Unbreakable Boat Dishes

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2010 • all rights reserved

Boat Dishes

I prefer to use “unbreakable” dishes on a boat.  I’ve found that the problem with breakable items isn’t so much on passage or at anchor in a squall, when the dishes are nicely tucked away in their storage cubby.  No, it’s having one slip out of your hand as you’re going up the companionway, or setting one down for “just a second” on a surface without a lip . . . and then a fishing boat goes by, kicking up a two-foot wave and giving your boat a quick roll.

And there you are — with two problems.  The immediate one is cleaning up the broken dish — never fun, but if you’re barefoot and standing in the middle of broken china you have to be very careful not to get slivers in your feet.  And if you’ve broken a couple of dishes, you’re going to have to find more — and depending on where you are, that can be a bit of a problem in itself.

So I opt for unbreakable dishes.

One quick note about buying dishes:  measure your storage cubby before buying dishes.  On many older boats — such as Que Tal — the cubby wasn’t designed for the super-sized plates available today.  Many times, what are sold as “lunch plates” fit better — and keep portion sizes in check.

There are basically three types of unbreakable dishes:

Cheap plastic and aluminum “camping” sets. These work, but they just aren’t that great for anything more than very occasional use.  A decent set of dishes doesn’t cost that much more, and make boat living seem much more like “home” and less like “making do.”  I don’t recommend these as the other choices are just so much nicer.  I also don’t recommend disposable dishes on environmental grounds — plus they just add to the trash management problem on board.

Image of brightly patterned melamine plateMelamine. Melamine tableware has come a long way from the “Melmac” of my youth.  The two big advantages of melamine are its light weight and bright colors and patterns.  It’s available in both solid colors and all sorts of patterns.

Melamine does not claim to be totally “unbreakable” but rather that it is “far more durable than china and stoneware.”  I’ve never had melamine break in the limited time I’ve used it.

The first disadvantages of melamine is that it cannot be used in a microwave (not a problem if you don’t use a microwave on your boat) — it will bubble up and turn black!

The second — and bigger — disadvantage is that it shows wear quickly.  Que Tal came with a set of melamine dishes and knife marks marred the surface after just a few months, and then I noticed that the design was getting duller and duller just from washing the dishes day after day.  The plates were still perfectly usable — they just didn’t look so good.

Finally, as it wears, melamine will also stain.  Coffee, tea and beets were the big culprits for me and I had to use a mild bleach solution to get the white parts looking white again.

For these reasons, I don’t recommend melamine for more than occasional use.  But if they’ll work for you, there are a lot of really cute melamine sets available on Amazon.

Image of Corelle dishesCorelle. Corelle was my choice for tableware on a boat.  It looks and feels like “real tableware” not something that you’re “making do” with.

Corelle is almost unbreakable.  It calls itself break-resistant and in numerous years of using it in apartments, camping and on Que Tal, I’ve only  had one plate break and that was when I dropped a heavy skillet on it.  And it didn’t shatter — it just neatly broke in two.  (DISCLOSURE:  since writing this, I’ve had my second piece of Corelle break . . . and it shattered.  Read Corelle Isn’t Shatterproof.  I still highly recommend Corelle!)

Corelle comes in a wide variety of colors and patterns, although none quite so bright as the melamine.  However, it will still look good after years of use as it doesn’t show cut marks from knives nor does it fade with washing.

Most stores sell Corelle in sets for 4, as well as in individual pieces (serving dishes are generally sold individually).  While the sets (such as that pictured above — usually a dinner plate, salad plate, small bowl and mug) seem to be a good deal, think about what you’ll actually use on your boat.

I found that I used the dinner and salad plates, but that the included bowl was too shallow for soup and cereal — if the boat rolled, liquid would slop out of the bowl.  I ended up buying Corelle’s larger size “Super Soup Bowl” (28 ounces) and then filling them only one-third to one-half full.  They also worked well as a small baking dish, as Corelle is oven and microwave safe.

You can also get a set of four of these deeper bowls along with a serving bowl, all in white.  This is usually cheaper than buying them separately.

I also found that we did not use the included mugs very often, as we generally preferred to use our insulated mugs for our coffee.  A further problem in trying to use the Corelle mugs was that they wouldn’t fit in our drink holders (and our insulated mugs did).

Thus, you may find it’s better to purchase pieces individually although some designs are available only in the sets — in which case, you can buy supplemental pieces individually.

Even though there were only two of us aboard, I found that a set of four just wasn’t sufficient.  While our cockpit was only big enough for us to invite one other couple over for dinner, by the time we had some snacks before dinner and I used a plate or two for serving dishes, I needed a set of 8 plates.

image of Corelle ramekinI also really like Corelle’s “little bowls” for serving nuts, olives, dips and so on.  They come in both a 12-ounce size and 6 ounce size (both in white only).  I have four of each and find that I use them almost every day.

Corelle also has a wide variety of serving dishes.  How many of these you find useful may depend on the size of your boat and the amount of storage you have.  On Que Tal, I preferred to use additional plates and bowls as my serving dishes instead of trying to carry more specialized dishes.

Finally, you may want to think a bit about your design choice.  I chose plain white round plates (they also have square) for several reasons.  While you may make a different choice, these may be points to consider:

  • I enjoy buying various textiles as we travel, and I use many as placemats or table runners.  Solid color dishes don’t clash.
  • Corelle has been making the same “winter white” round plates and matching serving dishes forever (I literally had the same dishes in college).  You can always get more that will match.

In most of my articles, I like buying things from Amazon, feeling that they have good prices.  And Amazon’s prices on Corelle aren’t horrible (I’ve seen far higher on other site) but if you’re thinking of getting one of the more commonly available designs, Wal-mart generally has better prices (Target is usually about the same as Amazon in my experience).  Amazon usually does have a wider selection of designs, however.

The one thing about Corelle (and also melamine) is that it doesn’t have a  nonslip bottom surface.  However, you can easily remedy this  — see “Non-Slip Solutions.”

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  1. Hi Carolyn
    I enjoy reading your posts on facebook. I wanted to share my experience with boat dishes. I have a set of Galleyware melamine (the brand West Marine carries) that came with my 20 yr old boat. They were not new but still look great. I added some pieces to the set. In 2009 I spoke to the Galleyware rep at the Annapolis Boat Show. He stated that warming (up to one minute) in a microwave is fine on their dishes. He had the exact specs (time vs. wattage)for different microwave ovens. I found this to be true.

    I have a friend on another boat who cautions against Corelle. She had more than one piece shatter. She stated that the shards were far more insidious to clean up than if they had been regular glass.

    I hope this is helpful. Happy boating!
    s/v CHASSEUR

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      Thanks for adding the info. I know that you can’t microwave bacon on the West Marine melamine (but yes, it takes far longer than one minute). And interesting about the friend who has had multiple pieces of Corelle shatter — we all have different experiences and I love hearing from others about theirs.

  2. I like how the square Corelle styles store so easily and do not roll.

  3. Two thumbs up for Corelle!

    Living aboard / cruising for 3.5 years and counting… 3 kids and lots of dropped dishes… corelle the whole time… not a single piece broken yet! It felt like a compromise at first because I compared them to the heft of our Williams-Sonoma dishes from land life, but I don’t feel that way any more and would get them again in a heartbeat.

  4. Hi Carolyn,

    Thanks for sharing this information. We are excitedly planning a move to the Caribbean to charter our own boat later this year. As I am in the process of liquidated our current household, I have been debating what dishes & kitchenware to take, and what will have no use on the boat. I love my serving platters and nicer dinnerware, but realize it is not practical on the boat. You confirmed that Corelle is probably the best choice!

    Thank You,

    • Tamera Buckley says:

      We like in Texas and are also liquidating our household and was wondering about glass baking dishes like Pyrex, are they considered unbreakable? I have a lot of pyrex baking dishes but not sure if they would be safe on a boat?
      Any comments?
      SV Kooky Dance

  5. Downeaster32 says:

    Recently picked up a “double walled stainless steel mixing bowl” which is definitely unbreakable and will keep my hot foods hot and cool foods cool. Ridiculously cheap as well, at Cost Plus. Of course it matches all the stainless elsewhere in the galley, shiny and bright.
    The small mixing bowl is about the right size for the boat’s “super jumbo salad bowl”, ha. Size is always relative 😀

  6. Nita Knighton on Facebook says:

    Melamine makes a pattern that looks as if its cut marked ( beige) , any marks you make add to the pattern. I found them at Walmart

  7. I have plain Corelle with a blue band.

  8. For fellow cruisers on the way south, Vero Beach has a Corning Ware Outlet with great prices, huge selection and helpful staff.

  9. I’ve dropped Corelle before and have it magically turn to slivers.

  10. Dan Thomas says:

    I have found that the Corelle Pie dishes make a great boat plate or serving platter. Think of a plate with a 1 ” or so lip around the edge. The side wall helps keep things on the plate, or can be used to cook in.

  11. Gloria Rooney says:

    Have used Corelle on the boat for over 30 years now and have only broken 2 pieces. I heartily endorse Corelle and just bought one of the square sets!

  12. Nancy Bradley Aubin, here’s a good one!

  13. D and Don svsoutherncross says:

    I concur with Carolyn, for us Corelle is best. We purchased our Pacific Rose pattern at the Corelle outlet store near Cincinnati Ohio, as before we left for cruising we lived in Columbus. As Carolyn says, buying individual pieces was the most cost effective for us since we did not want the coffee cups and saucers in the set. We too keep a set of 8 on board. We have broken one and Corelle replaced it free. It fell on a tile floor from counter height and shattered. It was a job cleaning it up. Even so, I like it better than plastic like melamine. I was going to try and include a photo of the pattern we use, but could not figure out how to do that. I like the tan border as it goes with our teak on the boat. The red and green of the flowers go well with the red and green of our boat colors. I will have to look for those bowls that Carolyn mentioned as I like those better than the ones we have which have sloping sides.

  14. Belinda Wolfe says:

    I have been using and loving Corelle since before I owned a boat. So, I was thrilled when the previous owner of our boat left me her Correlle. I inherited dinner, breakfast and bread plates in a pattern called “Memphis” which is somewhat nautical and I really like. I’m not sure if they still make it. I also inherited the Souper Soup bowls (blue rim) that Carolyn mentioned which I use a lot – especially as serving dishes. But I added 6 Pasta bowls (all white) which I use a lot for dinner salads, pasta or rice dishes and for serving dishes. I’m thinking of adding two more. I also have the 6 oz bowls that get used for dips, nuts but mostly ice cream! In my 30 years of using Correlle EVERY DAY I have NEVER broken one piece!

    M/V Rickshaw

  15. Here’s the link to that set and yes, it’s melamine — very pretty, unbreakable but don’t put in a microwave and they will show wear: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00CMOYGGQ/?tag=theboagal0a-20

  16. I never seem to come across stuff like this when I’m purchasing items… We have boring yellow melamine plates, I love that design above!

  17. A friend told me about these Deco-plate.com dishes, and We bought a set of 4 to try them out. They are a new kind of food safe plastic that can me microwaved. They are heavier than the melamine dishes we’ve used for years – but they contain no melamine. They appear to be unbreakable (they’ve been dropped many times), , and I’ve put them in a microwave to heat frozen vegetables for 6-7 minutes, and the plate is barely warm. One really nice feature is that they can be customized with your boat name or logo.

  18. Muiris de Buitleir says:

    Much of the material on your webpage seems to be aimed at a very specific target audience; predominantly American; cruising the east or west coast of the U.S., the Caribbean and South America. The weather involved is mainly hot and humid and the passages would seem to be relatively shorts passages where restocking can be carried out regularly in port, and more importantly food preparation and cooking can be done at an anchorage, in harbour or on passage during relatively calm weather and sea states, although I note that some consideration is given in your articles to long ocean passages and the provisioning issues involved in spending weeks and maybe months at sea. The target crew seems to be predominantly a couple. Refrigeration is a given, and often a considerable degree of refrigeration at that, including a freezer. There is another form of sailing, perhaps more common in European waters, which presents different challenges and invites different solutions.
    Food storage, cooking and eating on medium length offshore passages
    European Atlantic and Mediterranean sailing needs can be quite different from what seems typical in the United States. Much passage making is short, involving an overnight or two with no more than 48 hours at sea. In these circumstances provisioning and cooking issues are trivial. A crew can easily subsist on pre-cooked food, soup and sandwiches. There is a middle ground of passage making which fits neither the short passage, the more leisurely harbour and anchorage hopping or the long ocean cruise models. Typical of such passages would be crossings from the south of Ireland to southern France, the north of Spain or Gibraltar or, if heading north, from the east coast of Ireland to the Hebridean Islands in Scotland. Such passages would involve, on average, passages of 500-600 NM and five to six days at sea without recourse to land. Atlantic weather and seas can be extremely rough, cold and wet, even in summer, so catering for such passages throws up (no pun intended!) some interesting challenges.
    Firstly the boat may be more strongly crewed than the standard husband and wife couple; a skipper and four crew standing watches in twos would be typical. Secondly built-in refrigeration may be non-existent. Cooking will have to be carried out at sea under whatever conditions happen to prevail at the time and there are more mouths to feed. Simplicity and ruggedness in the galley area and careful preparation before sailing are a sine qua non of success. The following are some thoughts on how to deal with these circumstances.
    Four particular pieces of technology – the high insulation Eskimo ice box, the vacuum packer, Tefal Wikook pots and the humble stainless steel dogie bowl – provide potential key elements to successful catering at sea in such situations:
    The first issue is that food needs to stay safe and edible for at least six day without refrigeration and the primary problem, for carnivores, is meat. Tinned (or canned, as Americans would have it) meats in Europe (particularly Ireland and Britain) leave a lot to be desired. Much of what is on offer in supermarkets consists of cooked meals such as ‘steak and kidney pie’ or ‘chili con carne’ where much of the contents of the tin consists of non-meat components and what meat there is smothered in thick glutinous gravy and cooked into a slurry. Delicacies, which seem to be available on the American market, such as canned whole chicken breasts or canned roast beef simply don’t exist in Europe. If one wants to eat decent meat then tins are not the way to go. The alternative, is relatively simple, but I haven’t seen it proposed anywhere in the sailing literature.
    The Ansuo Eskimo Prestige cool box is rated to keep ice frozen for up the ten days, so allowing for manufacturer’s hype and exaggeration, it should be more than adequate for storing frozen meat for six days.

    Eskimo Prestige Ice Box Buffalo Domestic Vacuum Packer

    A 20 litre capacity box with interior dimensions of 336mm x 215mm x 265mm would be more than adequate to store a five man crew’s meat rations for 6 days. The meat preparation is easy: suitable meats – chicken breasts, round steak, minced beef, leg of lamb, or even firm fish such as monkfish is taken fresh from the butchers or fishmongers, diced, measured into meal-sized quantities (750 grammes to one kilo would be about right for a five person crew), vacuum packed, labelled, and frozen in the home freezer. When fully frozen the packs can be loaded, with crushed ice, into the cool box just prior to departure. If the packs are loaded in reverse order of use, they can be taken out each day as required with minimum disturbance to the temperature in the box. No boat galley preparation is required; the meat is ready to go straight into the cooking pot.
    Two pot cooking is ideal. The meat with the flavourings and sauces go into one pot depending on recipe (Thai yellow curry chicken with coconut and carrots; minced steak in Bolognese sauce; Algerian lamb with spices, apricots and sultanas; Beef Gulash or Stroganoff, Monkfish curry; Carbonara sauce with bacon, onions and cream, to mention just a few possibilities). The carbohydrates go into the second pot (Basmati rice, pasta- penne or shells- (spaghetti, tagliatelle or other long pastas are too hard to manage on a boat in motion), couscous, potatoes (either diced or mashed). All these can be vacuum packed into five- man- meal sized portions (around 500 grammes per cooking) reading for decanting straight into the pot without the need for measurement on board. This brings us to the subject of cooking pots.
    The French company Tefal have come up with a cooking pot that is tailor-made for small boat sailors. It’s not quite a pressure cooker and has none of the clamps, weights and valves associated with these monsters, but it seals with a simple twist of a knob and provide a degree of pressure which speeds cooking by 25%. It is easy to open in mid-cooking to adjust or add ingredients and the locking lid provides protection against dangerous spills and splashes likely to be caused by a vigorously moving boat. With a 4 litre capacity it is just about ideal for a five man crew, and two of these pots, while somewhat expensive (around €50 each in France, but strangely three times more expensive in the UK and Ireland) would provide all the cooking pots a small boat needs (one for meats, one for carbs.). Because of their compact size and neat side handles they would be easy to clamp to the cooker using high fiddles and spring hooks and would be stable and safe in any seaway. Their other huge advantage is that they are coated with non-stick Teflon inside and out and thus are very easy to clean after use (who enjoys scrubbing greasy pots while being bounced around in a small galley?)

    In terms of other foods, most are readily available from supermarkets packed suitably in tins, tetrapaks, vacuum packs, or sealed foil bags, ready for storage on board without any further preparation and capable of lasting, without spoiling, for well over the time period required. Those which do not come in suitable cooking sized portions can be broken down and vacuum packed. UHT milk, orange juice, soups, beans, peas, yogurts, cheeses, cooked meats, tinned fruits, oat flakes, muesli, dried fruit, tea, coffee, biscuits, crackers, rusks, energy bars, etc. come into this category. Fresh fruit and vegetables will easily last the required six days. The only remaining provisioning problem is bread.
    Despite scientific advances in food hygiene and preservation, no one seems to have come up with a suitable way of prolonging the life of bread. Staleness and mould are still the enemy. Bread can be frozen but its bulk makes it a poor subject for the limited and expensive space available in a cold box. Best option is to find bread that stays good naturally for 6 to 7 day. A little bit of hardness needn’t be an issue as long as mould keeps its distance. Some proprietary breads that are dosed with preservatives may keep them mouldless a little longer, but the thought of eating chemical additives is not a happy one. Dried bread such as croutons, rusks, crispbreads, etc. will keep without spoiling for much longer than soft bread but they don’t make very manageable or appetising sandwiches. Fruit cakes also last well but a ham, cheese and tomato filling to two slices of sweet fruit cake would not be a great attraction in rough seas. Some rye breads seem to last better than the sliced white variety and could be an acceptable option. They may just last the required five or six days unspoilt. Baking may be a way around this issue but in the circumstances being discussed (six days under way in potentially rough seas) bread making involving, mixing, kneading, raising and baking, is not really viable.
    Having dealt with how to cook things, the last issue to be addressed is how to serve and eat them. Crews on the type of passage that we’re talking about will normally eat in the cockpit. Eating in the cabin in any sort of a seaway is not a pleasant experience. Many medium length passages operate informal day watches (crew in the cockpit or taking a snooze as long as there are two crew members on helm and lookout) with formal watches during the hours of darkness. With such an arrangement the entire crew would eat breakfast together at the end of the night watches and dinner together before the beginning of the night watches. Similarly, lunch together, all in the cockpit. Cheap delph, melamine, plastic and Corelle all have their following, but for the sort of cockpit dining we’re talking about, the only practical solution is the stainless steel dog or cat bowl, good and deep and with a wide, silicone non-slip base to provide stability if set down for a moment. The silicone also acts as insulation if the bowl contains hot food or soups. Stainless steel ensures ease of cleaning and more importantly high levels of hygiene, with no porosity, cracking, discolouration or other problems that delph or melamine are prone to. The ultimate improvement would be a click-on plastic lid which would provide further protection against spillage and heat loss.

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