Thirteen tips for planning and preparing meals to eat underway on a boat -- whether just out for the day or on a longer passage.

Meals Underway

Preparing — and eating — meals underway takes a little bit extra planning and care. On all but the calmest days, it can be tough to cook with the stove swinging on its gimbals, not to mention getting into the refrigerator or just getting ingredients out as the boat is moving. Even eating is harder than usual as food tries to slide across your plate.

  • Pre-cook meals. Fixing meals ahead of time is a huge help. While many think of preparing hot dishes ahead of time so they can just be reheated, it’s also a good strategy for cold meals as well. While you can’t cook ahead for the entire duration of long passages, you can still cook ahead on mild days if heavier weather is expected.
  • Serve in mugs. If conditions are even the slightest bit rough, serving food in mugs instead of plates or even bowls helps avoid spillage. Large insulated mugs will hold more, but you may prefer regular coffee mugs so that you can slip the mugs into standard drink holders to free your hands up.
  • One dish meals. It’s hard to juggle multiple dishes, so we like one-dish meals.
  • Bite-sized food. Unless it’s calm, it’s hard to cut anything up.
  • Spoon food. It’s generally easier to eat with a spoon than a fork — food is less likely to fall off and if the boat moves at the wrong moment, a spoon won’t stab your face!
  • Thicken soups and stews. On cold days, hot soup or stew can really warm everyone up. Make soups and stews easier to eat by thickening them — add extra flour as you’re cooking it (be sure to cook several minutes after adding the flour both to allow it to thicken and to avoid the raw flour taste).
  • Never serve scalding hot food. Very hot food can burn if it spills on someone, and no one wants to take a bite of dinner only to burn their mouth. If food is really hot as you dish it up, place the dishes/mugs in the sink for a few minutes until the food cools to a temperature that won’t burn.
  • Thermos for coffee and hot water. Having hot drinks readily available is wonderful if it’s chilly. An airpot makes it really easy to serve! Read more about the best Thermoses and airpots.
  • Sit! As much as possible, sit to do any food prep underway — especially if using a knife.
  • Use the sink. Place hot pans in the sink so they won’t slide and cause burns; wedge mugs into the sink to pour hot liquids into them both to avoid burns on your hands if the boat moves and to contain any spills.
  • Pot restraints and stove gimbals. Use both when underway to avoid having a hot pan launched across the boat, potentially injuring someone. Read more about pot restraints and stove gimbals.
  • Grab and eat. Keep some of what I call “grab and eat” foods readily accessible in case it gets too rough to cook: dried fruit, granola/energy bars; nuts; peanut butter and crackers or whatever else you like.
  • Refrigerator doors and lids. Every boat refrigerator is different, but be careful that the door or lid doesn’t smash into you as you’re peering inside. Top opening refrigerators are notorious for causing injuries this way, but they’re easy to prevent if you totally remove lids and put them in a safe place or use safety latches.

On passage, Dave and I tried to have one meal a day together as we changed watches. At other times, we’d just eat as we felt like it. I’d usually make a large bowl of pasta or rice salad that we could dish up whenever we wanted, and I’d have other simple food available. We found that we didn’t eat “real meals” as such except for our one meal together, although we didn’t eat junk food either. Instead, we might have a cup of yogurt, a piece of fruit, or some cheese at various times throughout the day. However, I also have a number of friends who eat more of a “breakfast, lunch and dinner” on passage — it’s really a case of what works for you.

Thirteen tips for planning and preparing meals to eat underway on a boat -- whether just out for the day or on a longer passage.

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  • gene koblick
    Posted at 23 June 2014 Reply

    My wife never had the problem of a gimbolled stove aboard our cruising boat, the 32′ sloop Teacher,s pet III. We placed our stove on a athwarthshipes bulkhead,did not need gimbols,just pot holders. After 60 years of cruising I still cannot stand why people gimbol stoves??
    Another feature I wonder about is why people use a slliding center hatch arrangement instead of a off center companion way. Gives you many more options for arranging the below living area.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 24 June 2014 Reply

      The theory behind using gimbals is that food won’t slosh out. With your arrangement (which is also what Lin & Larry Pardey advocate), you can avoid the problem by using larger pans.

    • Mark and Cindy - s/v Cream Puff
      Posted at 17 July 2014 Reply

      The sliding center hatch in the center of the companion way offers the same amount of protection in case of a knock down. If the hatch is located on the port side and the vessel is knocked down while on a starboard tack, the interior of the vessel is more prone to flooding than if the hatch were centered. This could be enough of an opening to prevent the vessel from self righting due to the volume of incoming water.

      On both vessels we have owned the entryway has been offset to either port or starboard. You are correct, it does offer more options below. However, we are acutely aware of the trade off.

      Mark and Cindy
      s/v Cream Puff

  • Dietmar
    Posted at 26 June 2014 Reply

    Please forgive this plug for Ms Penguin prepared meals. They have been a popular favorite with delivery crews for years. Gourmet meals, frozen for convenience. No cooking just warming up. Heat and Eat!

  • Paul Schroder
    Posted at 11 August 2014 Reply

    I recently discovered an unusual trick while sailing in the Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac:
    A friend on a large “go fast” sailboat said that all of their meals, although most were gormet fare, we’re served in large, deep, stainless steel dog bowls with the rubber rings on the bottom so they could be put on most any flat surface and would stay put while they ate. The depth of the bowl prevented the meal from exiting prematurely. I thought that was a pretty good idea! My wife and I regularly eat out of deep pasta bowls/plates no matter what is being served so this is just a variation that makes serving the crew easier and with less mess.
    Thanks for your website and your cookbook. I love them both!
    Smooth Sailing!

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 11 August 2014 Reply

      I’ve heard of people doing that — we have decent-sized bowls that have a non-slip ring around the bottom (the Starboard Collection that I’ve written about — loving them more all the time!)

  • JoySea
    Posted at 03 June 2015 Reply

    It’s just as easy to make two casseroles as one. I’ll save one for use on the boat later. Also if you freeze it, you can put it in an icebox and let it thaw out, saving some of your precious refrigerator or freezer space. I like to do my own hash browns on the boat, so I will pre-cook the potatoes at home. The potatoes can be used for other dishes too.

  • Jan Bogart
    Posted at 07 August 2016 Reply

    Chicken salad, pasta salad, bread. That’s my hurricane menu too.

  • Lupari Sue
    Posted at 07 August 2016 Reply

    Need potholders. Got them 10 years after we started and only when skipper was in charge of cooking.

  • Cheryl Bular
    Posted at 07 August 2016 Reply

    One of my go to meals underway is so simple. A box of good old Kraft mac n cheese. Mix the cheese powder with mayo, cooked pasta, tuna or chicken, any veggies and chill.

  • Donna Chiappini
    Posted at 09 August 2016 Reply

    Carolyn, I tried the Wonder Bag. I have to admit, I was 100% pleased with the results. I made a quick stew in the morning before we were to set sail and put it in the bag for nearly 7 hours. Our crossing was not an easy one due to heavy winds and big swells. We placed the Wonder Bag in the aft stateroom and I was sure I would have a mess when I opened it. Nothing except a steaming hot meal with tender meat and vegetables. I would recommend highly for those days you can’t cook while under way but want something hot when you get where you are going. One pot and easy peasy.

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 10 August 2016 Reply

      Lots of readers like the Wonderbag (one even wrote a guest post about it since I don’t have one) and I use and LOVE my thermal cooker, which is the same principle but doesn’t take up as much room (but does cost more). More about my thermal cooker here.

      • Donna Chiappini
        Posted at 11 August 2016 Reply

        I’ve seen people mention the size of the Wonderbag. It’s just that, a bag. I throw it into a pillowcase and just put it in the aft stateroom. It’s soft so it really doesn’t get in the way.

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