Illustration by Cathryn Virginia

What It's Like to Prep for the Pandemic with Just a Mini Fridge

"My freezer is, no joke, smaller than a shoe box."
May 4, 2020, 11:57am

Katelyn Perry's studio apartment in Los Angeles has a very small kitchen. The studio is so small, in fact, that it "doesn't have a kitchen, really," Perry told VICE. Instead, a desk acts as the counter space, and a three-drawer system works as the cabinets. There is no stove or oven, so she and her boyfriend rely on an induction burner, a toaster oven, a crockpot, and a blender; a mini fridge, the size you'd find in a hotel, holds fixings for smoothies.

They chose the studio for its price, and having lived there since 2018, Perry has made the small space work. Before moving to LA, they had a "regular-sized kitchen with a stove and an oven." Now, their meals are simpler—rice and beans or soup cooked in small batches since all dishes must be done in the small bathroom sink. Normally, the pair shop for groceries weekly, but with LA's stay-at-home order in place until at least May 15, they're limiting trips to once or twice a month. The small stockpile at home must stretch even further.

As cities and states nationwide have enacted shelter-in-place measures during the pandemic, the typical guidance has been to have at least two weeks worth of food on-hand. The rise of panic buying has suggested, however, that some people may even be doing more than that. Just as having the money to stock up is a privilege, so is having a place to store weeks' worth of food, and for people who live in super small spaces, the pandemic has brought a unique set of food challenges.

Micro-studios in cities like New York and LA might be a shock to people from places where space isn't priced at such a premium, but in crowded real estate markets, they can be an affordable option in desirable neighborhoods. People live in them to save money, and because those locations are usually worth it: stores with necessities are open any time, and having restaurants nearby can make cooking unnecessary. In a pandemic, the circumstances are different.

While some tiny studio dwellers might rely on take-out, Perry and her boyfriend have always cooked to save money, using frozen vegetables and shelf-stable goods. Not only must their meals work with limited equipment, but cooking now also requires them to be more resourceful than ever. "It's just being more creative with meals, because of the lack of regular stock in the grocery store. We've been eating things that we didn't even know we could eat before," Perry said.

Caira Button lives in downtown Chicago with her boyfriend and dog in a "tiny" studio (around 450 square feet, she estimates), which she regularly shares on her YouTube channel. Though they could have lived in a bigger space further away, they saw being downtown in a studio as "a much bigger advantage to having more space," Button told VICE.

Like Perry, Button cooks regularly, having found a use for every inch of space—the rolling island countertop doubles as the dining table, for example—but she has the advantage of a stove, an oven, and a nearly full-sized fridge. "I work from home in my studio, so cooking dinner is my transition into not working anymore and into my relaxation time," Button told VICE. In a normal week, she would go to the store two or three times, walking everything home.

When the city received its stay-at-home order, she got so many groceries that she needed an Uber for the first time. "I usually cook just about everything fresh because I don't really have that much space to stock up on canned foods, and my freezer is, no joke, smaller than a shoe box," Button said. "But knowing that things were selling out so fast, I really tried to prioritize to get things that could last me longer."

After a week of living under lockdown, Button and her boyfriend decided to stay with family in upstate New York, where they've now been for about six weeks. Aside from the difficulty of simultaneously working from the small space, the grocery situation in the city and the inability to store more food at once contributed to their choice to leave.

"I think we would have been totally fine if we stayed in Chicago, but I would have had to continue going to the grocery store, probably at least two to three times a week. I'm trying, now that I'm not there, to go only once, if that," Button said. Had they stayed, "I would have just been out and about a lot more than I would have liked to have been."

Button is looking forward to eventually returning to Chicago, though the experience has given her a new lens on city life. "A big part of me has always looked at it as life in cities is even easier because I don't have a car, I take public transportation everywhere, I'm able to walk to the grocery store," she said. "But you never think about what's going to happen, if there's a pandemic or a lockdown and suddenly, we're not allowed to leave our 400-square-foot studio apartment. It really made city life seem so much more daunting than it ever had to me before."


Photos courtesy Alexis Stephens

In Bend, Oregon, Alexis Stephens and Christian Parsons of Tiny House Expedition have also gone tiny by choice: they've lived in a 130-square-foot tiny house on wheels for five years to promote a "simple living revolution," as they put it on their website. As Stephens told VICE in an email, their home has offered "a surprising amount of flexibility" during the lockdown, and the current situation has them more grateful than ever for their "cozy recession-proof tiny home," which they own without having to worry about a mortgage.

"Still, we have had to sacrifice on tidiness. The more cluttered look does make our space feel smaller," Stephens said. With about three times more food than usual, the pantry space and mini fridge are stuffed, and the typically clutter-free counters now hold all the bulky overage. It can be frustrating at times like a "complicated game of Tetris." In order to push their grocery trips to once every two weeks, they supplement their storage with a cooler on the porch and by putting extra cans in the car.

Just as some New Yorkers might store extra sweaters in the oven, the shower doubles as storage for boxes of seltzer or laundry baskets. When the city isn't locked down, the pair often shower at the gym, making it less annoying to use it as storage space; now, it's a little inconvenient. "Increasingly, we wish we had a larger tiny home. Seriously, 400 square feet would rock our world right now. That's definitely in our future."

But tiny living isn't all bad. To both Perry and Button, their studio apartment situations have made them more mindful about how they cook. "Ever since we've lived here, we realized the value of how much food we're able to have and how much we're able to buy," Perry said. "I think we ate more casually before, whereas now we plan out our meals, especially now during quarantine. We've been limiting the amount of food that we eat, basically, but we can make it last longer than probably normal people could."

Becoming intentional about food is Button's biggest advice for cooking in a tiny space, especially during lockdown. "Plan out what all your meals are going to be and what you need your ingredients for, so you're not surplus buying things that you're not going to even use," she said. "I need to make sure that I'm only getting things that I'll need and use right away, so that way it's not a waste and I'm not going back to the grocery store every single day."

Though Stephens said that they usually eat the "same thing over and over, because it's easy," the mindfulness of lockdown-prep grocery shopping has helped them discover new foods and revisit old favorites, like refried beans. "One perk of self-isolation for us has been the variety of food we've been cooking," she said. "If we can't shake up our surroundings that much, might as well shake up the meal planning, especially since we're no longer enjoying our bi-weekly meals out on the town."

No matter how much they've adapted, the grass can sometimes seem greener. "On Instagram and stuff, everyone's cooking and making bread, making so many different types of bread, and we can't," Perry said. "Before we moved here, I actually mostly baked, so that's a big difference. Since living here I've only baked twice and it was because I was able to use a friend's oven."

This article originally appeared on VICE US.