Yes, I have done this, and that is me in that photo up there, eating cold ravioli straight out of a can. That’s my old buddy and shipmate Dave Lankshear (he got shipwrecked in Spain with me many moons ago) spoon-feeding me; this during a small gale we sailed through on a 15-day passage from Bermuda to the Azores on my old Alberg 35 yawl Crazy Horse. But no, I have not done this very often, because usually, even on a boat as primitive as Crazy Horse, it is possible, and not too hard, to eat pretty well while cruising.
Of course, it is very easy to eat well on a systems-intensive cruising boat with a big fridge or two and a freezer and a genset and all that jazz. If you’re lucky enough to be sailing around on a boat like that there’s really no reason to eat much differently than you do at home. Really the only special trick is pre-preparing and freezing some tasty meals for when you don’t feel like cooking on passage.
But if you’re on a simpler boat–one without a fridge, or one with a fridge so small you can’t really put too much stuff in it, with no freezer or reasonable source of AC power for running auxiliary appliances like toasters, microwaves, blenders, and Cuisinarts–then you have to think a bit harder about how to deal with food while cruising.
A typical small fridge box on a typical cruising boat. It’s good for carrying dairy products, some cold beer, and other incidental items that need to be chilled to keep for a while, but it’s not big enough to keep anything in bulk for a long cruise. You may also not have enough power to run it all the time
The most important thing to focus on when provisioning a low-tech cruising boat is FRESH FOOD THAT KEEPS WELL AT ROOM TEMPERATURE. The key members of this species, IMHO, are: rice, pasta, cabbage, onions, carrots, potatoes, beets, apples, cured sausage, and most kinds of nuts. All this stuff keeps for many days, is very tasty, can be thrown together into several different sorts of meals, and is wholly nutritious. Consider it your staple fresh food. Of course, when you’re in port and can go shopping every day, you can eat many more different sorts of fresh food, but this is the stuff you always want to carry when you can’t go shopping for a long time.
Planning a meal on a cruising boat: step one, dice up some potatoes and/or onions; step two, decide what to prepare for dinner
And, of course, there are many other foods that keep at room temperature for lesser amounts of time and should also ride along for as long as they can, including eggs, various types of fruits and vegetables (including especially tomatoes, one of my personal favorite foods), store-bought bread and other baked goods, jams and jellies, and many different sauces and condiments.
An important proviso: any food you plan to keep on your boat unrefrigerated should, if at possible, not have been previously refrigerated. Prior refrigeration greatly reduces the amount of time food will keep without continuing to be refrigerated. This is why roadside farm-stands, farmer’s markets, and open-air markets generally are great places to provision a boat, most particularly when buying produce.
Another important trick: when using any unrefrigerated food kept in a jar, remove it from the jar with a perfectly clean utensil. Once the food in question has been contaminated with any other sort of food, it will go off pretty quickly. This even works for mayonnaise! Mayonnaise will actually keep a long time unrefrigerated if it is never contaminated.
Also, learn about clarified butter and find a source for it. This sort of processed butter can be kept in a jar unrefrigerated indefinitely (provided you follow the clean-utensil rule) and can be used for cooking, though it isn’t so nice when just spread on bread, etc.
On my boat canned food is still a big item on the provisioning list, but mostly it’s canned vegetables (for when the fresh ones run out) and canned meat like chicken, turkey, tuna, and sardines. Stuff like this is good to mix up with some fresh carbs–potatoes, rice, or pasta–and especially with fresh onions, and can be made even more palatable by adding spices, simmer sauce, or any kind of hot sauce. I also buy a few cans of what I consider to be “whole meals,” usually either Dinty Moore beef stew or any kind of chili, that I can just dump in a pan and heat up when it’s too rough to do any proper cooking.
One thing I’ve learned is that (not surprisingly) the French are very good at canned food, so I load up on their stuff whenever I get the chance. French freeze-dried food is also outstanding and can be purchased online, but is also egregiously expensive.
In terms of preparing food, I still very much favor, whenever possible, the one-pan approach. When you’re underway it is just easier, and even when you’re in port it saves a lot of water when cleaning up. My two basic strategies are: a) boil up some rice or pasta, then throw in a bunch of other stuff once it’s cooked (I usually stick to rice on passage, as there’s much less boiling water involved); or b) stir-fry some onions and/or potatoes and throw some other stuff on top.
Another good trick is to prepare some rice or pasta, let it go cold, then throw in some veggies (fresh if you’ve got them, canned if you don’t) and a dash of salad dressing (most store-bought dressings keep a very long time unrefrigerated).
This is my current favorite one-pan meal: stir-fried potatoes, onions, sausage, and tomatoes with a dash of curry sauce. Only the uncured sausage (I favor spicy Italian) need be refrigerated
Whenever you are cooking in a tiny boat galley, planning ahead is important!
As for storing the food, I don’t usually do anything special. If you read accounts by old-style cruisers you may get tricked into varnishing your cans and coating your eggs in vaseline, but this is extremely labor-intensive and, unless you plan not to visit a grocery store for a very, very long time, is entirely unnecessary. If you’re carrying a great deal of unrefrigerated produce for a long time, it is a good idea to store it in a cool, dark space (or at least as cool as possible) and shift it around once in a while. And if you’re storing canned goods in your bilge for a long time, it is smart to strip off the paper labels and mark them with a Sharpie pen.
But other than that, generally speaking, the best place to store food is in your stomach!