Reducing What You Store in the Refrigerator or Ice Box

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2010 • all rights reserved

Got a small refrigerator or just a cooler or ice box? Six tips for reducing what you have to keep in it.

Most boat refrigerators are far smaller than those in houses or apartments.  Ice boxes are usually even smaller.  And when you combine that with less frequent grocery shopping, something has to give!

For me, the answer was two-fold:  not refrigerate items that didn’t have to be, and to use non-refrigerated substitutes for some items, so that I needed to carry less of them.

I’ll start by saying that while I enjoyed visiting towns and villages as we cruised, I really preferred to do a big stock-up every two to four weeks, staying in secluded anchorages in between.  This meant that I had to make the most of the refrigerator space I had.

Don’t Refrigerate Most Condiments

Most condiments don’t need to be refrigerated.  Ashore, most Americans refrigerate open containers of catsup, mustard, jellies, and jams.  Some even keep steak sauce, hot sauce, soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce in the refrigerator.

I kept all of them just in a cupboard and have never had a problem with any getting moldy in the 3 to 6 months it took us to use a container.  For things that we don’t use a lot of, I bought smaller containers so that we’d use them up before they got rock hard.

I know that some people without refrigeration keep open mayonnaise in a cupboard, always being sure to use a clean spoon (or a squeeze bottle) so it doesn’t get contaminated.  Since we had a refrigerator, this was one condiment that I did keep in the refrigerator.


Eggs don’t have to be refrigerated IF they have never been refrigerated.  It’s extremely difficult to find eggs that haven’t been refrigerated in the US, but we could almost always find them in Mexico, Central America and South America (we didn’t cruise there, but did a 4-month camping trip in 2000).

I’ve read that you should coat the eggs with Vaseline and turn them every few days.  I never bothered to, and they kept fine for a month even in summer in the tropics — if you need to keep them longer, you may need to take these steps.

I always cracked the eggs first into a small bowl, instead of into a bowl with other ingredients, just in case one had gone bad.  In six years, only once did I encounter a bad egg (in case you’re wondering how to tell if it’s bad, you’ll know immediately from the smell!). Read more about storing eggs.

Picture of Milk BoxUse “Boxed Milk”

Boxed milk is a cruising staple.  The milk is ultra-pasteurized and vacuum-sealed in boxes similar to juice boxes, typically holding 1 quart or liter.  You can get whole milk, 2% or skim milk. Some people say they think it tastes slightly different from fresh milk; we didn’t.

Boxed milk was sold everywhere in Mexico and Central America.  In fact, in many villages, you could only buy boxed milk and powdered milk — there wasn’t any fresh milk.

In the US, boxed milk can be a little harder to find.  I’ve always been able to get it in Super Wal-marts — in the baking aisle!  Read more about boxed milk.

I’ve kept boxed milk for up to 6 months — I think the official recommendation is more like 3 months.  Shake it up before using it — the milk solids can settle a bit.  Many of the boxes have a re-sealable pour spout, but whenever we were on the move or in a rolly anchorage, I’d transfer the milk into a bottle with a screw top.

You can also buy light cream (“media crema” in Spanish-speaking countries) in cans or boxes — in the US, it’s usually in the Mexican foods aisle.  Evaporated milk, which comes in cans, is not as thick as media crema, but is also a good substitute for refrigerated half-and-half in recipes.

With media crema, you can easily make your own sour cream when you want it — without having to keep it in the refrigeraor!

Use Oil instead of Butter

In many recipes, you can use olive oil or canola oil instead of butter or margarine — and oil doesn’t have to be refrigerated, whereas butter and margarine do.  You can’t use oil for everything, but I found I didn’t need to carry nearly as much butter as I had anticipated.

Side benefits are that canola and olive oils are healthier than butter and margarine, and usually cost less.

Use Canned Fruits and Veggies Along With Fresh

I really like fresh produce.  But canned makes sense for long-term storage.  I used a combination of the two so that we could go longer without re-provisioning.  Often, I’d make salads that were a combination of fresh and canned — such as canned green beans with fresh tomatoes and onions and a vinaigrette dressing (see recipe).  We’d still feel that we were eating fresh veggies without needing to store all the ingredients in the refrigerator.

Use Canned Meat for Some Meals

I know — most of us hear “canned meat” and think “yuck!”  I used to.  Then I learned a number of tips for making great meals from canned meat while on a camping trip in Africa — for more information, see my articles on Using Canned Meats and Canned Meat Meal Ideas.  I used canned meat for about half our dinners, which considerably lessened what needed to kept in the freezer.  And if you only have an ice box, you really can’t store fresh meat.

For several years, we cruised the Sea of Cortez through the entire summer.  Using these ideas to cut down on the actual food in the refrigerator, we had plenty of room for cold drinks without having to head into town to resupply too often.

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  1. Downeast32 says:

    Use raw seeds instead of oil. Also more nutritious. A good cooking oil is sunflower oil.. except there’s no need to keep the oil around. Cook with raw sunflower seeds instead. Cashews also work great. As for “how to saute without oil?” just use water or any liquid, there’s nothing much magic about oil. Seeds are easier to store/keep than oil. Definitely less mess.

  2. Pressed cheese stored in olive oil with herbs does not need to be refrigerated either.

    What Ihave been trying to figure out without success is: Not having a large pressure cooker are there other strategies for preserving fresh vegetables without the need to freeze or refrigerate them?

  3. On the subject of eggs, there are several makers of bottled egg whites with extended, non-refrigerated, shelf lives (one brand advertises 1yr+!). If you can live without the yolk, bottled egg whites are the way to go. Avoid the stuff in the refer section of the American grocery store and look in stores catering to bodybuilders or similar.

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      That sounds really interesting — I’ll have to see if I can find them and try them out! It would be great here in the US, where it’s almost impossible to find eggs that haven’t been refrigerated.

      Thanks for sharing!


      • I found a farm that will keep a dozen out, unwashed and unrefrigerated for me when I call ahead. Ask a local farmer to do that for you.

  4. Thank you for the info! We have chickens at home, as do many of our neighbors in northern NE, it’s a surprise to hear anyone say they have a hard time finding previously unrefrigerated eggs, I hardly ever get them all put away the same day they are laid.

  5. I have not tried this myself but I have heard of cruisers keeping fresh meat well covered in oil in a Tupperware un-refrigerated for weeks.

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      Anything that I’ve read about this, the meat was already preserved by smoking or salting, and the oil simply added another layer to not allow air to the food . . . but I’ve also read that it’s pretty risky for botulism growing. Not something I’d try . . .


      • Mary Jane says:

        I don´t know about weeks without refrigeration, but if you add lots of spices to the oil, and really cover your meat in it, it easily keeps the meat for a week and it tastes great after marinading for so long! another tip, especially for fish: use a 1:1 mix of oil and fresh lemon juice. the juice kinda pickles the scaled filet whereas the oil keeps the air away. I´ve left fish for up to two whole days like this.
        However, please note that none of this works for poultry.

  6. Ghee, which is very similar to clarified butter, does not need refrigeration. It keeps for up to two months once opened and is good for sauteeing as well good on popcorn.

    Also, I’d like to know more about DownEast32’s method for using raw nuts and seeds for sauteeing. Do you toss a few seeds in the skillet first? Grind some nuts to toss in? Coat the item in them…or what exactly? It does sound good. Just need more advice on how to do it, and I agree that no oil, just water, is needed for most things and is healthier.

  7. Do relishes and chutneys need to be refrigerated after opening?

  8. Hi Debi Shaimas! I don’t refrigerate pickle relish and haven’t had a problem with it. Ditto on some corn relish, but we eat it up pretty quickly when I make it! Chutneys are probably okay, but I’d enforce the “clean spoon” rule (or use squeeze bottles) with them or any other relishes so that you don’t contaminate the contents.

  9. Sara Peterson says:

    We have a Farmers Market every Thursday afternoon between 4:00 PM and 8:00 PM. One of the Farmers brings me 2 or 3 dozen eggs (depending on what I asked him to bring me) that he keeps out of the refrigeration as I have asked them to that for me.

  10. How long do you suppose pickled eggs can be stored without refrigeration? Its something we have done in our house since we were kids at Easter, but now as a live aboard, I wonder if this might be useful in a whole new way?

  11. Canning fresh meat. Before we cruise I can my own fresh store bought meat using my pressure cooker. It is a bit time consuming, but easy enough to do. For a six month cruise 2 to 3 cases of canned meat is enough for us two to supplement our fresh food we buy along the way. I can leave my small freezer space for cheeses, butter, bacon, lunch meats, and the fish we catch. I have found that ground meats, pork roast/tenderloins, and beef roast all can well and are the most versatile for various meals. Other cruisers are always impressed to get a pulled pork BBQ sandwich aboard Hello Texas!
    My canned meat meals are ready in minutes which is ever so nice after a hard travel day!

  12. I have one of those European butter dishes that allows you to keep your butter out of the fridge. The butter dish stores the butter upside down under water so no air gets to it. When you open the butter dish, the butter comes out of the water, is dry, and is immediately spreadable since it’s at room temp.

    Imagine a juice glass full of butter resting upside down inside a bowl with a couple of inches of water in the bottom of the bowl. The water acts as a seal preventing air from getting to the butter so it won’t go rancid. The whole getup is designed to fit together elegantly and seals so the water doesn’t splash out.

    The only caveat is that this only works well at ambient temps up to the low-mid 80s. Any hotter than that and the butter is soft enough that it won’t stay inside the dish upside down…it slips out of the dish and plops into the water and you have to fish the glob of it out of the water with a big spoon. Ick.

    So, this works well for 3 seasons, but not at the height of summer, and not in really hot places.

    I store my bulk blocks of stock butter in the itty bitty freezer or fridge, (or sometimes get that canned butter) and my ready-supply for the next few weeks in the European butter dish outside of the fridge.

  13. In Alaska there is the added advantage of a cool bilge. We have a couple if easy-access bilge spots that serve as our “fridge.” In as high as 56-degree water, we’ve kept dozens of eggs (previously refrigerated) for more than a month. Same with cheese, butter, cured meats (like kielbasa and summer sausage and pepperoni, even when we bought them refrigerated). A can of evaporated milk is fine for 3-4 days of coffees (whenever we can, we buy a pint of half and half, which also lasts until finished). Leftovers keep a couple of days. Curious to know if anyone in the Pacific Northwest does the same, as we are headed that way!

    I want to use a squeeze bottle of mayo but am still a bit nervous about that. Anyone with more experience about that? Are there easy ways to tell if mayo has gone bad?

  14. Richard Darling says:

    Re: Boxed Milk.
    As mentioned in your other article, boxed milk does need to be refrigerated once opened.
    To add one more point…in my humble opinion, it tastes much better when cold. So plan on putting the box in the refrigerator at least the night before if you want cold milk for your granola!

  15. Hi, I enjoyed reading all the ideas and would like to take time to comment on the section: Use Oil instead of Butter. Please consider correcting the statements about the side benefits. . . Truth is, BUTTER is BEST for you (containing good fats-your body needs) Olive oil is ok (but not for high temp cooking). MARGARINE IS BAD (contains bad fats-your body can’t process AND (which is worse) CANOLA -(genetically modified organism GMO called rapeseed from Canada = Can ola. Visit Bottom Line: Canola oil is made with a highly unnatural processing method that involves high heat, deodorization and the toxic solvent hexane. Significant amounts of trans fats are formed during this process. Margarine & Canola are the absolute WORST for you! Informing the public to help make healthy choices reflects your concern for your readers and yourself, and for that, I thank you in advance.

  16. Just wanted to thank you for your tips on food storage. I just found your website while searching for how to keep produce without refrigeration. I don’t live on a boat, but I am a long haul truck driver and my refrigerator/freezer is very small. Now I just have to figure out where I can put the things I take out of the fridge! Space is at a premium, fridge or otherwise. I have read several of your articles so far and found them very helpful.

  17. You should not store mayonnaise unrefrigerated after opening.



  18. Lord this is a daily struggle

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