Can I roast a turkey by sticking my curling iron in it? And other no-kitchen survival techniques.
October 3, 2010 4:08 PM   Subscribe

Need advice for living through a kitchen renovation. (Or, how to camp out in your own house?)

We're embarking on our last--and largest--home renovation project. We've lived with gutted bathrooms, boarded up living rooms, bedrooms without ceilings, holes in the exterior walls. It's been a long, slow 7 years.

Now, we're doing the kitchen.

We did a partial basement renovation (it is a lovely space), while being aware that we will have to use the laundry room as a kitchen for a few months as well. It will be a tight fit, but I've been living without a working large oven (we use a large toaster oven), gas burners (we have an old, half-working electric stove), and a dishwasher (the one from the 1970's finally died) for quite awhile now.

We're old renovation geeks, so the kitchen project itself--while complex--is not as stressful as thinking about how we will be feeding ourselves and a picky 4 year old, washing dishes, etc. WHILE trying to be as quick and efficient as possible since we will also both be working as this is going on. We're not used to going to the grocery store more than once a week, so that in itself is going to be a huge change in how we spend our time.

I'll have a (very) small sink. Shelves. Counterspace. Lots of drawer space. A large toaster oven (large enough for a 10" pizza or a small roast chicken). A small microwave. A toaster. A waffle iron (which could be used for some waffle-imprinted panini, I suppose.) We'll have a semi-small dorm fridge. We have a grill, but it will be winter before we know it.

What else will make this few months w/o our kitchen more convenient and less stressful. A crockpot (is there one where I could brown the meat before cooking it)? A super nice rice cooker/vegetable steamer? A two-burner hot plate? I'm not opposed to spending a little cash in order to make this experience less painful, keep healthy food on the table, and make cooking efficient. But if I buy kitchen appliances, I'd like them to be nice enough to use in my new kitchen! (I'm sure one of my grad students will take the hot plate off of our hands).

Of course, other kitchen renovation survival advice is appreciated.
posted by jeanmari to Home & Garden (32 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Some will, correctly, criticize what I'm about to suggest because it's not at all frugal:

Take-out. Lots and lots of take-out. From lots of different places. Places you've been meaning to try for a long time. Places you already love. Places that don't cost too much. Etc. Combine that with stuff that doesn't require cooking or refrigeration, like fruits and vegetables, bread, etc., and you're all set.

See? Not frugal. Don't kill me.
posted by The World Famous at 4:12 PM on October 3, 2010

Definitely get the two-burner hot plate that you mentioned. You can pick them up at Target or Walmart for about $20. I think you'll find a burner much more versatile for making quick, easy meals than the other appliances (although the ones you already have are good too).
posted by amyms at 4:17 PM on October 3, 2010

Best answer: I'd be able to get by without a kitchen (and have, actually) with a george foreman grill, an electric kettle and electric skillet. If I had access to even a single burner of a stove, I'd lose the electric skillet and get a rice cooker. Those are the three things I'd make sure to have in your position; an indoor grill, an electric kettle, and a rice cooker. You might want to consider buying a used freezer if you have access to a garage or other space that it could fit; it'd save those trips to the grocery store and you could sell it after if you really didn't keep using it.
posted by lemniskate at 4:21 PM on October 3, 2010

Best answer: Get a toolbox and keep very good kitchen tools in it. For example, keep a good chef's knife and paring knife in sheaths, a steel, a sturdy pair of tongs, etc. Whatever you most use. With space at a premium, you want your favorites close at hand.

I've heard that the George Foreman grill is surprisingly versatile, but I have no personal experience with it. And a compact microwave oven can be pretty good for some things.
posted by phrits at 4:26 PM on October 3, 2010

Electric skillets are wonderful! My mother in law gave me one and I thought it was a strange thing to own, but I use it constantly. And, unlike a hot plate, it's something you could continue using once you get your kitchen back.
posted by something something at 4:29 PM on October 3, 2010

I'd consider buying your new fridge straight away and just plugging it in inside any room that fits it. That way, you can shop and store food as usual, and just bring what you need to your makeshift kitchen in reusable grocery bags. Use the dorm fridge as temporary/daily storage and just shift things around as needed.
posted by xo at 4:41 PM on October 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think xo's idea is a good one. You could also get a chest freezer. Somewhere on the internet (maybe it was here, don't remember), I read about someone keeping their chest freezer in their closet, just because that was where they had the most room. Chest freezers are super-useful.

They're kind of silly, but growing up we had an electric wok. My mom only pulled it out to make the world's whitest fried rice, but it could probably be used to do a ton of things that would be difficult on a tiny electric burner.

Also, while whole birds might not fit in the toaster oven, thighs, legs, and breasts will. I'm a big fan of whole-bird roasting, but when that's not an option, you can always break it down first (or buy pre-broken down chickens).

Do you have a grill? That will greatly increase the variety and quantity of food you can make. When the power would go out due to thunderstorms/hurricanes/poor city planning when I was a kid, my mom would make everything outside on the grill (electric stove), including reheating leftovers.
posted by phunniemee at 4:51 PM on October 3, 2010

I've lived for two or three months at a time with just an electric frying pan (a big one with a lid) and a microwave. The last time I had to do this (these were out of town trips for work) I took my small toaster oven and was able to cook pretty much everything I cook at home. Having a couple of hot plates would probably be more versatile than the frying pan, but I eat a lot of single pot meals like stir frys anyway. Plus the electric frying pan was generally pretty large (good for cooking a lot at once so I had leftovers), but then could be put away in a cupboard. Also you can supposedly roast meat and bake stuff in the frying pan if it has decent temperature controls, although I was never game to try. Anything that is boiled in water on a stove top can be cooked in a microwave in a similar manner. The main benefit I got from the toaster oven was being able to grill pasta dishes or whatever so the cheese on the top melted, plus toasted bagels for breakfast.

I have since bought a crockpot which I adore so would find that a really useful addition. One thing to keep in mind with all of this is that all the bench top cooking devices take up bench space which might be more limited in your temporary set up. It's something I always struggled with (I was in a motel though). I like the idea of keeping your cooking implements in a tool box because you can move it out of the way if necessary. You'll have to keep on top of the dishes but it sounds like you're used to that already.

Not having a freezer was definitely a big pain. You can't keep food frozen in the tiny ice box that those small fridges have, so you'll need to keep an eye on any best before dates for meat etc. Eating more vegetarian food helped with this as the ingredients could generally be stored for longer. I also ate more pre-prepared stuff like tins of soup that last for ages. Make sure you have a stock of tasty, easy to heat up backups in the cupboard. I generally went shopping every five days or so, although I had little other storage space and generally nowhere close I could buy bread.

Realistically, with the set up you're describing, I see no reason why you'd need to live on takeaways unless you wanted to. The toaster oven takes the place of a full size oven, the microwave takes the place of some of the stove top stuff, and you can get something to replace the other stove top functions very easily. It's not ideal long term, but for several months it will be fine.
posted by shelleycat at 4:58 PM on October 3, 2010

If you can buy the fridge/freezer now as xo suggests, then that will take care of all your shopping problems and make the whole cooking experience so so much easier. That's a really good idea. Based on my experience staying in places with different levels of cold food storage availability, not being properly sorted in that area is way more inconvenient than having to adapt your cooking to different appliances than you're used to. Plus having a freezer means you can buy ice cream.
posted by shelleycat at 5:03 PM on October 3, 2010

The biggest pain about being without a kitchen is the ability to wash dishes. Good thinking on the sink - it will be used far more than any appliance.

One thing I tell my clients (I'm a kitchen designer & installer) is that it is a great time to learn about composting while the construction is underway. Food scraps not saved for a future meal can go onto the pile right along with a compostable paper plate/bowl.

It's killing 2 birds with one stone: minimize the headache of washing big things in a small sink, and doing something good for the earth (& maybe a spring garden - or a winter one in a greenhouse :). Takeout is great when you're pressed for time or just want some convenience. But lots of takeout comes in plastic and styrofoam, which aren't compost friendly. Yay for pizza boxes!

I'd say if you were going to buy an appliance both for the interim and its permanent place in the new kitchen, get a dishwasher. The challenge there is how to get water to & from it in the interim.

Sounds like you guys are seasoned remodelers! Happy building!
posted by yoga at 5:05 PM on October 3, 2010

Seconding getting some sort of real sized fridge with a freezer, even if it means hauling the old one into your living room while your kitchen is gutted.

You will get sick of eating out all the time. Make large batches of meals now and freeze them. We mainly did lots of sandwiches, fruit, salads, cereal and reheated stuff from the freezer.

Electric skillet, toaster oven, crockpot, and electric kettle are your friends.

We did buy some paper plates to use, but just kept one set of dishes for each person and washed them in the bathroom sink.

BTW, for cabinets. We figured out what we liked and paid a local carpenter to build and install them for us. It was way more reasonable and better quality than anything we could have ordered from home depot or a manufacturer. My brother and sister in law actually found a set of old high school laboratory cabinets at an architectural antique store and worked with a carpenter to fit them into the kitchen of their historic house. Their carpenter also built some additional cabinets in the same style as the lab cabinets. It looks really, really cool and was not any more expensive than buying a kitchen full of cabinets at a store!

Good luck!
posted by pluckysparrow at 5:07 PM on October 3, 2010

One other survival tip: clean the construction area everyday at the end of the day. Make sure wires & sharp edges are covered or out of reach for little humans or pets. Cleaning every day will make cleanup at the end easier, and keep occupants from tracking debris all over the house. It will be dusty, as I'm sure you know from other projects. (And maybe you already know about the keep-it-clean-daily maneuver as well.)

If you have any other questions, feel free to memail me, I'll do my best to help.
posted by yoga at 5:11 PM on October 3, 2010

My neighbors spent a good chunk of the year mired in a kitchen renovation, and they made many, many sandwiches & wraps.

If they'd had a sink available, I would've lent my Crockpot & suggested the rice cooker. That way, you can have a variety of soups, stews, and vegetable dishes, plus rice and oatmeal.

The George F. grill is nice for grilled cheese but your waffle iron can do that.

On the nights that are too hectic, don't be afraid of takeout!
posted by dragonplayer at 5:11 PM on October 3, 2010

Glass corning-ware 2-quart baking dish with lid that will fit in a microwave, and a microwave to fit it in. You can make rice and boil potatoes or pasta this way, or steam veggies (put a little water in the bottom an turn every few minutes) and free up precious hot-plate space for things that don't microwave well, like meat.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:12 PM on October 3, 2010

Have you given any thought to an electric pressure cooker? I have one, as opposed to a stovetop one because I'm a chicken. Unlike a crockpot (which I am also a fan of) you can brown meat in the bottom. It was a little pricey -- I bought a cuisinart; I saw the sane model on one of those competition cooking shows today -- but I have used it a lot more than I thought I would. Plus if you like to make dried beans it will make your life a whole lot easier.
posted by sugarfish at 5:12 PM on October 3, 2010

Definitely the hot plate. I recently spend a couple of months without my kitchen after storm damage, and the biggest hassle was boiling pots of water for dish washing. Does the space you're using as the kitchen have a decent hot water supply? If not, see whether you can pick up one of those big heater urns that church and town halls use for bulk tea and coffee. Apart from that, keeping your kitchen equipment as simple as possible cuts down on the "everything's in the wrong place and I can never find anything and it's all going wrong AAARRRGGHHH!" factor.
posted by Ahab at 5:20 PM on October 3, 2010

Maybe your child is too young, but when our kitchen was being remodeled, the best thing we did was to pack a single box with bread, peanut butter, jelly, sandwich bags, granola bars and snack cakes/puddings. And a knife. We kept that in our tiny makeshift kitchen area and it made it very easy to pack school lunches.
posted by CathyG at 5:43 PM on October 3, 2010

Best answer: Oh my gosh, thanks for asking this! We will be having our kitchen remodeled next month. I'm planning on using the slow cooker and an electric griddle a lot, and also LOTS of take-out.

As far as washing up, if you have a laundry tub, you can use that for some of your dishes. My kitchen guy said most families he has dealt with opt for paper plates as much as possible, too, for easy clean-up. To keep from resorting to styrofoam or plastic cups, you could have a different glass for each family member. Then each of you uses your glass all day and just washes his/her glass in the evening for the next day.

I'm also thinking of cooking and freezing some foods for later, and getting my Christmas baking done early to freeze for gift-giving.
posted by misha at 5:50 PM on October 3, 2010

All the above is good advice, ESPECIALLY the "make food now and freeze it" part. We had our kitchen gutted and unusable for about 3 months (and then gradually usable for the next few weeks after that) and while I did freeze food beforehand, I wish I had done more. I had all the things you have and I just got really damned sick of "cooking" on a two-burner hot plate. Actually, what I really got sick of was prepping stuff on a fold-away conference table. I would have given anything for a counter-height work surface. That would have made my life so much easier. We ate out more than I thought we would, but I think that was more to get away from the chaos in the house than lack of ability/materials.
posted by cooker girl at 5:57 PM on October 3, 2010

If you have steel pots and pans, I would strongly consider getting an IH portable cooktop. (even if you don't have steel pots and pans, I would get some that would work with an IH cooktop) They are a lot easier to find here in Japan than most other places, it seems, but they work so much better than a regular electric hotplate, and having an extra burner that you can plug in anywhere will be useful even after your kitchen is done!

This website is pretty ugly and utilitarian, design-wise, but appears to provide as much information as you could possibly want about induction cooking.
posted by that girl at 6:11 PM on October 3, 2010

Crock pots are pretty useful, and if you were my friend, I wouldn't mind at all if you came over and borrowed my kitchen to do some "once a month cooking" type things that you could freeze and then reheat in your crock pot, your toaster oven, or on your hotplate--so think about a friend who might be up for that, once your kitchen is toast.
posted by padraigin at 7:23 PM on October 3, 2010

We're in the midst of a kitchen remodel, and have been for... more than a few months now. I know a thing or two about makeshift kitchens:

- Electric water boiler, for oatmeal, tea, instant soup, etc.
- Microwave for "baking" potatoes, cooking frozen vegetables, poaching chicken
- Rice cooker
- Toaster oven. Our favorite method of preparing vegetables is roasting, and it's super easy with the toaster oven. Cut up vegetables, put on a foil-lined pan, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and roast around 375, tossing occasionally, until crispy and starting to caramelize around the edges. Very simple... in general, learn to (temporarily) simplify your meals.
- Cooktop (temporary/portable or otherwise) and frying pan, a small pot, and a large pot. These three will get you far, as long as you're diligent about dishes.
- Two or three mixing/serving bowls, ideally ones which nest into each other to save space.
- At least a minifridge, something larger if you can swing it. We had a minifridge alone for 7 months.
- Ask friends or a neighbor if you can come over and use their kitchen once in a while. Cook enough to feed both yourselves and your hosts - they get a free meal in their own home, and you get to feel like a civilized human being again by cooking in a real kitchen!
- Don't be afraid to wash dishes in the bathroom sink or even the tub. Related: keep your bathroom sink and tub clean.

Good luck!
posted by illenion at 9:20 PM on October 3, 2010

Best answer: I recently went through this, my new kitchen was finished just a few weeks ago. I've mostly forgotten the annoyance now, the new kitchen wipes out all those memories of making do :)

Here's my tips:
1. Definitely agree with xo, buy the new fridge/freezer now and install it in your living room. Having freezer space is essential, and having that lovely shiny new appliance softens the blow of the temporary kitchen. I also have a small chest freezer in the garage, you may be able to pick one up cheap from craigslist. Mine was brand new for less than $200 and is awesome to have even when not remodeling.

2. Batch cook now, and freeze family-size portions. Pasta + meat dishes are good (beef and macaroni, lasagna, chili etc). Keep some frozen veggies in the freezer too, for quick side dishes.

3. Screen off the work area from the rest of the house. This keeps dust to a minimum, means you don't have to worry about your kid going in and touching dangerous stuff when your back is turned, and keeps the clutter hidden from sight. Our contractor built a simple framing (as if for a wall) across the threshold and covered the framing in plastic sheeting, with a zip doorway. Stapled the plastic to the wood framing and taped it at the bottom where the dust comes through. Highly recommended.

4. Feel your pain on the picky eater, I have a picky 3 year old plus a 16 month old. While healthy eating is always a goal, don't beat yourself up when you end up serving something that is not your ideal. You are working, remodeling a kitchen and being a parent. Its hard. We ate more pizza, frozen meals, sandwiches and PB on toast than I liked, but it got food into bellies and was not so stressful. We also broke out the "let's have breakfast for dinner!!" a couple of times - quick, easy and well-received. Microwave some baking potatoes or sweet potatoes, just wrap them up well. Steam frozen veggies in the microwave (eg peas, carrots, broccoli, whatever you like to eat and can buy frozen). Microwave leftovers, and that batch food you made beforehand. Order food to be delivered. Go out and try new restaurants, for the mental break and to get out of the house. Ask friends if you can invite yourselves over for dinner a few times. Like eating out, only cheaper - bring some fruit or a pre-made dessert.

5. I used a microwave, a toaster, a kettle and a gas barbecue. You can use the barbecue as an oven, if you cook things on indirect heat. A crockpot would be awesome for your situation, but I didn't get one because I have too many appliances already.

6. We had to use our bathroom sink for washing up. I put away almost all the crockery and only kept out the very bare minimum (4 people = 4 plates, 4 cups etc). While this does mean you wash up more often, it is quicker than when you have a giant pile. Also giant piles of washing up and a pain in a tiny bathroom sink.
posted by Joh at 9:40 PM on October 3, 2010

5a - by kettle I meant, electric kettle. Also a rice cooker, cook a huge batch up, portion it up and put it in the fridge. You can get about a week's worth of rice from one batch.
posted by Joh at 9:42 PM on October 3, 2010

Almost off topic, but not quite.

I have a painter working on the outside of my house today.

He's brought the fundamentals:

an esky (cooler), an electric kettle, and a microwave.
posted by Ahab at 10:09 PM on October 3, 2010

Nthing paper plates, chest freezer full of pre-made food.

Also - take some vacation time. Your spouse works 24/7 on the house for a week, you and the kid take off to a relative's house to get out of the way. The quicker this is over, the better.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:03 AM on October 4, 2010

Best answer: Use a dishpan or two to go with your tiny sink - that will make your life easier for sure. Also, if you want a counter-height work surface, put bed risers (one or two sets) under a standard-height table.
posted by mskyle at 9:04 AM on October 4, 2010

Response by poster: Great suggestions, all. I chose some best answers based upon our specific situation, but all of these answers were stellar.

We can't put a refrigerator in any other part of our house while construction is going on--but a used chest freezer in the garage or furnace room? Brilliant!

Extra tub for soaking dishes before washing? Excellent!

I need to buy either a rice cooker/steamer combo or a new crockpot anyway. (So suggestions on models of either are appreciated!)

I'm not "all that" as a cook (I wear the toolbelt in the family) so I'm a bit intimidated about whipping up meals to freeze, especially as I have that picky eater and I don't know what survives the freezing process and still tastes good.

I'm intrigued by the pressure cooker, but will probably save on the counter space for now as it isn't the time to learn just one more new thing.

We have the whole cleaning and containment thing down to a science after 7 years. We won't be able to enter the work area from the living area side of the house while work is going on. When we close it off? We CLOSE it off now. Plywood, 3 mil plastic, insulation, the works. We create an alternate entrance into the workspace from the outside.

I wish my kid ate peanut butter and jelly, or any sandwiches at all, really. Or plain noodles. It would make my life SO much easier for this.

Vacation? I wish! :) I'm going to be pretty involved in the project though, so leaving town is not an option. Sigh.
posted by jeanmari at 7:51 AM on October 6, 2010

Well what sort of things does your kid like to eat? Generally meat and pasta freeze well, eg lasagna, beef macaroni, chili, meatloaf etc. Dairy and dairy-based sauces do not.
posted by Joh at 10:55 AM on October 6, 2010

Response by poster: Joh, that is actually good to know, because this kid is ALL about milk and cheese. No tomato (unless it's ketchup!), no rice, no plain noodles, no peanut butter, GAH.

What does she eat? Chicken. Plain chicken. Cheerios. Vanilla yogurt. Cooked carrots. Chicken broth. Avocado. Mango. Bananas. Bread. Babaganouj (yeah, we don't get it either. But I'm not complaining.) Cheese. Red grapes. Homemade cheese pizza. Macaroni & Cheese. Raisin toast, no butter. Plain waffles. We've expanded her tastes into strawberries and apples recently, including unsweetened applesauce. (Whoo! Crazy.) We don't let her tastes dictate our dinner, but we do try to offer at least one of the things she'll eat at every meal, and put a sample of everything else on her plate. She will eat as much as she can of her "one thing", sometimes will taste something new if she's not in a grumpy mood, and politely refuse any more of it. I'm imagining that not many of the things up there (other than the chicken broth, mango or grapes) would survive weeks in the freezer very well.

She'll expand her palate eventually. But good God, it makes meal times hard. And during a kitchen renovation? What a pain.
posted by jeanmari at 5:35 PM on October 6, 2010

Best answer: I'm imagining that not many of the things up there (other than the chicken broth, mango or grapes) would survive weeks in the freezer very well.

True, but most of that stuff doesn't need to be cooked either. You can buy fresh avocado or mango as you need it. Cooked carrots or other vegies can be made really easily in the microwave using an appropriate dish and some water. You can also buy frozen vegetables designed to be steamed in the microwave (they're in special bags) which work very well. Plain chicken can be roasted in a toaster oven and chicken casseroles work amazingly well in the crockpot. You can roast a whole chicken in there too, although I've never been able to get it to work (others swear by it). You can freeze home made pizza dough if you roll that way, or buy pre-frozen bases. Cheese itself apparently freezes pretty well although it can be a bit crumbly afterwards (it's fine for cooking).

Anything casserol-y at all can be either pre-fozen or crockpotted. Anything baked in a dish in the oven covered in cheese should freeze well (including vegetarian things like a frittata). Mac and cheese will probably freeze, I'm always surprised at how well pasta stands up to that, but it can also be made in a toaster oven. Anything that can go tough will go tough during freezing, steak, stir fry, that sort of thing. But they are generally things which can be cooked fairly quickly with an electric frying pan or portable cooktop anyway.

My crockpot was pretty cheap and isn't a fancy brand and it works great. It's a small, round model because there are only two of us, but we've cooked casserole for four in there without a problem. The bigger oval ones are better for putting in big joints of meat or whole chickens, so you might want to think about what you're more likely to use it for. I've never used a rice cooker (don't really see the point) so I have no idea on that one. Rice can be microwaved.

Also, realistically, if your daughter spends six months only eating the things you've listed up there, her nutrition is probably better than some kids get normally. You've got all the food groups covered.
posted by shelleycat at 6:42 PM on October 6, 2010

Best answer: Oh yeah, baking can freeze well too! Both cooked and uncooked cookie dough, for example. Anything breadlike will freeze like, well, bread. Pizza dough as I said above, some kinds of bread dough too (it might slow down the rising). I've never frozen scones but I bet it would work, and maybe denser cakes - like fruit cakes or banana cake.

One of the things I missed the most living in a temporary kitchen was home baking and I don't bake that often as it is. Being able to pull out some dough and make fresh cookies in your toaster oven one day months into the renovation will feel like a real luxary. If you don't bake generally, google a recipe for refridgerator cookies. The dough is supposed to sit somewhere cold before baking anyway and they're really easy to make. You roll the dough into a sausage and warp it in clingfilm, so it will just tuck away in the freezer out of the way.
posted by shelleycat at 6:51 PM on October 6, 2010

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