Three years living without a fridge taught us a lot about storing food – and it can help you lower your power bills and enjoy your food more!
Can you even imagine living fridge-free? Who does something like that?
WE did – with our young children – when we spent three years living off-grid in the woods. Not a camping trip, either – we lived there full-time.
But more important than why would anyone live without a fridge is … what can you learn from our experience? Hold on to your hats, because you’re about to learn how to lower your power bill, enjoy your food more and eat really well as you do so.
Bold claims? Yup. But there’s a reason this is one of the most shared posts on my site! (It’s long, though! Just warning you)
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Living without a fridge – with a family of six
With a family of six – four young children and two adults – we spent nearly three years without any cold storage – no fridge, no freezer – and we ate well throughout that time.
You might even say I’ve written the book on cooking simple, home-cooked food with or without a fridge.
It’s called A Cabin Full of Food and it has a five star rating, with over
100 130 reviews! Recently, a fan told me that this belongs on the shelf next to More With Less. Another reader called it ‘All the Grandma recipes’. Thousands of homesteaders are using this – both on and off grid.
Remember, we didn’t have a freezer, either.
Beef stew. Chicken and dumplings. Spaghetti and meatballs. Shepherd’s Pie. Biscuits and sausage gravy. Fresh garden salad. Homemade bread. French toast.
We ate well, and abundantly, all year. Yes, you can have good meals without refrigeration!
And, while you may not be inclined to do the same (because a fridge can be a very convenient thing if used properly), I can show you how, using the techniques that let us live without a fridge for several years, you can enjoy your food more and save yourself money, too. Besides, shortages happen to everyone – wouldn’t you like to know that you can handle a power outage and still feed the family?
Before we moved off-grid, I spent a lot of time wondering how we’d keep our food.
I knew we’d have limited electricity (we had a small solar array at the cabin) and that fridges are insane energy hogs. But, even though I had learned to live with a small fridge, I still couldn’t get past the idea that we need some type of refrigeration.
And in turns out that the answer was right there in front of me.
It was in the stories my grandparents told me.
It was in the vintage cookbooks that I have always loved.
It was in the rhythm of the earth around me.
I am here to show you how we do it, and what we eat, and how you can modify these time-honoured techniques, which made living without a fridge possible for our ancestors, to improve your life. I know you can do this, because I’ve done it.
And although these things would all help and make it all easier, NONE of it requires:
- acreage in the woods
- an icehouse or spring house (although, you know, that would be cool!)
- a home in the Arctic
- specialized knowledge or skills
- tons of money
Keep reading to find out why we chose to live without a fridge. It’s generally the first thing people ask me – generally with a very baffled look on their faces – “Why?”
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Why Choose to Live Without a Fridge?
There were a lot of things we didn’t have in that cabin. No freezer, no fridge, no electric stove, no blender or microwave or crockpot.
But do you know the other thing that was missing from our cabin in the woods?
Huge power bills.
It seems strange to think about it, but the only thing in the kitchen that used any type of power was my propane stove. And no, I don’t live in a particularly cold place. Nova Scotia is quite temperate all year, warmed by the Gulf Stream. In other words, it’s never very hot here, but it’s also never very cold, either.
When we first moved to our retreat, the plan was to manage without refrigeration.
The idea of living without a fridge might seem strange to many, but our goal always was to see how simply we could live, how much we could diminish our footprint on this planet, to see what was possible, what was impossible and what was … well, technically possible but realistically too difficult.
Considering that we came to the cabin with three little children, and a final one was born right there, I know many people wouldn’t even try. Children are enough work when you have all the amenities.
We were determined, though. No fridge. Before moving to the cabin, I had worked hard at minimizing the amount I used our apartment fridge, getting to the point where it was practically empty most of the time.
But there was a little propane fridge at the cabin and we started thinking about how convenient it would be, so when that little fridge proved to be a dud, we bought a new one. $800 Canadian for a propane fridge delivered up the long, lonely dirt road.
It’s not big, though.
At 3.3 cubic feet, it’s smaller than the little freezer on most fridges. But at least it could hold milk, a bit of fresh meat and leftovers.
And, really, that’s about all I was using it for, anyway. Even at 3.3 cubic feet, it was often half empty, and the little freezer in it (YES, it had a freezer) was almost always empty. What a waste of propane!
Problem was, though, it’s a “camping refrigerator” and not intended for long term use (or indoor use, but that’s another matter). And then, it stopped working.
And we didn’t replace it.
There are a few reasons for that, but the deciding factors were our location and the price of a proper fridge. Although propane is definitely available out there, the trucks do not like coming up that dirt road, and frequently they simply can’t. Our propane company actually gave us a second tank, no charge, so that they could come out and fill them once a year. That tells you how bad the road to our cabin is for much of the year.
Yes, we used about 600 litres of propane, total, all year.
So anything we did to limit our propane use was good. Plus, well, a propane fridge would cost several thousand dollars and take up precious room in our small place.
I really do have better things to spend $3000 on.
So what’s the secret? How did we it? As I said, we don’t live in the middle of the Arctic, and everything we do can be done in town. (In fact, we were doing most of these while living in the city.)
The bonus for you?
Every change you make will save you money in power bills!
At this point, you’re either dying of curiosity about this strange family that spent so much time living without a fridge (it’s really not THAT strange, just for North Americans!) OR you’re looking for ways to decrease your power bill with these methods. (Or both?)
Either way, you’re in the right place.
The first step on your journey toward living without a fridge or to just dropping the size of fridge that you need, no matter where you live, is going to be seasonal, local eating. It really doesn’t matter if you’re growing it yourself or buying from the market, but the more seasonal and the more local, the better.
You have probably heard about seasonal eating, right?
Of course, this would be easiest if we lived in a place where food grew year round, but we can still do it in chilly, four-season Nova Scotia.
Decades ago, my grandfather described the weather here as “Ten months of winter and two weeks of bad sledding.” (That leaves six weeks for summer!) Climate change means our winters are shorter than that, but our growing season is still short and our winters long and dark.
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Each season has foods that are traditionally enjoyed in your area. For example, if you butcher your hogs in early December, a slow-smoked and cured ham will be ready just about in time for Easter.
Makes sense, right?
There is no need to refrigerate strawberries if you know that they will be picked and eaten in the same day.
And they should be – strawberries are a short-season fruit that doesn’t keep well unless frozen, dehydrated or turned into juice, jam or jelly. They really are not improved by storage in a refrigerator, and most of us realize that off-season strawberries are … kind of awful. (I mean, they look like strawberries, but …)
In the spring, there is a natural surplus of eggs, which is handy because so many other foods are petering out or completely gone. The last of the potatoes have sprouted and are crying to be planted, so spring is the time to enjoy rice, barley and pasta.
In the summer heat, fresh greens and vegetables abound, making it easier to eat without using meat. When you are living without a fridge, meat is difficult to store during the warm months.
Fall arrives and excess animals are slaughtered, providing the protein necessary to get through the cold winter months. Hearty root vegetables store well in the winter and we see roast dinners, stews and filling soup.
Of course this varies according to location, but every area has its natural rhythm of seasonal foods. In season, food is almost always better tasting, healthier and less expensive.
The trick is recognizing that there are foods for each season and not wishing away the delicious stews of winter because you want summer time strawberries.
Learning to eat seasonally is a GREAT start, but it’s not enough. After all, do I really only want blueberries in August and corn in September? There are time-honoured, low energy ways to keep each season’s food much longer.
Did you catch that? I’m not kidding. There is definitely food storage without refrigeration, and you can even learn how to preserve food for long term storage.
After you have worked seasonal foods into your diet and have stopped wondering why raspberries are so expensive in February (because they are completely out of season and have been shipped by air or stored for months!), it is now time to look at some traditional, non-electric ways to preserve the bounty. Oh, it won’t be just like fresh but sometimes it’ll be better!
I have a post on that – lots of tips on what you need to dehydrate, what foods you can do, and what you can do with it!
We used home-canned meat and vegetables a lot, and I show you here how easy it is to can your own meat at home.
Do not pay attention to people who say that you can put up meat and vegetables using a boiling water bath. I discuss this issue in detail – those old-fashioned, long-outdated preservation methods were proven unsafe decades ago and are still dangerous!
We use all of these, depending on the food, but mostly canning. The one biggest “secret weapon” to living without a fridge is getting to know your pressure canner and the wide range of food that you can put up.
What you get is going to depend on your budget and how much maintenance you want to do. The Presto is much less expensive and lighter but requires rubber gaskets that can wear out (in my case, exactly when I need my canner!). The All-American is far more expensive but is essentially maintenance-free for a lifetime or two.
I put up pretty much everything that I am able to – meat, broth, vegetables, fruit, milk and ghee (the last two aren’t USDA approved) and soup. This means I can put really tasty meals on the table in a fraction of the time that it would take to thaw frozen foods.
In the past, I have made my own unsmoked bacon, back bacon and salt pork and a smokehouse on the property is pretty high on my wish list – after we finish the barn and chicken coop. I do have a tabletop smoker that I am going to try out this summer.
With a proper smoker (NOT a tabletop smoker), it is possible to do more long-term meat storage by cold smoking the meat the way our ancestors did.
This is not the same as modern smoking, which is entirely for taste.
Did you ever wonder why we need to keep bacon and ham cold even though they are traditional foods that our ancestors relied upon? The difference is cold smoking instead of modern hot smoking. Cold smoked meat is much stronger in taste but will keep for months without refrigeration. In a time when not having a refrigerator was the norm for everyone, meat had to be cold smoked.
A root cellar is also a great way to store without a refrigerator or freezer. If you are thinking about living without a fridge or living with less fridge, and a new home is in your future, look for one with an existing root cellar!
In the winter, freezing outdoors can be a good short-term method, but it is not always reliable.
For short term storage, many people will put things like milk in canning jars and submerge it in a rain barrel or a stream outside.
And I will admit that we’ll sometimes pick up a bag of ice at the general store and stick some food in the cooler.
Nothing fancy – I use a plain Coleman cooler like this one. Mine is actually brown, though – when did you last see a brown cooler? It’s the same one my parents used when I was a child – these last forever.
Usually I do this when I have a large amount of meat that I need to pressure can over a few days.
One thing to keep in mind with canning and pickling is the size of the jars. It does us no good to have perishable jam, for example, in pint or quart jars when we can’t use them up. Half-pint jars, which can be used up at one meal, are a wiser choice unless you know that you will always use up the quart.
Not everything needs to be preserved, though!
Some are naturally good keepers, and you may be surprised at what does not need to be preserved or kept cold! I can almost guarantee that you have some things in your fridge that really don’t need to be there.
Keep reading for ideas on foods that you really should NOT be putting in the fridge anyway! Yes, there are foods that don’t require refrigeration!
Now that you’ve adjusted to seasonal eating and learned how to implement different types of traditional food preservation, is there anything left?
Oh, you bet there is!
Use Foods That Don’t Spoil Quickly
Now, that doesn’t mean using food that doesn’t spoil. My grandfather always said
Eat food that spoils, but eat it before it does.
He was a pretty wise man, especially when you realize that he never attended a single day of school, was raised up on a mountain that makes my isolated cabin look positively metropolitan and spoke only Scots Gaelic until his mid twenties. Grandma said he barely spoke English when he was twenty-four and married her.
Anyway, not everything goes bad immediately. In fact, some of the foods that are healthiest and best for you will keep surprisingly well without any special storage.
Homemade bread generally does not go moldy the way storebought bread does. Instead, it dries out and is then useful for making all sorts of delicious foods like French Toast.
Tomatoes (like strawberries) should be eaten quickly and not stuck in a fridge. Tomatoes are sensitive to the cold and exposing them to fridge temperatures will change their texture and flavour.
Raw milk sours but does not spoil, making it great for biscuits, pancakes and much more.
Kefir does a great job of keeping it even longer. Strain it, use the kefir and add more milk.
Unwashed farm fresh eggs, while they do eventually spoil, will last for a surprisingly long time on the counter and even longer in a cool pantry. (To be honest, I have been able to keep commercial eggs for a long time on the counter)
Do you know the best thing for absorbing odors in your fridge, though? Coffee grounds. With that said, you might not want to actually make coffee with it. Keep coffee well sealed and in the pantry.
Fresh herbs absorb flavours, too, which is why homesteaders use them in chicken coops!
We keep butter on the counter and always seem to use it up long before it spoils. The remainder is in a cooler outside during the fall, winter and spring, and we use very little butter in the hottest part of the summer.
And if you use olive oil, please keep it out of the fridge. It needs a cool, not cold, and dark place.
Keep your honey out of the fridge! When it gets cold, it crystallizes more quickly. Honey is pretty amazing, especially raw honey. Did you know that it makes a wonderful dressing for wounds?
Mustard keeps, while mayonnaise doesn’t. Ketchup and relish, if packaged in small jars, can keep for a short time. Hot sauce, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, extracts like vanilla extract (which can be made at home easily) – there are many sauces that keep for years in the pantry.
Garlic and onions are also cold-sensitive but in a different way than tomatoes. If they’re chilled, they think winter has arrived and will begin to sprout and rot. Keep garlic and onions cool (not cold) and dry!
Apples are a hearty fruit that keeps well in a cool place.
It takes only a short time going through the pantry to realize that there are many foods which keep just fine without a fridge. Even hard cheese keeps for a while on the counter in all but the hottest weather. Wax cheese for longer storage. If you make your how cheese, you’ll end up with an incredible amount of whey.
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Well, that’s all fine and good but what about the things that MUST be kept cool? Soured raw milk is great, but it’s not so nice in your coffee. And what about leftovers? The answer is that there are some really great, and really low tech (or perhaps we’ll call it appropriate technology) answers to the issue of living without a fridge and dealing with food that must be kept cool.
In the last year, I’ve found myself drawn to the fridges in other people’s homes. Do you know what I’ve found? We generally stick things in the fridge and forget about them. How many half-used jars are in there, just sitting in chilly limbo until you look at the expiration date and toss it? Even if you do use a fridge, you might be able to use a smaller one if you use the ideas in this article.
Low Tech Tools for Living Without a Fridge
Ever hear the little boy’s advice on how to keep milk from spoiling?
He said to keep it in the cow. Great advice, isn’t it?
If you have a dairy animal, or have access to fresh, unpasteurized milk, that’s an option.
If all we need to deal with is a liter or two of fresh milk, then it is easy to drink or use that in a day. Even at the height of summer, here in Nova Scotia, fresh milk takes longer than a day to sour. And if it sours, it is still usable.
That’s actually one of the nicest things about using fresh milk – it sours instead of spoiling, and there are so very many delicious things that can be made with soured milk.
Then, there is the very old idea of cold frames which will allow gardeners (urban and rural) to extend the season both fall and spring.
Again, it is a low tech tool. Unlike a heated greenhouse, cold frames allow you to keep mature kale, spinach, carrots and other hardy vegetables for much longer, and then allow earlier starting of seeds. So this is an instance of a low tech tool meshing with seasonal eating.
A cooler with ice can be a good, but short-term solution. And yes, that’s as simple as it sounds – if you know you’re going to need to keep that meat cold while getting it ready for canning, pick up a bag or two of ice on your way home.
Years ago, when people just didn’t have the refrigerators we now take for granted, they would build icehouses and store it in blocks, but I am not sure that our winter weather is reliably cold for long enough anymore.
Some people who are living without a fridge (and we’re certainly not the only ones – it’s more normal around the world to not have one, or to only have a small one!) keep a small freezer so that they can get have ice packs. It’s an interesting compromise, because certainly freezers use far less electricity than fridges.
Still, there are old-school, low tech ways to keep food cold:
– Spring house
– Ice house
– Cold cellar
– Chest immersed in running water
We’re still working at expanding our ways to eat seasonally and well, but I think we’re doing pretty well!
The fact is, there are a LOT of different ways to preserve and keep food without constantly using expensive electricity. What ways do you think you could incorporate in order to lower your cost for food storage? Even you don’t decide to try living without a fridge, there is a lot you can do!