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Meal prepping is a fantastic way to eat healthily, stay on budget, and be organized. Yet prepping food in advance is tricky if you cannot store it. What happens if you’ve only got access to a tiny fridge space or no fridge at all? Can you meal prep without a refrigerator?
How to Meal Prep Without A Fridge
Not having access to a refrigerator is a challenge if you want to meal prep. However, I’m here to tell you that meal-prepping without a fridge is possible.
Maybe you’re in shared accommodation with a mini fridge or a dorm room where fridges aren’t allowed. Perhaps you’ve no access to a fridge at work or school and there’s definitely no fridge when you’re on the road or camping.
It’s tricky to meal prep in these situations because of the risk of food spoiling. Here are some tips to help you.
Stock Shelf Stable Food
Without a fridge to store perishables, it’s best to stock up on shelf-stable non-perishables. These are excellent basics for cooking, ideal for snacks, and handy for adding to a packed lunch, for example:
- Nuts: almonds, cashews, peanuts
- Bread: rolls, pitas, wraps, crackers
- Spreads: nut butter, jelly, preserves
- Fruit: dried fruit, apples, avocados, pears, oranges, bananas
- Vegetables: tomatoes, potatoes, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, onions
- Grains: oatmeal, couscous, quinoa
- Dairy: eggs, yogurt, milk
- Snacks: pretzels, granola bars, protein bars
Keep the Food Sealed
However healthy your ingredients or well-prepared your meal is, food will spoil if exposed to air for any time. The best way to prevent exposing your food to bacteria is to keep it in a sealed, airtight container. Even shelf-stable foods, which can last for months out of the fridge, will spoil if you don’t keep them airtight.
Decant non-perishable food into sealed storage containers. Meal prep small items into portions in Ziploc bags or bags with binder clips. Label the bags with the date and contents. Peel and chop fruit and vegetables, ready for cooking in the fridge, if you have one. Purchase a good quality glass or plastic containers to store perishable items.
Most meal preppers rely on a fridge as a storage place for prepped meals.
If you know your meal isn’t in a fridge for part of the next day, keep it in the coldest part of the fridge until just before you leave.
Use an Insulated Lunch Container
Take your meal from the fridge and immediately put it into an insulated container. Having an insulated cooler or lunch box is essential for food safety. Choose one that has a built-in freezer block.
Once your food is out of the fridge, its temperature starts rising. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) emphasizes that when food reaches a temperature of 40-140⁰F, it enters the so-called danger zone. Your food is then vulnerable to harmful bacteria that can cause foodborne diseases and even food poisoning.
Once your food reaches room temperature, it will be safe for two hours, but after that, it enters the danger zone, and you shouldn’t eat it. You’ll quickly tell from the smell or taste that the food has spoiled. An insulated container with ice packs is the best option for keeping your food safe and chilled until you can eat it, extending the food’s freshness from two to four hours.
There’s nothing worse than spending ages prepping your low-carb lunches for the week only to find your meal has spoiled in your lunch box. I hate wasting food and am always looking for ways to keep my food fresh and use it all before spoiling.
Fill a Wide-Mouth Thermos
A thermos flask is handy for keeping beverages cool (or hot). It’s also ideal if you want to bring soup for a meal, as it keeps it hot and won’t require reheating.
Make Meals That Don’t Need a Fridge
Part of meal prep is planning ahead. If you know you won’t be able to keep food in a fridge, prepare meals that will remain food safe in an insulated container and tasty at room temperature. For example:
- Grain bowl with vegetables
- Chicken salad with plenty of greens (dressing separate)
- Pasta salad
- Peanut noodles
- Mason jar salad
- Crackers with cheese
My kids are big fans of food served in mason jars. I can give them chia pudding, baked oats, tuna salad, or zoodles, and they will guzzle them. I’ve learned to offer new meals in mason jars, as they’re more likely to try them than if I served them on a plate.
Heat Your Food Thoroughly
Unless you’ve got a salad, heat your food thoroughly to destroy any bacteria.
How to Store Food Without a Fridge
Meal prep fans who don’t have much fridge space should consider other ways of keeping meal prep recipes on hand without spoiling. Here are three ways our grandparents or great-grandparents’ meal prepped.
Without a fridge to keep perishable food safe, dehydrating or drying out food is a feasible option, especially for camping and traveling.
Dehydrating works by reducing food’s moisture content by 80-95%. Bacteria cannot survive those conditions, so you extend the lifespan of your food from days to months.
There are three convenient ways of dehydrating food:
- using an affordable microwave
- in the oven
- with an electric dehydrator.
You can preserve anything from fruit and vegetables to yogurt and curry with an electric dehydrator. Here are some ideas:
- Fruit: apples, apricots, peaches, pears, strawberries, mangoes
- Vegetables: carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, onions
- Protein: ground beef, chicken, turkey, jerky
- Herbs: basil, parsley, oregano, mint
- Meals: spaghetti bolognese, curry, risotto
Once the food is dried, portion it into snack bags or combine it to form meals (e.g., granola, stew). When you want to eat the meal, cover it with water to rehydrate and reheat it if desired.
Canning is another traditional preservation method where you partially cook the food, killing any bacteria, and then seal it until you want to eat it.
If you have access to cheap fruit and vegetables, canning will save you a lot of money, and you’ll always have food available – the original meal prep solution.
The downside to canning is that it’s labor-intensive and time-consuming because you have to:
- Prepare the ingredients: chop fruit, peel vegetables, make brine or syrup
- Cook: make preserves, sauces
- Sterilize glass jars and lids
- Fill, process, and wipe down the jars
- Store the jars.
Another benefit of mason jars? They last for years. I still have some of my grandmothers; all I’ve done is replace the seals.
Fermented foods have experienced a revival over the past few years as health gurus have realized the benefits of a healthy gut.
Fermenting is similar to canning, although you don’t seal the jars: here, you want “good” bacteria to aid the fermentation process. Using brine to kill off harmful bacteria, fermentation produces delicious flavors and healthy foods.
It’s easy to start making fermented foods, particularly kimchi, a spicy Korean cabbage used as a condiment. All you need is some jars, chopped veggies, and salt. Within a few days, you’ll have delicious fermented food that improves the longer you store it.
It is possible to meal prep without access to a fridge. Because of food safety challenges, focus on non-perishable ingredients, or try food preserving methods like dehydration, canning, and fermenting. To transport previously refrigerated meals, use an insulated container or thermos to keep them fresh and safe.
Nathaniel Lee is an avid cook, drawing on his decades of home cooking and fine dining experience. He is a contributing chef at Mashed, and his recipes and contributions have been featured in Tasting Table, Edible Arrangements, Insanely Good Recipes, and The Daily Meal.