We live on a boat and find our food where we can, which has made eating very important for us. From our perspective, the carelessness with which ordinary people in Western society eat is astonishing.
I can speak with some authority on the ways different cultures interact with food. We’ve spent years living in foreign lands. On South Pacific islands, there is a limited diversity of food available. It isn’t the limit you might first expect; there are usually several brands of imported canned tuna competing with the local canned, fresh, and frozen tuna. But there may not be any dried, canned, or frozen vegetables, for example. Most people walk to the markets and groceries, so heavy items, particularly drinks, are uncommon. But the limited selection of food doesn’t mean that people eat the same dishes over and over. Every grocery has a good selection of spices.
In Latin America, people are more likely to take the bus to the grocery, so packaging is heavier. Like South Pacific Islanders, Latin Americans eat more fresh fruits and vegetables than North Americans. Vegetable markets run six or seven days a week, and easily out sell the packaged food grocery stores. We had the hardest time finding fruit juice concentrate in Latin America. We eventually realized that fresh squeezing your own orange juice was so inexpensive that no one would pay for concentrate, and so no one would sell it.
Eating food that is local and in season is usually the only option. When imported or out of season produce is available it is usually ridiculously expensive and poor quality. So everyone eats what is being harvested locally.
Our own peculiar sub-culture, long distance sailors, has in common with astronauts and other expeditions that we have limited carrying capacity and long periods between our opportunities to reprovision. This leads inevitably to rationing. And rationing works best in conjunction with other planning. So we obsess about food. I always know in detail how much food we have on board, how long we expect to be until our next port, and what foods we are limiting in our rations. The planning that we have to do for rationing makes sure that we eat well. We don’t have as many opportunities to eat junk and we can’t afford to diminish our supplies by overeating for emotional reasons. Which isn’t to say that we’re some sort of ascetics. There are potato chips on board, we just can’t sit around eating bag after bag all afternoon because were unhappy. We also have the negative aspects of obsession, like fantasizing about what we don’t have.
We have a few recommendations to pass on from our experiences.
In many places where we have travelled, the water is not potable. Or there isn’t any communal water supply. The locals can’t afford the bottled water madness that has caught on in North America. So they filter rain water, or water from a truck. There are filters that will inexpensively make any source of fresh water potable. Boats planning to stop in Latin America should seriously consider these filters.
Cooking fuel is limited as well. Cooking also heats the cabin, which in hot climates is often already uncomfortably warm. This forces us to give some thought to how we cook. The easiest, most obvious thing, is to let nature help. If we’re going to eat something frozen, letting in thaw for a couple hours before we cook it saves fuel. When it is sunny, whatever we’re going to heat sits in the sun for half an hour to warm it up.
You can also make huge differences in your fuel consumption my choosing your food carefully. Macaroni takes about twice as much water to cook as the same weight of spaghetti. Couscous or bulgur take about a tenth as much water as spaghetti does and about a third of what you need for rice. That’s a lot of fuel savings. Instant coffee doesn’t need boiling water, so it uses less fuel than real coffee. Once you start thinking about it you can find lots of ways to use less fuel. In a house, cooking fuel usually isn’t limited but you can keep your kitchen cool on hot days by carefully choosing what to cook.
Cooking an entire meal in one pot is another trick to living on a boat. This not only uses less fuel, but also takes less space, which is quite limited. Chilli, curry, and stew are one pot meals that we eat regularly.
Reduce the Meat
Being a vegetarian is tough, as restaurants and events in many places assume that everyone eats meat. But the less meat you eat aboard the easier your life will be. Finding meat of the quality you expect can be difficult. Once you have it, meat takes a lot of refrigeration and then a lot of cooking; if you undercook vegetables you don’t become ill. So we ordinarily eat meat only a few times a month.
When I was young I’d help my mother bring in plastic bags of cardboard boxes with little plastic bags in them. The norm was three layers of disposable packaging, which was not merely expensive and poluting, but heavy too, which is why the children get enlisted to help. Living on a boat you have limited ability to store or dispose of trash, most of which is packaging. I have four suggestions for reducing packaging: the simplest is to buy the least packaged option when there are alternatives ( this option doesn’t exist in my world ). The next is to buy food in packaging that you can reuse. Plastic peanut butter jars are really useful on a boat. Buying larger sizes also helps. Finally, reusable bags not only for carrying your groceries home but also for grouping your fruits and vegetables and “bulk” items are really good sense. Every bag you reuse is plastic that you don’t have to figure out how to dispose. And for that matter, seltzer machines allow you to reuse bottles, so you don’t have to dispose of trash or carry the weight home.