Most boat refrigerators are far smaller than those in houses or apartments. Ice boxes are usually even smaller. And when you combine that with less frequent grocery shopping, something has to give!
For me, the answer was two-fold: not refrigerate items that didn’t have to be, and to use non-refrigerated substitutes for some items, so that I needed to carry less of them.
I’ll start by saying that while I enjoyed visiting towns and villages as we cruised, I really preferred to do a big stock-up every two to four weeks, staying in secluded anchorages in between. This meant that I had to make the most of the refrigerator space I had.
Don’t Refrigerate Most Condiments
Most condiments don’t need to be refrigerated. Ashore, most Americans refrigerate open containers of catsup, mustard, jellies, and jams. Some even keep steak sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce in the refrigerator.
I kept all of them just in a cupboard and have never had a problem with any getting moldy in the 3 to 6 months it took us to use a container. For things that we don’t use a lot of, I bought smaller containers so that we’d use them up before they got rock hard.
I know that some people without refrigeration keep open mayonnaise in a cupboard, always being sure to use a clean spoon (or a squeeze bottle) so it doesn’t get contaminated. Since we had a refrigerator, this was one condiment that I did keep in the refrigerator.
Eggs don’t have to be refrigerated IF they have never been refrigerated. It’s extremely difficult to find eggs that haven’t been refrigerated in the US, but we could almost always find them in Mexico, Central America and South America (we didn’t cruise there, but did a 4-month camping trip in 2000).
I’ve read that you should coat the eggs with Vaseline and turn them every few days. I never bothered to, and they kept fine for a month even in summer in the tropics — if you need to keep them longer, you may need to take these steps.
I always cracked the eggs first into a small bowl, instead of into a bowl with other ingredients, just in case one had gone bad. In six years, only once did I encounter a bad egg (in case you’re wondering how to tell if it’s bad, you’ll know immediately from the smell!). Read more about storing eggs.
Use “Boxed Milk”
Boxed milk is a cruising staple. The milk is ultra-pasteurized and vacuum-sealed in boxes similar to juice boxes, typically holding 1 quart or liter. You can get whole milk, 2% or skim milk. Some people say they think it tastes slightly different from fresh milk; we didn’t.
Boxed milk was sold everywhere in Mexico and Central America. In fact, in many villages, you could only buy boxed milk and powdered milk — there wasn’t any fresh milk.
In the US, boxed milk can be a little harder to find. I’ve always been able to get it in Super Wal-marts — in the baking aisle! Read more about boxed milk.
I’ve kept boxed milk for up to 6 months — I think the official recommendation is more like 3 months. Shake it up before using it — the milk solids can settle a bit. Many of the boxes have a re-sealable pour spout, but whenever we were on the move or in a rolly anchorage, I’d transfer the milk into a bottle with a screw top.
You can also buy light cream (“media crema” in Spanish-speaking countries) in cans or boxes — in the US, it’s usually in the Mexican foods aisle. Evaporated milk, which comes in cans, is not as thick as media crema, but is also a good substitute for refrigerated half-and-half in recipes.
With media crema, you can easily make your own sour cream when you want it — without having to keep it in the refrigeraor!
Use Oil instead of Butter
In many recipes, you can use olive oil or canola oil instead of butter or margarine — and oil doesn’t have to be refrigerated, whereas butter and margarine do. You can’t use oil for everything, but I found I didn’t need to carry nearly as much butter as I had anticipated.
Side benefits are that canola and olive oils are healthier than butter and margarine, and usually cost less.
Use Canned Fruits and Veggies Along With Fresh
I really like fresh produce. But canned makes sense for long-term storage. I used a combination of the two so that we could go longer without re-provisioning. Often, I’d make salads that were a combination of fresh and canned — such as canned green beans with fresh tomatoes and onions and a vinaigrette dressing (see recipe). We’d still feel that we were eating fresh veggies without needing to store all the ingredients in the refrigerator.
Use Canned Meat for Some Meals
I know — most of us hear “canned meat” and think “yuck!” I used to. Then I learned a number of tips for making great meals from canned meat while on a camping trip in Africa — for more information, see my articles on Using Canned Meats and Canned Meat Meal Ideas. I used canned meat for about half our dinners, which considerably lessened what needed to kept in the freezer. And if you only have an ice box, you really can’t store fresh meat.
For several years, we cruised the Sea of Cortez through the entire summer. Using these ideas to cut down on the actual food in the refrigerator, we had plenty of room for cold drinks without having to head into town to resupply too often.
If you’ve got other things you do to cut down on what you have to refrigerate, please add them in the comments below.