What My Mini Fridge Taught Me

As soon as I toured my 175-square-foot studio apartment, I was hooked. It had two windows! It had a bathtub! It even had a closet! It was a New York victory, and I was ready for it to be mine. But, it had one small limitation…

The first time my friend Eleanor stopped by, she whispered, “Stella, where’s your fridge?” as she stared directly and intently at it. My 32-inch appliance came with two teeny shelves, one crisper drawer large enough to cradle approximately six baby carrots and a freezer the size of a single pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. I soothed my kitchen anxieties with visions of takeout and ramen. But after one-and-a-half years of the mini-fridge life, something surprising happened — I started cooking and liking it. Here’s what I’ve learned from my dorm-sized setup:

How to be scrappy
The best part of a mini fridge? Nothing is wasted. There’s no casserole lurking in the depths of the freezer or bargain berries expiring under a pizza box. You can’t “accidentally” forget about those bell peppers you’ve been “meaning” to use. Seeing everything at once forces me to imagine the dinner possibilities (stir-fries, quesadillas, salads) I might have otherwise overlooked.

The joy of five-minute grocery runs
Gone are the days of cruising Midwest supermarket aisles with an extra-large shopping cart. I used to spend my monthly food budget on whatever sounded delicious (read: frozen party appetizers) during that rare, leisurely spree. My current setup allows for less than one week’s worth of food. That means I’m at the grocery store all. the. damn. time. So, I’ve mastered the five-minute trip where I pick up only ingredients I know I’ll use right away. My shopping bags are easier to lug home, my meals are fresher and my overall food expenses have gone down. Plus, I’ve made a few joke-telling cashier friends in the process.

Workhorse ingredients are essential
To save space, I also stock up on ingredients that can produce multiple meals. For example, a big bag of kale and a couple cans of white beans can carry me through with recipes like skillet bruschetta, a hearty minestrone and cheesy mashed beans with a fried egg. Who knew you could live so large with a mini fridge?

Three words: pantry, pantry, pantry
With limited fresh ingredients, dependable dry staples turn up the flavor. I use my $10 California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil like a magic potion. A drizzle adds depth to anything from greens to cavatelli. Other pantry must-haves include flaky sea salt (because you only live once), red pepper flakes (to add a kick), breadcrumbs (for some needed crunch), canned San Marzano tomatoes (to make a homemade sauce to show off), garlic (because garlic), beans (for protein) and couscous, quinoa or lentils (to round out the meal).

Of course, it’s not all great — I miss the days of boxed white wine, frozen pizzas and other luxuries too big for my fridge — but, as my little brother says, “Stella, get over it.”

What about you? Do you have any grocery shopping tricks?

P.S. What’s lurking in the back of your fridge, and 14 genius tips for living in a small space.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)