Food and cooking in little homes has been on my mind recently. After staying in Dee’s tiny house, Logan and I realized that our kitchen was filled with excess stuff and if we wanted to live and cook in a small space, we’d have to downsize even further.
The Small Living Journal authors thought it would be fun to devote this issue to food and cooking in small spaces. You’ll read a number of different stories and strategies to deal with cooking in small spaces.
Tell us about your minimalist cooking strategies in the comments section.
Ideas for Future SLJ Issues
We are currently in the process on scheduling the next series of issues for SLJ. If you have any topic suggestions for future issues, please use our contact form to let us know.
I had to laugh when Tammy selected tiny home food management/cooking as the topic of our current issue. Me writing an entry on cooking makes about as much sense as Paris Hilton writing an entry on frugal living.
In my long history of culinary disasters, perhaps my most ignoble moment was managing to set my kitchen cabinets on fire attempting nothing more than to boil a pot of water. My survival strategy when it comes to food is simple… I fall in love with men who LOVE to cook. They cook and I happily do all the clean-up. (Even for the one who made it look like Julia Child had not only been busy in the kitchen but had actually been murdered in said kitchen.)
And when that plan has failed, I either eat out or survive on unlikely combinations such as beer and ice cream and an unhealthy amount of Captain Crunch Peanut Butter cereal. (Yes, Tammy, I can see you sadly shaking your head over there. But I’m being honest.)
What has been interesting, though, is how my cooking and eating habits have begun to change since moving into my little floating home. While my pantry is pretty expansive compared to what you would find in a Tumbleweed, it is still significantly smaller than anywhere I’ve lived previously. There simply is not a lot a room to stockpile items that are likely to be around for a long time. Moreover, trash management can be a hassle in a marina. Any sort of packaging you haul in is also going to need to be hauled out. And I got tired of hauling pretty quickly.
What I’ve noticed as a result is that my diet has shifted significantly away from preprocessed/packaged foods and more towards items such as fresh fruit and vegetables. (Admittedly, some of this has also been a conscious effort on my part to live on something more than just breakfast cereal as I try to improve my general health.) That combined with the fact that I have no patience for cooking times of anything more than a few minutes has translated into my diet starting to vaguely resemble that of a raw foodist.
Additionally, now that I’m spending so much less on housing costs, I have more available funds to invest in quality food. I’m buying organic and locally grown wherever possible. I have two farmer stands within a few minutes of my house and also a fantastic Farmer’s Market in downtown Portland on Saturdays.
I’ve never been much for grocery shopping, but I enjoy farmer’s markets. They’re much more of a social outing and adventure than simply a task to check off my list. I’ve also noticed that if I’ve gone to the trouble of picking something up at the farmer’s market I’m much less likely to let it go to waste than if I just absentmindedly threw it at my cart at Safeway.
All in all, it’s been interesting to see how my shift in housing has had an impact also on my eating. Below I have included a brief tour of my kitchen. (And I just have to note that, once again, I’ve managed to be upstaged by my cat. He’s becoming quite the little camera hound.)
One of the areas of tiny house living not frequently covered online is how one cooks and eats in small spaces. We’ve all seen the tiny kitchens in photos and videos online with the mini-refrigerators, hot plates, toaster ovens, and limited counter space; but we’ve rarely seen how people cook or what they eat. I’m hoping that this issue of Small Living Journal will help begin to shed some light on this topic so that all of us can begin to learn how to eat more simply no matter how big or small our homes are.
I’ve been slowly working toward cooking and eating more simply and wanted to share some thoughts and a recipe website I’m launching that I hope will help more people begin to experiment with simple cooking.
Key Ingredients to Tiny House Cooking
Smart Shopping – Buy only the foods you plan to eat because storage in a tiny house is limited. You’ll also reduce potential waste and spoiled food. This is easier for people that live close to where they shop.
Buy Fewer Refrigerated Foods – Many of us take our refrigerators and freezers for granted but in a tiny house the refrigerator, if you have one, is most likely a mini-fridge. If you are able to shop regularly you may actually be able to virtually eliminate the need to have a refrigerator. At the end of the day the amount of refrigerator space you need really depends on what you choose to eat. Less refrigerated foods means less space and energy needs to be dedicated to keeping food fresh.
Avoid Packaging – The less packaging you buy the less trash you generate. As you can imagine a tiny house can’t have a big trash can and if you peek in your own trash can and recycle bin right now you’ll notice that food packaging tends to be the biggest contributor to our waste stream.
Buy Healthy Ingredients – By all means buy and eat food that is good for you. I’ve begun to think of it like this, if it’s not organic it probably means it was produced with pesticides. Unnatural stuff used to produce like pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, and steroids, are there to produce food more profitably. These foods are often less expensive but does it make any sense to eat them?
Simple Preparation – Cooking simple meals means you’ll need to store, use, and clean fewer pots and dishes. It should also take less time and energy to prepare meals. The most obvious benefit is that simple meals require little space for preparation which means less time working, more time eating and enjoying each other.
Solar Cooking – This is a great way to cook without spending a dime on electricity or combustible fuels. You can buy solar ovens and kits online but you can also learn to build one yourself. My favorite place to look for information on solar ovens is the Solar Cooking Yahoo Group.
Simple Clean-Up -Simple cooking means less time spent cleaning up too. It also means that the need for a dishwasher, a large sink, or even many dishes, is reduced significantly.
My continuing exploration into tiny house cooking has helped me re-think how I shop for food, prepare, eat, and clean up my kitchen. It’s been helping me eat better and save time cooking and cleaning… but I still have a long way to go.
So I’ve launched a website called Tiny House Cooking which will become a free website filled with simple recipes. Right now there are only a few recipes and I’m looking for people to share their recipes. If you have a good recipe and want to share it write it up and I’ll post it on Tiny House Cooking.
I like to eat.
I have to digress here and note that as I have grown up, I have never ceased to be astonished by the amount of time, energy, and sheer activity required in the maintenance of a space and the life it contains. Spending hours preparing a meal and cleaning up after it remains a concept almost impossible for my mind to accommodate.
This makes eating difficult.
So, barring a magic kitchen that prepares my food and cleans the dishes, I’ve discovered that in order to eat food that I can enjoy, the preparation and cleanup must be extremely easy. In order for that to be the case my food storage, preparation, and cleanup station MUST be simple and efficient. Having my own tiny house has given me the unprecedented luxury of designing my own highly functional simple cooking setup.
I’m not going to write about recipes or my philosophical perspectives on food in this issue, except to say that I avoid purchasing meat that isn’t fish, that I’ve started my first garden this year, that I am averse to cooking anything that takes longer than thirty minutes and unlikely to prepare anything that requires more than an hour, and that I rather despise recipes. (Cooking, for me, is almost always an exercise in improvisation, and frequently draws on an idea I like to call MexItalian Fusion).
I would like to talk a bit about my kitchenette, which is something to which I’ve devoted a fair bit of time and experimentation.
Here is the layout.
(Not that It’s actually been entirely implemented yet. Far from it. But I’m pretty sure that this is what it’s going to ultimately be like. I’ll start with what I’ve got so far, which presumably is the most important elements.)
The bulk of the primary storage, preparation, and cleanup is laid out linearly. I have 11.5 sq/ft of counter/workspace which is directly adjacent to the stove. I think this may be the most important thing of all. In my cooking experience, nothing is more frustrating than inadequate prep space located more than arms length from the stove top. (Nothing has delighted me more than having my buddy Dylan, a chef, test out my kitchen and tell me he thinks it’s more functionally designed than most full-sized kitchens – another victory for the design-by-prototype approach.) Eventually, this location will also host a small cabinet for essential foodstuff, as well as recessed under-counter storage, and a couple stools that can live underneath as well for simple eating at the counter.
Directly to the right of the counter space, located under a window, is the little Magic Chef four-burner apartment stove. (The window location is rather crucial because it provides great ventilation). This little champ is only 20 inches wide and less than 24 deep, and more than adequate for the sort of cooking I do. These things are cheap used ($60 dollar range) and as common as flies, and this one is converted over to run on liquid propane. (As is the on-demand water heater. This makes for a completely propane driven kitchen, which lends itself exquisitely to off-the-grid living powered by two 5 gallon propane tanks.)
To the right of the stove is a big, ugly, plastic utility sink. It had been sitting outside the shop at work doing nothing for about a year until I asked my boss if I could have it. It gets the job done for the time being, but if I can find a sink of the same dimensions but with two basins, that’s the sort of thing I really want.
So here’s my big idea for dish cleanup and storage – the little dish cabinet is going to be located directly above the sink (high enough up to avoid banging your head). But it’s going to have an open bottom, and instead of shelves it’s just going to be dish racks, thus integrating dish washing, drying, AND storage. Pretty cool, huh? I’ve heard a rumor that this is common in Spain.
As you can see, there appears to be something located directly under another window, obstructing the access to the sink. This is a little (probably Ikea) rolling island butcher block that I picked up used for $7. It more or less lives in that location, partially obstructing sink access, until it’s time to cook or clean, at which point it easily rolls over a few feet and blocks off access to the bathroom. Not the most elegant arrangement I suppose, but it gives me another 2.5 sq/ft of counter space, some shelving, and utilizes the principle of Sequential Access in a way that’s not terribly inconvenient.
In the corner by the island and the bathroom door is a hypothetical floor-to-ceiling pantry. This will be used for bulk dry food storage, etc.
On the other side of the bathroom door is my latest folly, the newly restored Randall icebox, presumably built in 1921 (if we are to believe the ancient sticker pasted inside the ice compartment).
It was my Christmas present from my parents, who had had it forever. My dad had been using it to store hydraulic fittings for a couple decades. I’ve spent the past six months restoring it, off and on. I stripped out all the old lead paint, tarpaper, and nasty paneling, put in a bunch of extruded polystyrene insulation, and put her back together. Friday I finally inaugurated her with thirty pounds of dry ice, a 12 pack of coca cola, and a gallon of milk.
I’m still working out the kinks, but i’ve got an ice-cold coke for anyone who wants to come visit. Unfortunately that’s about all I can offer. I just checked on it and all thirty lbs of dry ice has all sublimated away in 48 hours. I have to go back to the drawing board on this one – one of the obvious drawbacks of the design-by-prototype approach.
My cooking setup is rounded out by a salvaged charcoal grill I’ve got out on the deck. There’s really not much else I could ask for in a kitchen. Sure a microwave and a toaster oven would come in handy, but they consume a lot of electricity and take up more space than I can afford to sacrifice.
Somehow, I think I’ll get by.
I am not a huge fan of appliances in my tiny kitchen. Besides the inevitable fact that there isn’t much room, I also hate clutter!! However, I do have 3 essentials that I consider my kitchen icons.
Depending on how tiny my living space is, I always have room for my favorite small appliance, the FoodSaver. It comes in several different models, but mine will stand upright to save space on my countertop if I decide to keep it out all the time. Although most people are familiar with what they are, some are not. The FoodSaver is a vacuum pack system used to seal and store foods to keep them fresh for long periods of time.
As with many other appliances it comes with lots of different accessories like different sizes of bags, canisters, bottle stoppers, sealer tops, etc. But, I don’t have alot of those. I do have the Mason Jar Sealer and I love it. I save on alot of the accessories by buying Mason Jars instead of FoodSaver canisters which can be rather expensive. I can also save lots of foods, wet and dry, in Mason Jars without vacuum sealing them. For the most part though, I generally use the bags for meats and solid things while using the Mason Jars for soups & stews.
Now, don’t get the idea that I clutter up my kitchen space with jars and vacuum packed foods because I don’t! You might not think someone living alone would even use one of these things. They are primarily used for larger families that buy bulk food quantities at large wholesale stores. But, I don’t use mine for those kinds of things. I generally go to places that make me up meals I can pack up and save for later. I might buy a meal for 3 instead of 1 and then make them into smaller meals to refrigerate or freeze. Then, I just drop one in boiling water or heat them up in the microwave. In northeastern winters I make up my favorite soups & stews, while in summer months I use it to keep salad stuff and summer fruit items fresher.
My next favorite appliance is a compact freezer that stands upright and opens from the top. The size I get depends on how much space I have, but I never have a very big one. For now (and until I build my tiny house), I generally use just the refrigerator with a freezer that comes standard in an apartment complex.
And last, but not least, I have a small convection/toaster oven that bakes, broils, heats, cooks and toasts. I almost never use the large oven that comes standard in the apartment complex I live in. It uses a lot of electricity and to cook for one, it is not necessary when I have my convection oven. I also use a small microwave to heat foods and make my tea quickly.
But, I don’t really even need all of that! With a little imagination from my simple mind, I create very simple meals like soups, stews and meat, chicken or fish with a salad or those steamer vegetables that you pop in the microwave for a couple of minutes. I never thought vegetables could taste so good yet be so easy…no tedious pickovers at the produce stand, no storing, no cutting, no cooking!! I don’t like alot of ingredients in my meals because I don’t like to store them. I can make very tasty meals with only butter, salt, pepper, sugar and a few select spices. All in all, I try to make all my eating needs very simple.
With all this said, I have to be honest. I am not really a big fan of cooking at all!! I am lucky enough to live in an area where I can get very tasty, healthy, home-cooked meals to go. More often than not, I take advantage of this method since the ingredients are fresh daily and it saves me from having to store alot of stuff for cooking it on my own. While this is a bit more expensive, it has always been cheaper for me than throwing away spoiled food I didn’t use up in time.