Living with a Small Refrigerator

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2014 • all rights reserved

Our refrigerator is smaller than most dorm fridges. Yet we're able to go two or three weeks between trips to the store . . .

Barefoot Gal has a small tiny refrigerator. At just 3 cubic feet (and I think that’s a generous measure), it’s smaller than most dorm or bar refrigerators. And while it’s smaller than the refrigerator I had on Que Tal, the lessons I learned there in stocking up for weeks in remote locations have served me well here. Coincidentally, I’ve had a few pleas from readers recently for tips on living with a small refrigerator. I’ve written about some of what I do in other articles, so you’ll see “read more” links below — it’s already a long post.

MEAT

Small refrigerators – especially front opening, like ours – are subject to more temperature variation than larger ones. Just opening the door lets cold escape, and adding warm food or drinks also raises the temperature. I was surprised to see ups and downs of ten degrees (or more on really hot days) with our wireless thermometer (read more).

With that in mind, meat and seafood are best kept in the freezer. For us, this means no ice for a day or so when I’ve just been to the store – I use every bit of space for meat so that I don’t have to go to the store as often. Once there’s just a tiny bit of space, we can make single ice cubes (read more).

Where possible, I buy boneless meat or bone it myself before putting it in the freezer. I don’t want to waste a bit of that precious space on bones. Read about boning chicken breasts.

I divide the meat into one-meal sized portions (for us, that’s one meal for two people) and put each meal into it’s own Ziploc – a vacuum sealer is good here if you have one. This is helpful both in removing bulky packaging that wastes space, and making it easier to defrost just enough for one meal at a time.

Label each package with a permanent marker – it can be hard to tell different cuts apart when frozen. On Que Tal, our freezer was top loading, and I learned to alternate meats as I put them in the freezer so that all the chicken, say, didn’t end up at the bottom.

I also use canned meats, which don’t have to be refrigerated. Read my tips on making good meals from canned meats and also canned meat meal ideas. By alternating canned and fresh (frozen) meats, we can go several weeks without restocking.

Dave likes lunch meat, and I try to buy it in half-pound vacuum sealed packages. I remove the inner pouch from the plastic container before putting it in the refrigerator, which saves a lot of space. I keep one plastic container that the open package goes in.

The big sacrifice I make (at least in my opinion) is that I don’t use frozen vegetables on the boat unless I buy them and use them immediately. Again, there just isn’t room as we need the space for meat. And there are lots of veggies that I prefer frozen to canned, and which don’t last well out of the refrigerator. Oh well.

DAIRY

Butter and margarine have to be kept cool and so go in the refrigerator. However, I use canola and olive oil in much of my cooking, so we don’t need much “butter.”

While I may buy a carton of fresh “milk” (actually soy milk for us as my husband Dave is allergic to cow’s milk) for immediate use, we use boxed milk most of the time. Boxed milk doesn’t need to be refrigerated until it’s opened, so we only have one quart in there at a time. If you’re even more pressed for space, you can get single serving boxes of milk (and soy and almond milk). Read about boxed milk.

I also use powdered milk (again, soy milk for us now) for cooking – this is really more to save space in lockers as it takes up a lot less space than the boxed milk. I also use powdered milk to make yogurt – while it has to be refrigerated once you’ve made it, you can make small batches every few days instead of taking a large quantity of store-bought. (Read about good powdered milk and making your own yogurt.)

If you want sour cream, it’s easy to make your own from non-refrigerated ingredients (see how). While it’s best if you can put the mixture in the refrig for 15 minutes before using it, you can carry an almost unlimited supply without worrying about refrigerator space . . . or it getting moldy!

We usually don’t have any cheese because of Dave’s milk allergy. But if we want some for happy hour with friends, I manage to find a little room. The harder the cheese, the longer it can go without refrigeration and many other cheeses can be put in a plastic container and covered with olive oil and kept for several months without refrigeration. And cheeses in wax can usually be kept without refrigeration until the wax is cut or removed.

EGGS

Eggs don’t have to be refrigerated IF they’ve never been refrigerated. In the US, it’s almost impossible to find eggs that aren’t refrigerated so I end up buying a half dozen if we want them for something (in Mexico it was easy to buy them unrefrigerated and I’d keep them a month or more – and no, I didn’t bother to coat them with Vaseline or turn them over every day). I also keep Ova-Easy Eggs (great powdered eggs) on hand for cooking (read more about Ova-Easy).

PRODUCE

I keep very little produce in the refrigerator and this is a big key as it can take up a LOT of space. Much produce – both vegetables and fruit – does surprisingly well outside the refrigerator.

Read more:

CONDIMENTS

Americans are used to having large refrigerators and refrigerate lots of things that no one else does. Ketchup, mustard, BBQ sauce, jam, jelly, syrup, A1, worcestershire and more really don’t have to be refrigerated. Even in summer in the Sea of Cortez, with temps over 100 F., I never refrigerated mine and they were fine for months.

Mayonnaise, Miracle Whip and bottled salad dressings are always the big questions. We’ve all been taught that these are prime suspects for food poisoning. On Que Tal, I had enough refrigerator space that I did refrigerate these.

But with Barefoot Gal’s limited space? No. Instead, we’ll be using the “clean spoon” rule: if you only put a clean spoon into the container and don’t introduce contamination, it won’t develop botulism or other nasties. Actually, we go one step further than the clean spoon rule – we never put any implement into the container, using squeeze bottles instead. NOTE: This is directly contrary to the FDA and you’re on your own if you decide not to refrigerate these items – that is, I’m not liable if you get sick.

The two condiments that I do refrigerate? Horseradish and wasabi. Both quickly lose their flavor if kept at room temperature, let alone tropical temperatures.

DRINKS

Drinks take up the majority of our refrigerator space. In hot climates, cold drinks – even without ice – are a real treat and one that we treasure. We keep four bottles of water, two small soft drinks, and four beers in the refrigerator. The water bottles we refill as soon as we drink, and keep the bottles in a rotation system so we know which are the coldest and grab them first. Putting warm drinks in the refrig makes the system work harder, so while we have the soft drinks in mid-afternoon and the beer for happy hour, I don’t replace them with warm ones until just before we go to bed. Read more about improving your refrigerator’s efficiency by having it do the most work at the coolest times of day and other tips here.

White or chilled rose can be decanted from large boxes or bottles into plastic water bottles to chill — you can chill just enough for one day at a time. This is a particularly good strategy if you use boxed wine. Read more.

Cold drinks are obviously a priority for us, but we don’t normally have extras for guests. If we plan to have guests for happy hour or dinner, we’ll try to cram a few extras in, possibly by removing a couple of water bottles if the fridge is packed full.

COFFEE

For years, I kept coffee in the refrigerator. Then we visited a coffee plantation in El Salvador and I learned that it’s best not to – taking it in and out subjects it to condensation and moisture is one of the enemies of flavorful coffee. Now I don’t feel guilty about not refrigerating it. Read more about storing coffee.

SEALANTS

“Huh?” you’e saying. “Sealants? But I don’t store sealants in the refrigerator.”

You should. If you’re in a warm/hot climate, keeping your sealants in the refrigerator will make them last far longer in the tubes. We’ve had opened tubes last six months to a year – not just a cost savings but also meaning that we have what we need even in remote locations.

OTHER STUFF

Of course, we have other things in the refrigerator. Partial containers of dog food. Leftovers. Dill pickles. A half jar of salsa or spaghetti sauce. Meat thawing for dinner (every evening I move the next night’s dinner from the freezer to the refrig and it’s usually just about thawed by dinner time). Something chilling (salad, gazpacho). I chill lots of things in Ziploc bags as they take up a lot less space than plastic containers (good for marinating, too). Read more.

The good thing about a small refrigerator is that you don’t forget about something “lost” in the back. Believe me, nothing can get lost.

While it might be a little effort at first to remember to restock the refrigerator every night with drinks, and to put all the meat in the freezer, it’s not nearly as difficult as I had feared. I’m actually surprised at how much I can fit in, and that it’s not necessarily totally crammed whenever I make a provisioning run.

Any other tips for living a nice lifestyle despite a small refrigerator? Please leave a note in the comments.

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Comments

  1. Eating less/no meat isn’t a bad thing, especially as we grow older. Also, wasabi and horseradish can be purchased in powdered form and mixed to use as needed.

  2. big fridge==big butt!! I have both….

  3. If you don’t use a lot of mayonnaise, the little single serving ones that you often get for free at a sandwich shop can be refrigerated without taking up a lot of space. I ‘collect’ a few of these little packets whenever I see them as they make a great addition to a backpacker’s meal plan.

  4. I find that grouping items together in a basket is really useful. For instance, I put all our lunch food in a rectangular plastic bin with perforated sides (Sterilite makes good ones). At lunch time, I pull the whole thing out, select the day’s lunch, and immediately put the whole basket back in. This means absolutely no rummaging around with the fridge door open. Small fridges heat up really fast with the door open!

    The basket circulates air well because it’s perforated, and because it’s rectangular, it fits the shelf with no hidden nooks and crannies. I don’t need to bend over to see if there’s something in the back, just grab the basket.

    My basket groupings are lunch, salad, and dinner leftovers. I also have a condiment basket, since our fridge is a little bigger than yours.

  5. I don’t have a refrigerator and, at the time, did not have an ice box when planning provisions for our summer trip from Astoria, OR. to Hawaii and back. Finding unrefrigerated produce in the U.S. is difficult, even farmers’ markets vendors may put produce into refrigeration between the farm and the stand. It was much easier finding unrefrigerated produce in Hawaii’s farmers’ markets. Still, using care about storing the produce I bought, and especially about cushioning to prevent bruising and separating apples from everything else, and using lots of small plastic bins in ventilated lockers, we had usable produce on board when we approached Hilo after a 19 day passage, and – what was even more amazing to me – when we returned to Astoria after 31 days at sea we still had onions, potatoes (sweet and regular), citrus, one rather shriveled hot pepper, and even a couple of Japanese eggplants that were still good to cook with. Although I hadn’t read Carolyn’s post before our trip, I can vouch for all of the suggestions/tips – I used them all and they do work.

  6. How much current does your fridge (and freezer for that matter) use or do you have a power cord to Three Mile Island Power Station ? 🙂

    • Ours runs on propane when away from shore power, but Dometic’s DC model of the same one uses a little over 3 amps on average, so somewhere in the 75 – 80 amp-hours per day range on a 12-volt system.

      • What make is your fridge Caroline? Did it come with your new boat or where did you buy it? Our boat doesnt have space for anything bigger.

  7. Your small reefer is bigger than my small reefer. 🙁

  8. but you’re so lucky it has a DOOR and opens in front!! that’s such a step up from a top-loader, even if it is smaller!

  9. we have a cold box (or use an esky) for fruit and veg and use freezer blocks (1 large,thin and 1 smaller book size) . One set in freezer and one in box, swopped every morning, taking out the day’s needs or putting on top. Has kept everything fresh so worth the hassle!

  10. There was a recall in Feb and April 2014 on batches of the OvaEasy for Salmonella. Google search to find affected lot #s.

  11. Suzanne Cranford says:

    Minimus.biz is an invaluable on line store that specializes in individual sized and travel sized items, including food & condiments, personal &, health care items, cleaning, etc. Living in a tiny space, I find it effecient, space saving, practical, and cost effective to order many smaller sized items from them.

  12. Emilie @ liveyachtlove says:

    Hi Carolyn, doing research on living aboard, especially on storage and cooking and galley storage before we take the plunge. We’re planning on living aboard near the city (& go out on trips infrequently). We’re a mainly paleo (naturally gluten-free) family due to my boyfriend’s autoimmune disease (Celiac), so I’m delighted to see all of your tips, but am very worried about fresh meat and veg storage (we don’t do much out of cans), cooking and more. We cook A LOT. Meal planning and prepping meals in advance for leftover dinners for lunches and dinners. We realize we’ll have to grocery shop more often, but I’m worried about our high maintenance diet requirements living aboard. I discovered your blog just a few days ago via Sailing Chance and will keep looking to see what problems living aboard you’ve solved.

  13. A couple thoughts about butter, which unfortunately, I can’t live without. Since it’s just me, I buy butter and freeze it, which is good for at least six months (if it lasted that long). A way to keep butter without refrigeration is to make ghee, which is butter with the milk solids removed (very easy to do). This is a staple of Indian cooking and doesn’t need refrigerated. It’s a pain to make a small batch, so I’ll make a pound or so at a time and either freeze or refrigerate what I don’t need immediately, which keeps it for a long time, six months or so. Ghee is available to buy, but it’s easy enough to make. Even out on the counter, it will last a month or two. I’ve heard of canned butter but haven’t tried it. A butter bell might be another solution in cooler climes (it doesn’t need refrigerated, either), but in warmth the butter comes unmolded from the cup that holds it and makes a mess.

  14. This site is so fun. I do not have a boat but we have a pop up trailer with a small fridge and many of the tips are relevant to me as well when we are out camping. Showers, storage, food prep, etc. 🙂

  15. Diane Finley says:

    I have been sailing with my husband for 18 years. Always struggling with keeping vegetables fresh.
    These are great ideas. I also like the idea about putting all your lunch items in a perforated basket and not rummaging around for everything.
    thus, not keeping the door open so long.
    We have had jars of mayonnaise for all these years, kept out of the frig, and not contaminated.
    Carolyn, you are terrific!!!

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