It’s Almost Like Camping Without Leaving Home

Dear Home Ec 101,
I have a wee problem, and you’re the only people I could think of to ask for advice. We just moved into a new house; we’re renting, but the place didn’t come with appliances. Given the fact that we’re currently getting by with a shelfless mini-fridge, an electric kettle and a large toaster-oven, can you suggest any healthy meals I can cook for myself, my husband and our toddler?
Nova Stoveless in Nova Scotia

Heather says:

Whew, that is a bit of a rough spot! I admire you for reaching out and asking for ideas instead of griping about the situation. I hope you are able to approach your situation as an adventure, knowing that someday you’ll chuckle at what you did to get by. 

First, consider temporarily expanding your cold storage with a cooler and bagged ice, this will help you keep produce on hand that will improve the nutrition of any of your meals. A rice and vegetable steamer will drastically expand your cooking possibilities, as would a crock pot, both of which can be obtained for less than $30. Also, keep a close eye on your area’s Freecycle, you may be surprised by what people give away.

With what you have on hand, here are some meal ideas:

Think open faced hot sandwiches like: roastbeef and cheddar, pastrami on rye, turkey and swiss and tuna melts. Quesadillas also come to the rescue, assemble, filling with cheese, beans, whatever floats your boat. Brush the tortilla with olive oil and bake at 400F for 6 – 8 minutes turning once.

You can bake potatoes, both Idaho and sweet. Try roasting vegetables, by tossing them with a little olive oil and spreading on your baking sheet, experiment with different herbs such as thyme and rosemary. 

Your electric kettle can be used to make instant mashed potatoes, oatmeal, and stuffing. If you have an oven safe dish, you can heat canned soup by adding the hot water from your kettle and then finish heating it in the oven, stirring occasionally. Use the same technique to heat frozen or canned vegetables.

Home Eccers, I would love to hear your ideas for this reader, please feel free to chime in with suggestions for the tools she has available. 


  1. Jerseys on July 15, 2010 at 3:02 am

    Toaster oven: marinate portobello mushroom caps, and roast them in that oven. They're good alone, or topped off with a little cheese and made into a sandwich.

  2. lbertalasseigne on July 15, 2010 at 2:59 am

    Toaster oven: marinate portobello mushroom caps, and roast them in that oven. They're good alone, or topped off with a little cheese and made into a sandwich.

  3. Mom of three on December 12, 2008 at 4:11 pm

    I could totally live without my big stove. I use my George Foreman grill, microwave, and toaster oven for 90% of my cooking. If you can afford it, you might shoot for another mini fridge, although if you have room a cheap large one might be about the same price as two small ones. Bought my last fridge 14 years ago when we bought the house.

  4. Wannabe Housewife on December 12, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    Something I just thought of, if you do get a skillet and can brown ground beef, you can make mushroom burger cups in a muffin tin in your toaster oven. I found the recipe on and they are yummy and kind of unique:
    Mushroom Burger Cups
    18 slices bread, crusts removed
    1/4 cup butter or margarine, softened
    1 pound ground beef, cooked and drained
    1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup, undiluted
    1 egg, beaten
    1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
    1/4 cup chopped onion
    1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
    salt and pepper to taste

    Using a biscuit cutter, cut 2-1/2-in. circles from bread slices. Spread butter over one side of each circle. Press circles, buttered side down, into ungreased miniature muffin cups. In a bowl, combine the remaining ingredients; mix well. Spoon into bread cups. Bake at 350 degrees F for 35 minutes or until golden brown.

    The mini tin in the recipe is used so that the recipe is for Hors d’œuvres. I used a regular sized muffin tin that makes 6 muffins and it turned out well. I think I served it with a fresh green salad.

  5. Judith on December 12, 2008 at 3:00 am

    I echo the need to be very disciplined about menu planning ….. with such small cold storage, it will pay off to plan how you’ll use every scrap of food in there! It means more trips to the store, but think of it like living in Paris and shopping everyday for bread and cheese and veggies.
    I use a toaster oven to make muffins; a six muffin pan fits in mine and it means I can serve corn muffins or cupcakes, or use it to make little mini-quiches for breakfast (bits of leftover veggies with scrambled eggs and maybe some cheese, baked in the toaster oven.)
    A toaster oven could also produce delicious fritattas ….
    I also agree on looking for a crockpot and an electric skillet and a rice steamer. Thrift stores are a good source, as are friends who aren’t using theirs and could lend!

  6. CJ on December 11, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    I know this would be an added expense, but an electric skillet might be a great help. And if you can scrape some dollars together llok for a crock pot- it’s a life saver.

    Focus on the toaster oven. Pouch meals (meat, potatoes, veggies, seasonings wrapped in foil) work very well in the toaster oven.

    The cooler idea is one I’ve employed a few times in my life too.

    If you have a wood burner, you can slow cook food on it in a dutch oven.
    I will try to come up with some other ideas.

    The rest of the posters suggestions are GREAT!

  7. Wannabe Housewife on December 11, 2008 at 6:46 pm

    On the cooler with ice idea: make sure you use good quality plastic bags to put the food in before sticking it down in the ice. Over the summer we didn’t have a fridge and had to use a cooler and the melting ice can be a real pain when it gets through cheaps plastic baggies and soaks your food, yuck!

    In the toaster oven you can also make cornish game hens which are smaller than whole chickens.

  8. Tara on December 10, 2008 at 11:05 pm

    If you can get a larger crock – one of the oval ones – you can roast a whole chicken right in that. You can put stuffing underneath and/or diced veggies around it. Use leftover chicken, veggies, and broth for soup the next day. With the smaller crocks: I have a 1.5 or 2 quart that I put diced veggies on the bottom, 3 chicken breasts on top, a bit of water & seasoning… dinner for 3. (Even with the full oven, most of mine right now is done in the toaster oven & the crocks).

    I haven’t used the 3-crock pots (with the 3 sizes) but they look wonderful, I just saw them for $40. Not sure if that would work for you but worth mentioning.

  9. Keter on December 10, 2008 at 8:28 pm

    I was in a similar situation once and ran a household for four years on a below-the-counter bar refrigerator, a crock pot, a countertop oven, and a gas grill. I managed to do everything but baked goods.

    Here’s a suggestion to expand the capacity of your minifridge – cut up your perishables and place them into plastic storage containers that can stack. You can even use Sterilite shoe boxes that have been thoroughly cleaned. You can use ziploc bags too, but those can stick together and may prevent proper chilling if densely packed. I imagine it is cold up there right now, so if you have an area secured from vermin and large predators, you can store frozen food outside or on a cold porch for cold storage. Just watch the temperatures in case of a warm-up.

    You can make a makeshift grill out of a large coffee can. Punch a few holes around the bottom and throw in a handful of rocks. Place a few pieces of charcoal on top of the rocks and light. Place a metal rack or piece of stiff screen wire or hardware cloth over the top of the can. Instant grill. If you can dig a hole, you can do something similar to make a ground oven – cover the top with foil (or the CLEAN lid of a metal trash can). You can use wood chips or small pieces of deadfall (be careful not to use any preserved wood – it is toxic) to fuel the ground oven.

    I second Heather’s suggestion to look around for a Freecycle group (I think they’re called something else up north…can’t remember the name). I doubt I’ve seen a week go by that there hasn’t been a crock pot offered on my local group, and there have been some large appliances as well.

    You can use this experience to learn some survival skills that may make a big difference one day – your family will still need to eat when the power is out and the roads are impassible. Good luck and better times.

  10. dani on December 10, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    if you acquire a hot plate, you can cook almost anything that you can make with a real stove, but in the mean time, I suggest baked chicken dishes and casseroles. Also, there are a lot of frozen things you can buy that can fit in a toaster oven, we make frozen pizza in ours! Adding things like salads or raw veggies to meals will get your vegetables in.

    I wish you luck, I lived out of a microwave in college, and my roommate and I managed to make a lot of weird things in it. I have faith in you!

  11. Chevalier on December 10, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Try a basic Indian vegetable pulao…I lived on various pulaos for a year in college by varying the ingredients (veggies) and spices every day. You do need a rice cooker, and can usually get one for ~$10-$15….

  12. Milehimama on December 10, 2008 at 5:55 pm

    I lived for a few months in a motel room. We had a crockpot and a minifridge – and 4 children.

    If you have a crockpot you can make ANYTHING!

    Lasagna, casseroles, roasts, soups, and more. Put the veggies in there too for a complete meal. You can also cook chili and beans in a crockpot.

    I even made a cake and a cobbler in the crock, too.

    Baked pototoes with cheese and broccoli, or mini-pizzas made out of english muffins or hamburger buns can be made in the toaster oven. The electric kettle can be used to make oatmeal in the AM (so you don’t have to take up a lot of space in the fridge for milk for cereal.) And, of course, toast can be made in the toaster oven!

    Shelf stable foods will be your friend. PB and honey sandwiches, instead of refrigerated meat and jelly, for example. A toaster oven can also prepare almost anything an oven can – baked chicken, pork chops, ham steaks, bacon, and more.

    I think with your limited refrigeration having a menu plan will be the key to a smoothly functioning household. When I just had the minifridge, I made 1 quart of milk every night for the next day’s use (tastes better if you let it sit overnight). I got a quart sized Rubbermaid water bottle that fit well inside.

  13. Jennifer on December 10, 2008 at 5:45 pm

    A favorite at our house is open faced quesadillas. I use refried beans and top with cheese and broil. Also get creative about what you stuff inside a standard quesadilla. You’re going to have to be very efficient about leftovers since it sounds like you don’t have much for a freezer if anything. Pretty much anything can be chopped finely and stuffed between two tortillas with some cheese.

    Depending on the structure of your electric kettle you may be able to use it for more than heating water. I’d go for it if you’ve got a large opening at the top. Big enough to get your hand in to scrub.

    A mini-crock would be ideal. If there’s a thrift store along one of your regular routes, build it into your routine to stop in at least once a week. Befriend the employees and see when they usually stock the floor and see if they’ll call you when something comes in.

    If your mini-fridge has a freezer, get a bunch of freezer bags. Freeze everything flat. You’ll be amazed at how much you can squeeze in there.

  14. Heather on December 10, 2008 at 4:56 pm

    I checked out that recipe page while brainstorming ideas. You’ll need to read each one carefully as several require other appliances, but it is still a good resource.

  15. tink on December 10, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    Google up some toaster oven recipes – that will help to get you started. This site seems to have a good list to begin with:

    I also agree with the other posters – pick up a crock pot ! Check your local thrift stores or even watch the Christmas sales, you can pick up small ones for as little as 10 dollars.

    During the cold months I do 90% of my weekday cooking in a Crockpot. Soups, stews, even roast chicken, pot roasts..heck, even deserts…you name it.

    There are thousands of good Crockpot recipes online – you’ll find more good, one pot meals than you’ll know what to do with,and the crock pot is something you’ll continue to use even after you get some large appliances in your new home. (It can save you tons of time and money)

    Good luck and enjoy your new home 🙂

  16. Rebecca on December 10, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    This is how I lived all through College really. That toaster oven could be a saviour. I agree with the other ladies though, if you can manage a crockpot or steamer, your options improve a little. And what about a camp stove? Could you do that so you can boil/fry items?

    The toaster oven can grill chicken breasts or fish. I’ve roasted ‘individual’ dinners of chicken breasts, tomatoes, and garlic and served over noodles. The noodles can be any ‘instant’ noodles which are healthy so long as you don’t pour on the package of MSG. That was one of my favorites.

    Lemon chicken (‘grill’ in the toaster oven) on a pita as a sandwich was also a favorite.

    Polenta is really nutritious. If you buy it pre-made and formed into the logs.. you can slice it and bake it in the toaster oven too.

    Lots of veggies roast up well. You might just have to do all the prep work and ‘cooking’ and then sort of last minute reheat the meals before they’re served..

    I know it may sound kind of crazy and I don’t know about the laws of where you are.. but we used to have a brick oven for baking out in the backyard (this was in rural Northern Ontario). You have to be able to light a campfire under neath the ‘oven’ part.. but it’s doable if you can imagine it and there aren’t regulations against this sort of thing in your neck of the woods.

    Take care!

  17. Gnightgirl on December 10, 2008 at 2:39 pm

    Adding a crockpot to your utensils, as suggested above is a great idea; there’s a recipe for just about everything for a crockpot.

    Toaster oven: marinate portobello mushroom caps, and roast them in that oven. They’re good alone, or topped off with a little cheese and made into a sandwich.

    There are lots of asian noodles that don’t need to be brought to a rolling boil, but merely need a soaking in hot water. Try rice or buckwheat noodles, toss with peanut sauce and sliced veggies-red pepper, bean sprouts, water chestnuts, etc. for an asian side dish. Homemade peanut sauce is easy to make, but you might just buy the bottle to get through your current situation.

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