How to Store Food on a Boat: The Supplies

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2010 • all rights reserved

The eight things -- basic supplies -- you'll need for effective food storage on a boat.

To me, there are 8 things you need for effective food storage on a boat:

1.  Plastic bags. Heavy-duty resealable plastic bags are indispensible for food storage.  I tried to always have a substantial stock of 1-quart, 1-gallon and 2-gallon Ziploc freezer bags on hand.  While the zipper style bags are convenient, I’ve had more problems with them leaking than with the traditional “press together” style.

The heavy-duty freezer bags can be hard to find once you’re out of the US (particularly in the larger sizes), so I try to re-use as many as possible although I never re-use ones that had meat in them for fear of contamination.  I also took bags back from the US several times.  You can often buy them in quantity at Costco, Sam’s Club or on Amazon at much cheaper prices than at your local grocery store.

2.  Permanent felt markers. I like the Sharpie fine point felt pens for marking on Ziploc bags and on the top of canned goods.  Don’t use markers that aren’t permanent — the ink will run if it comes in contact with any little bit of water!

The eight things -- basic supplies -- you'll need for effective food storage on a boat.3.  Plastic bins. Use plastic bins to organize lockers and the refrigerator.  The sizes you need will vary depending on your lockers, but you need solid ones for things that would be messy if they broke, and ventilated ones for items that need airflow.  I really like the Sterilite ventilated baskets like the one shown here — they come in a variety of sizes, are very tough, are easy to clean and they have solid bottoms so that if anything spills, it’s contained.  Sterilite also makes a set of nice solid bins — in lockers, I don’t use the lids and so don’t bother to pay extra for latching lids.  I do have a few boxes where lids are important, and for those I pay for ones with latching lids.  Both kinds of Sterilite bins are available at Wal-mart as well as at Amazon.

I also use a few milk crates but really don’t like them as well as they don’t have solid bottoms.  And for some odd-sized places, I used things like small plastic waste baskets (good in a deep refrigerator for storing drink cans — cut some holes in the sides for air flow) and plastic juice bottles with the tops cut off (good for organizing a top loading locker with lots of small packets).

The eight things -- basic supplies -- you'll need for effective food storage on a boat.4.  Gear hammocks. Gear hammocks are wonderful for storing “fragile” items like chips, eggs and produce, and they also make use of space that is otherwise empty.  I had four of them aboard Que Tal, along the ceiling in the saloon.  Just don’t store anything really heavy in them . . . and don’t hang them next to a wall if you have anything fragile in them — the hammock will hit the wall with the motion of the boat and suddenly your bag of potato chips will be a bag of  crumbs.

5.  Plastic food storage containers. You’ll use plastic lidded containers not just for leftovers and putting things in the refrigerator, but for storing lots of dried goods to protect them from moisture and bugs.  When we left to go cruising, I bought a big box of cheap storage containers and soon found that they were no bargain — the lids popped off and the containers themselves cracked with the motion of the boat.  I had pasta salad all over the bottom of the refrigerator and sugar all over the bottom of a locker.  I spent a lot of time cleaning up and wasted a lot of food.

I like locking lid containers and ones that are VERY hard to pull open, and I try to buy ones that are square with vertical sides — round ones waste a lot of space when you try to put several in one locker.  I don’t like to get ones that have an “air vent” to let air out — I’ve had problems with these leaking.

There are several good brands, and you can buy sets that have a variety of sizes which cost a lot less than buying individual pieces.  I found that I used a bunch of “canister size” containers for sugar, flour, pasta, rice and other dried goods — far more than I had in a home kitchen. My favorites:

Wal-mart also carries inexpensive half-gallon and gallon clear plastic square cannisters with screw-on tops.  I used 6 of these — they’re not totally airtight like some of the others, but they fit the space I had.

6.  Non-slip shelf paper. I lined all my lockers (both shelved and top loading) and drawers with non-slip shelf paper to keep cans, utensils and other items from sliding around as the boat moved.  Not only does it keep the noise down, it also prevents wearing holes in cans and plastic containers as well as dents.

7.  Cushioning materials. I used paper towels, bubble wrap and pieces of fleece to pad fragile foods and also to take up space and keep things from sliding.  Take along a package of cheap tube socks to pad bottles.

8.  Critter deterrents. You’ll need a number of different things to deter weevils, cockroaches, ants and other critters:

  • Bay leaves to put in flour and mixes containing flour to prevent weevils
  • Cloves (whole, ground or oil) to prevent ants — in every locker
  • Ant traps in every locker
  • Cockroach traps in every locker

I don’t like to use ant and roach sprays both because of the possibility of overspray getting on food preparation surfaces and because we have a small dog and I didn’t want to spray it anywhere that she might go.

When we first moved aboard Que Tal, I was surprised by how much I needed of all these supplies.  I had bought what I thought were reasonable amounts, and quickly ran out.  So don’t be surprised if you find yourself needing more than you originally thought — but having a good food storage system will really pay off in the long run.

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Comments

  1. Hi Carolyn! I have a question: In your opinion, would it be better to use the 38-cup or 21-cup Lock&Lock containers? We will pretty much be storing dry foods like flour, rice, etc. in them. I know it is important to have somewhat smaller containers to avoid the spread of contamination, yet I fear I may be a bit overly paranoid. Thanks for your help!

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      I’d say it depends more on the size of the lockers you’re going to put them in and how they’ll fit there, along with ease in getting them in and out. On Que Tal, my lockers were nicely sized for 21-cup containers — I could stack them together very efficiently — so that’s what I used. The 32-cup ones just wouldn’t have fit well. So it wasn’t really the fear of contamination, but what fit.

      Five pounds of flour is just under 19 cups, so the 38-cup containers will hold 10 pounds (or an equivalent volume of other dry items), which makes it a little easier to visualize how big they’ll be — and how heavy if they’re in a hard-to-reach location. The 21-cup ones will hold 5 pounds, plus a little extra.

      My philosophy is for staples (flour, sugar, rice, pasta) to have my stock divided between at least two containers so that if something happens to one, I’ve still got some left. And that gets down to what type of cruising you’re doing (crossing an ocean or out for a weekend?) and how big your boat is, in addition to how much of something you want to be able to carry. For example, if you don’t eat rice very often, you may only want to have three or four pounds on board — and at two cups per pound, you could get by with just two 1-quart containers for it. But if you eat rice frequently — say you use two pounds a week and figure it’ll be a couple of months before you’re likely to be able to buy more — you might want close to 20 pounds on board, which would necessitate far larger containers — or more of them.

      Sorry this is sort of a wishy-washy answer, but I guess the bottom line is that what size I’d use depends on the space available, although I wouldn’t want one container to hold my entire stock of any of my staples.

      Be sure to put a few bay leaves in each container with dry goods to keep weevils away — and a clove or two in the lockers to discourage ants!

      • No, that’s not a wishy-washy answer at all! I like that rule of thumb–to divide the stock in at least two different containers. Shenanigans, our 35-foot Cal, has quite a lot of storage space.

        We are hoping to leave from the Channel Islands in CA to Hawaii May 1st of this year, then up to the San Juan Islands in Washington, and back down the coast to return home around early August. So I guess you can say it’s a bit of a jump, and one to be well prepared for!

        Thanks again Carolyn, you rock 🙂

  2. Susan Parker says:

    I found your site through a post in the Cruiser’s Forum and have become a fan.

    For storage, I prefer Snapware. It comes in various sizes and shapes. It opens/closes with one snap.

  3. I was wondering if anyone has used the OXO Good Grips Containers and how they compare to say the Lock and Lock. I have loved the lock and lock for years so I was happy to see that you recommend them.

    http://www.amazon.com/OXO-Square-4-Quart-Storage-Container/dp/B000UHYB9E/?tag=theboagal0a-20

  4. Hi,

    It’s been a while since anyone’s posted on this thread, but here are a couple of ideas:

    1) We find a vacuum bag machine indispensable. Meat keeps a lot longer when vacuumed and frozen or refrigerated. You can also pack a lot more in than with small containers since you’re not constrained by the sides. They’re not power hungry and the bags are pretty easy to get.

    2) We also have some vacuum containers that can be evacuated either by machine or a hand pump. We find stuff keeps longer (e.g. raw rice), and you can put liquids in them to put in the fridge, also keeping longer than in standard containers,

    3) We find silicon mats to be much better than paper to line shelves & lockers. They’re naturally non-slip, can be cleaned, and last longer. They are more expensive, but we think it pays for itself with length of use.

    Cheers,
    Paul.

  5. I was looking at one of those vacuum sealers for food to help make food last longer. Your thoughts??

  6. Shelly Young says:

    Buying the same brand of containers makes sense if they are stackable, makes for more efficient use of space.

  7. I am a fan of good old fashion Tupperware. They have a line that is specifically for produce and it is sqaure or rectangle and it stacks perfectly in my refrigerator on Jabiroo II, our IP 35. As Carolyn said, steer away from round bowls, they take up too much room and don’t sit still in the fridge.
    Thanks for all the good words of wisdom Carolyn!

  8. Deb Jansma says:

    What are some of the recommendations on storing spices? I cannot find a decent spice rack system that I can mount somewhere handy, like on the inside of a galley door, and I don’t want to use precious drawer room.

  9. Thanks! Glad you find it helpful!

  10. Great tips!!

  11. Cathy Lunn says:

    do the gear hammocks come with attachments on the end so they have something to stick to

  12. Gwendolyn Webster says:

    Hi, Carolyn!
    I use Tupperware for storage and now use Dry Top and their clips for inside each container. When we go offshore for a month or two, I found I really missed my dry cereal. Now with the Dry Tops inside the container, the Post Whole Wheat biscuits stay nice and crisp until I finish them. Thank you so much for the ideas! We purchased several for each boat on both coasts.
    We also use the hammocks for potatoes, onions, yams and apples handing underneath the bunk beds.

  13. If you really sail your boat the gear hammocks don’t have to hit the bulkheads to turn oranges into juice and apples into sauce. Great for clothes, cans, even boxes. Not good for anything even remotely fragile.

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