How to Store Food on a Boat, Part 5: Refrigerator Organization

By Carolyn Shearlock, copyright 2010 . All rights reserved.

Most boat refrigerators are just one big open space, with no built-in bins or other organization system such as those provided by manufacturers of home refrigerators.  Confronted by this big open pit, where do you begin?

There are 5 steps to organizing your boat refrigerator:

1.  Know where the coldest areas are. The coldest areas of the refrigerator are lowest and nearest the chill plate or freezer compartment (if the freezer isn’t totally separate).  Cold air falls, and thus the higher areas will be warmer.  This is important to organizing the refrigerator:  some foods need to be kept as cold as possible while others just need to be “cool.”

For example, you want to store meat in the really cold area, not produce, which is generally best just chilled.  I’ll write more about the specific needs of various refrigerated foods in additional articles.

2.  Decide your priorities. In all likelihood, your boat refrigerator won’t be as large as you’d like.  So you have to decide what refrigerated items are most important to you.  This might include questions like:

  • Do you have to have ice in your drinks, or are “cold drinks” fine?  This will impact how much space there is in the freezer for other items, like meat.
  • Does all of your produce have to be fresh, or can you use a combination of fresh and canned?  Fresh produce takes up a LOT of space.
  • Do you eat meat?  Can you use some canned meat or does it all have to be kept in the freezer?  See my articles on Using Canned Meat and Canned Meat Meal Ideas for tips on making great meals from canned meats.
  • How much pop and beer (and other drinks) do you want cold?  Do you only need a few cans cold, replacing them with warm ones when you use them, or do you want a 12-pack of beer cold so that you can always invite people over on the spur of the moment?
  • Do you need to leave some space for cold foods you’ll make, like space to chill down a pasta salad or a bottle of iced tea?

These are all personal choices, and can even vary by time of year and where you are.  In the middle of a tropical summer, with temperatures over 100 and no air conditioning, cold drinks were a big priority for us and we used more canned meat and canned vegetables to have room in the refrigerator for a large drink stock.  In the winter, when we spent more time anchored off a sizeable city, we used fewer drinks and I had access to lots of fresh produce, so I changed the priorities.

3.  Make dividers if necessary. Once you’ve determined your priorities and have a rough idea of how much area you’ll need for various types of things, you may decide that you need to set up various areas of the refrigerator for different purposes.  This can be done quite simply, without having to totally re-build the refrigerator box.

If you want more “really cold” space that might freeze items, you can use some rigid foam and duct tape to create some walls in the refrigerator space.  The area that contains the freezer compartment or chill plate will then be quite cold, and the area on the other side much less so.  You can adjust the relative cold by making some holes in the divider so that the cold air can pass through.  Don’t make too many all at once — make one or two, wait a couple of days to see what happens and then make another if necessary, etc.

4.  Use lots of bins and boxes. I’ll never forget the first bareboat charter trip we made, before we had our own cruising boat.  I had ordered provisions from a local company and they brought several large boxes of food along with several bags of ice to supplement the boat’s chill plates.

Naively, we alternately put ice and food in the refrigerator and then put the food in on top of it, then ran the engine driven refrigerator as we motored out of the harbor and into our anchorage.  That night, when we went to get the food for dinner (grilled steaks in tropical paradise), we discovered that EVERYTHING in the refrigerator had frozen together.  Lacking a hammer, we ended up using a winch handle (!) to pound the ice and break it apart.  An hour later, we found our steaks . . . and you don’t want to know what the lettuce looked like after being subjected to that treatment.  We learned our lesson!

You need to sort food by category (meat, cheese, produce, drinks) and use bins to keep like things together in appropriate places (coldest, least likely to freeze, etc.).

In general, you want bins to have solid bottoms and no holes in the bottom inch or so of the sides, in order to contain any spills, but holes higher in the sides are good for cold air circulation.  Metal bins conduct cold the best, followed by hard plastic, then soft plastic — so soft plastic containers, particularly ones with lids, are good for things that you don’t want to get too cold.  Read more about the best bins to buy in Part 2 of this series, The Supplies.

5.  Arranging it all. This is the step that ties all the previous ones together.  You need to come up with an arrangement where:

  • Everything is kept at the proper temperature — that is, things needing the most cold are in the coldest places, and so on.
  • There is the proper amount of space for items, in keeping with your priorities.
  • The bins fit snugly together to fully utilize the refrigerator space (and remember that you can put one bin on top of another if it won’t crush items below).
  • The most-used items are in the most convenient places.

As with every aspect of food storage, don’t be surprised if all the pieces don’t fall in place at first.  It may take a little re-adjustment, but in the long run having consistent places for everything will decrease your frustration when you need something out of the refrigerator and can also considerably lessen the battery drain caused by the refrigerator, as you won’t have it open for marathon “hunt sessions.”

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