How do you figure out what provisions you need and how much to take for a longer trip? Here's my system --

How Much Do I Need?

The most common provisioning questions from boaters who are heading away from the dock for more than a few days tend to be:

  • “What should I take?” and
  • “How much X do I need?”

The reality is that neither I nor anyone else can tell you.  (Dang, I know you wanted a simple answer!)

What I can say is that you’re unlikely to eat particularly differently on the boat than you do at home.  If you like cereal for breakfast, that’s what you’re likely to want on the boat.  If you like bacon and eggs a couple times a week, ditto.  And so on.  Consequently, you have to take the things you like, not what I might suggest.  Admittedly, on the Provisioning page, I do provide links to articles I’ve written on a number of items that work well on a boat (often because the packaging works well), but you still have to decide if it’s something you want.

But that leaves the question of “how much?”  If you’re going for just a few days, it’s fairly easy as you can plan your meals in advance.  But for longer cruising, I simply stocked the pantry with my “guesstimate” of how much of various items I’d use before I hit the next provisioning stop.

To figure that out, I had to know how much of everything we used.  At first, I just sat down and tried to figure it all out in my head.  That was a total and complete failure!  It was just overwhelming.

Mark containers when you open themI then came up with a much more systematic way to do it, although it takes time.  The first step was to go through my kitchen, refrigerator, freezer and pantry and list everything.  I anticipated this being an all-day job or maybe even more than a day.  Actually, it only took a few hours and I even cleaned out some cupboards as I was doing it.

Then I started listing things as I used them:

  • For things that I used “all at once” (such as a can of green beans), I just wrote down how many and the date.
  • For things that I used over time (say a 5-pound bag of flour), I marked the container with the date I opened it.  Then when it was empty, I’d make a note on the list with how long it had lasted me.
I did this for a few months and patterns clearly developed.  Pretty soon, I could come up with weekly averages for just about everything.

Excel-100Because I’m a “spreadsheet person” (a large part of a previous job involved designing spreadsheets for many operations in the company, so I tend to use them whenever I can to automate tasks), I developed a provisioning spreadsheet . . . and pretty soon expanded it to include inventorying what was already on hand so that I could easily tell how much more to buy of each item.  You can read more about the spreadsheet here and download a copy for yourself (be sure to also download the instructions and edit it to include your foods instead of mine and how much you use in a week).  Over time, as I could see what was left in inventory and what we ran out of, as well as our eating habits changed slightly over time, I tweaked my weekly average numbers.

Anyone got another good way of planning your provisions when it’s going to be a few weeks before the next provisioning stop?  I’d love to hear how others do it!

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  • Angie Morales
    Posted at 13 October 2013 Reply

    Since we are not anywhere near full time cruisers, how about some suggestions for us weekender plus a few days cruisers. Food storage for most anything. What works for u out there. Thanks

  • Jaye (Life Afloat)
    Posted at 04 September 2014 Reply

    Hi Carolyn, I plan my provisions the lazy girl way: by simply keeping my grocery lists for several months before traveling to see what the patterns are … didn’t even need to spend the time for a regular inventory, as long as I generally buy only what’s on the list. Or just keep your receipts for several months, and deduce the patterns from that. (Paper grocery lists: buy a small notebook and use it only for grocery lists; or digital — some stores (Publix comes to mind) have great apps/websites that you can use to track shopping)

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 04 September 2014 Reply

      Great idea! Duh — I never thought of just keeping receipts (I go off list enough — or just have things such as “3 dinners” — that the lists might not work).

    • Silverheels III
      Posted at 04 September 2014 Reply

      How much food you carry depends on where you are cruising.
      In the US or Canada shopping is usually easy and accessible. You shouldn’t need to carry tons of flour, pasta or cereal which will not enjoy the maritime dampness and often spoil or be infested before you can use it. Bahamas is quite different. If you see something that you like a lot in the stores (butter), buy lots as it likely won’t be there next time you shop..Further south in DR and Puerto Rico you will probably not find certain items such as cans of brown beans or regular coffee beans. We had a boat buddy from Canada who searched the Greater Antilles for Bush’s brown beans…all in vain. Eastern Caribbean islands are generally well stocked, especially the islands with North American medical schools, whose young students want their familiar brands such as Heinz ketchup, Cheerios and Skippy. Cruising back and forth between Grenada and St Martin we no longer carry 3 ketchup, 3 BBQ sauce, 4 salad dressing, extra mayonnaise, 6 butter.or 3 peanut butter. Just go to a supermarket frequented by university students and you’ll likely find it all.
      UHT milk is available most everywhere and fits nicely in the bilge, or in the fridge after opening. Make sure that the carton has a resealable screw cap to prevent spoilage or spills in the fridge.

      BTW, in 11 years on board from Toronto to Grenada we have never refrigerated mayonnaise, butter in use, jam, salad dressing, mustard, BBQ sauce, ketchup or PB. If you use a clean utensils and don’t cross contaminate the product with other food, it won’t spoil, even in our oppressive Caribbean summers.

  • Suzanne Nikolaus
    Posted at 04 September 2014 Reply

    This post came at the perfect time for me…I’m in the process of planning for a long trip and was feeling overwhelmed (understatement). Your articles and links are so very helpful. I’m so grateful I’ve found you!

  • Chris Link
    Posted at 04 September 2014 Reply

    Wonderful spreadsheet for provisioning

  • Diane Cook
    Posted at 04 September 2014 Reply

    Last 2 two week long cruises I kept track of what we ate. At the I note 6 juices enough, ran out of tuna, bring more chips, etc! This has been very helpful as I plan for our next 2 weeks! Love this website!

  • Jan Bogart
    Posted at 07 January 2015 Reply

    we loved to take advantage of stocking up on favorites of each place. St. Marten is great for european products, french islands for wine, cheese, mustard, butter, etc..

  • Dave Skolnick
    Posted at 18 February 2016 Reply

    Carolyn’s comment “What I can say is that you’re unlikely to eat particularly differently on the boat than you do at home.” is very important to think about.

    If you use a microwave all the time at home you’ll be stressed not to have one on your boat. Everything you have to change will add an element of stress. Be realistic with yourself. Make any adjustments you anticipate while you are still at home.

    This is directly applicable to provisioning. If you are the sort that stops for groceries every day or so you WILL have adjustments to make while cruising. Start now while you can sneak out for that extra banana or pound of ground beef. If you shop once a week without fill-in visits to the market you’ll be fine. Once a week transitioning to twice a month is no big deal. If you do a big shop at a warehouse store like Sam’s or Costco every four to six weeks and a weekly grocery shop for fresh veg you are already cruising.

  • Holly Vickers
    Posted at 19 February 2016 Reply

    Vodka and olives…just kidding, thanks for the article

  • Jake Krige
    Posted at 19 February 2016 Reply

    Ilke Krige

  • Linda M Fletcher
    Posted at 19 February 2016 Reply

    Annie Fletcher

  • Kathryn Weber
    Posted at 19 February 2016 Reply

    Personally, I use The Boat Galley provisioning spreadsheet. I’ve been able to successfully provision for up to 8 weeks (so far)!

  • Ruth Robbins
    Posted at 13 November 2017 Reply

    Hi Carolyn
    We’ll be sailing in the Bahamas for 3 months this winter. What advice/tips about provisioning? We live aboard now in the US and I know provisioning for the Bahamas will be totally different:
    I’m in awe of your sailing savvy!
    Thank you,
    Ruth Robbins

  • Tamera Buckley
    Posted at 20 December 2017 Reply

    I downloaded your “what I have on the boat” spreadsheet and I love it. I already got plans on how to use it as my provision run list and inventory list. Thanks.

  • Bazza Captain
    Posted at 24 December 2017 Reply

    Well…… We start with 2 bottles of red per day plus 10% for contingencies. After that we work out how much cheese and pretzels to accompany the .

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