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.
Melamine. 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 or if you prefer “nautical” or solid color melamine dishes, West Marine has several sets.
Corelle. 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.
I 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.