (77°C) for up to eight hours at a time. It can even stay out of the danger zone for up to 15 hours.
This makes it one of the best possible ways to transport hot food long distances while keeping it safe to eat.
8. Use Thermal Bags
Thermal bags are good for keeping smaller bits of food hot for short periods of time.
They use an aluminum lining as well as some plastic insulation to trap in heat.
These are great for taking a hot lunch with you or for putting in your kids lunch boxes or going out for a daytrip.
They are small, extremely light, reusable and also quite affordable. They come in either a small sandwich bag size or a larger grocery bag size.
9. Trap The Steam
When trying to keep food hot one of the big things you want to do is to stop steam from escaping your food.
As steam escapes your food it takes with a water molecules filled with heat. As this heat leads your food your food becomes colder.
By using airtight containers or something like aluminum foil to trap steam from escaping you will maintain a lot more heat energy keeping your food warm for longer.
This also has the added benefit that it will stop your food from drying out.
10. Make Your Food Extra Hot
When you're transporting hot food remember that it is going to cool down overtime so you want to make it hotter than you usually would want to eat it.
By making your food extra hot to begin with over time it will cool down to a nice warm edible temperature.
If you start with food that is the perfect temperature for eating it's going to cool down and get cold. Then when you go to eat your food it's going to be lukewarm and disgusting.
Make your food as hot as possible without ruining it so it can be hot when you reach your destination.
11. Pre-Heat Your Cooler
As mentioned above, if you're going to be using a cooler to keep your food hot during transport then you will want to preheat your cooler.
Putting hot food in a cold cooler means the insulation is going to suck a lot of heat out of your food straight away.
By preheating the insulation in your cooler when you place your hot food in there the insulation will actually radiate heat keeping your food hot.
To preheat your cooler simply fill with warm water and leave to sit for 30 to 60 minutes so the insulation can absorb that heat.
Then discard the water, try out your cooler and place in your hot food ready to go.
12. Use Instant Heat Packs
For a simple and easy heat sauce when you're on the go you can use instant hand warmers in order to keep your food hot.
These aren't going to be powerful enough to warm up cold food but they do add an extra heat source to maintain a foods temperature.
The good thing about these is that when they start to run out of heat you can grab a new one and replace the cold one with a fresh hot one.
You can get both single use handwarmers or you can get reusable heat packs that you can recharge and use multiple times.
13. Wrap Your Food in Warm Clothing
If you don't have a towel to wrap your food in then another good alternative is to wrap your food in warm clothes.
Warm clothes are designed to be good insulators for your body and to trap in your body heat and they will work the same with your food.
14. Bunch Hot Food Together and Keep Cold Food Separate
If you have multiple hot dishes that you are transporting it's a good idea to bunch them closely together rather than keeping them separate.
By punching them together they will help to keep each other warm for a longer period of time.
You'll also want to keep the hot food and cold food separate so that the cold food doesn't absorb any of the heat.
15. Wrap in Newspaper or Cardboard
If you don't have a towel or any warm clothing to wrap your food in then newspaper or cardboard can actually act as a good insulator.
There's a reason that homeless people use newspaper to keep themselves warm. That's because paper is a great insulator and can trap in heat.
Use multiple layers of paper over your food for the best results and to keep it hot for as long as possible.