While Que Tal had refrigeration, I’ve done several long-term camping trips without refrigeration. On four different occasions, Dave and I have gone two months or longer without a refrigerator. And we ate well!
Even if your boat has refrigeration, it’s a good idea to at least think about what you’d do if it died. Dave and I always figured that we could just continue on with our plans — no, we wouldn’t have cold drinks, but that was a better option than missing some prime cruising time while waiting for repairs or parts. We could always do the repairs when we were “in town” for other reasons.
I’ll be honest — for long-term cruising and living aboard, having a refrigerator is nice. But it’s not essential. Don’t let the lack of refrigeration stop you from cruising, whether for a weekend or an open-ended trip.
The trick to not being deprived is to plan your provisions and meals so that you’re not eating “make do” meals, but real meals. Yes, you can buy those freeze dried meals and just add boiling water, but they’re honestly not too appetizing for eating day in and day out. There are lots of better options, using real food. Admittedly, there are some differences in how you might do things if you set off without refrigeration, versus what you’d stock as a back-up plan.
Actually, I’ve talked about a lot of my ways for having great food without refrigeration in other articles dealing with specific issues. In contrast, this article is more of an overview tying it all together with links to a number of those other articles for more detailed information.
Unless you’re a vegetarian, canned meat is a core food when you don’t have refrigeration. Even if you do have refrigeration, it’s a good idea to keep some on hand in case the refrigeration goes out — or, if you’re like us, and just don’t have room to keep much fresh or frozen meat.
Canned meat isn’t all Spam and tuna casserole. You can make a wide variety of meals with canned meat, once you learn a few tricks for keeping it from turning to mush:
If you leave port without a refrigerator, you most likely have a cooler with ice where you’ll stow your veggies. But if you have refrigeration that gives out, the situation is a little different: the refrigerator box can be used as a cooler, but you won’t have access to ice until the next time you’re able to provision.
Still, there are lots of veggies that do well even without refrigeration: potatoes, onions, cabbage, carrots, celery and squash will all last longer than you’d expect. Tomatoes can be bought in varying stages of ripeness and will ripen in sequence. Oranges wrapped in aluminum foil will last weeks to months.
Most boats also carry a variety of canned vegetables, too, and these go a long ways in providing variety if you don’t have refrigeration. For example, while lettuce is almost impossible to keep without refrigeration (especially with the motion of a boat tending to bruise it), you can make a great salad from canned ingredients.
We always carried a stock of dried fruits such as raisins, dates, apricots, banana chips and whatever else we could find. Even with refrigeration, many fruits are hard to store on board for very long, and so we used both canned and dried to add variety to the menu.
Eggs that have never been refrigerated will stay good up to a month. However, once eggs have been refrigerated, they have to stay refrigerated to avoid the risk of food poisoning.
While its relatively easy to find non-refrigerated eggs in less developed countries, it’s almost impossible in most parts of the US and you may have to make do with powdered eggs. Powdered eggs work reasonably well in dishes where they are a minor ingredient, but generally aren’t suitable for true egg-based dishes, such as omelets.
Most condiments, such as catsup, mustard, jelly, and so forth don’t really need to be refrigerated. I’ve kept all of these for 3 to 6 months at a time in the tropics just in a cupboard with no ill effects and not even any mold.
Even though they cost a bit more per ounce, I usually bought smaller containers than I would if we were living ashore, just so that I was opening a fresh container more often.
Mayonnaise and items such as salad dressings that might contain mayonnaise are the most troubling. Of the various condiments most of us use, mayonnaise is the most likely to cause food poisoning, and it can be serious — particularly if you’re a ways from medical help. I know that many cruisers adopt a clean spoon rule and have no problem with mayonnaise spoiling so long as it does not become contaminated. Of course, if you have a cooler and ice, putting mayonnaise in the cooler considerably lessens the risk.
In the last few years, I’ve been able to buy small squeeze tubes of mayonnaise that I prefer to the clean spoon rule. These tubes simply flatten as the contents are used, so that little outside air is even introduced, further eliminating contamination. And since it’s a squeeze container, nothing comes into contact with the contents. In Mexico, I found some squeeze containers that were small enough that I used them up within a couple weeks. REALIZE though, that if you do this, you’re directly contravening the FDA and manufacturer’s warnings and that there is always the chance of food poisoning. Do so at your own risk!
True, it’s hard to carry lettuce for a classic tossed salad without refrigeration. But cabbage lasts forever, and another of my favorite salads uses canned green beans for the base.
A simple vinegar-and-oil dressing is easy to make from non-refrigerated ingredients. And, to be honest, it’s my favorite!
Butter and margarine aren’t really a problem if you have a cooler or are cruising in temperate climates. Otherwise, you can use canned butter, available online here, or oil. Olive oil is great as a “dip” for bread, and canola oil or vegetable oil work well for most cooking.
Milk and Other Dairy Products
While carrying milk and other dairy products without refrigeration can seem like an insurmountable problem, it’s actually one of the easiest to solve.
For milk, you can now buy “boxed milk” in packages like juice cartons in most grocery stores (at mine, it’s in the Baking Supplies aisle, near the Carnation powdered milk). If you buy small single-serving boxes, you won’t waste any if you don’t have a cooler. Boxed milk is available everywhere in less developed countries.
Another option are some of the good powdered milks out there. Forget the Carnation and generic nonfat ones. In the US, go to the Latin/Mexican foods aisle and look for Nestle Nido Classic. It is fantastic! We also found some great Australian and New Zealand powdered milk in our travels — there are probably others as well. Use this to make your own yogurt, too — it’s fairly easy and tastes great.
For cooking, cans of evaporated milk work well and can substitute for milk and also for cream. Evaporated milk isn’t as rich as true cream, but it also has fewer calories.
Also in the Latin/Mexican foods aisle — and in all Latin American countries that I’ve visited — you can find cans and/or boxes of cream and half cream (media crema). These work well for cooking when you need something richer than evaporated milk, and you can also use them to make your own sour cream.
Many cheeses, particularly hard cheeses, will last a month or sometimes more without refrigeration, especially if stored in a cool place such as the bilge. Velveeta also does well without refrigeration, although it must be eaten within a couple of weeks of when it is opened.
With all of these great foods that don’t have to be refrigerated, it doesn’t take a lot to be able to eat well without refrigeration. On a cold day, you can easily make a pot of chili from a canned of roast beef, cans of kidney beans and tomatoes, an onion, green pepper and some spices. Or a pot of split pea soup with some dried split peas, a can of ham, a carrot and onion and a few spices.
Make my Chocolate Upside-Down Cake for dessert. For breakfast, have yogurt or a ham omelet. With a can of shrimp and another of tomatoes and a few fresh veggies, you can make Shrimp Creole. The list goes on and on!
Read Reducing What You Store in the Refrigerator, which details many items that don’t need to be refrigerated >>