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The Hobo Box: Adventures in Refrigeration-Free Microwave Cooking

During the past two years, I spent a lot of time on the road and lived in many different places. I often didn’t have access to a stove, refrigerator or freezer. Not wanting to eat out all the time, I started researching food that would keep indefinitely and that could be eaten either without cooking or using only a microwave.

The result of this research is the hobo box.

What is a hobo box?

A hobo box is a collection of food items and cooking tools that you can use to prepare meals wherever you are. All the items last six months or more without refrigeration, and all can be eaten either cold or with only a microwave.

Originally, my thought was to have one authoritative hobo box with a fixed complement of items, but I’ve since come to believe that customization is important — as in , “What’s in your hobo box?”. Therefore, I have provided a number of different options below. Select the ones you like best.

When might you want to use a hobo box?

  • If you’re gone from your home for long periods and want to be able to eat when you get home without having to go to the grocery store first.
  • If you refrigerator and/or freezer are often full (especially common if you have roommates) and you need to be able to store ingredients without refrigeration.
  • If you travel in your car frequently and want an emergency meal without having to go to a restaurant.
  • If you spontaneously go to visit a friend that doesn’t want to eat out but doesn’t have food in the kitchen. (Just grab a meal from the car.)
  • If you want an emergency meal at work because you forgot your lunch or you’re working late. Just store a few meals in your desk. Even if your office has a refrigerator, it might be cleaned regularly and is therefore not a good option for storing emergency food that you might not eat for weeks.

What’s in a hobo box?

Silverware: You can use regular or plastic silverware if you want. However, I recommend either a titanium spork or a swiss army-style collapsible fork, knife, spoon and can opener.

Here’s a good spork that I own:

Here’s a good swiss army silverware set that I own:

Can opener: Not mandatory, but much, much easier to open cans with than the tiny knife one that comes with the hobo fork, knife and spoon, above.

I just purchased a can opener at the store, but this one is highly rated online:

Containers: Use them to prepare, heat up and store your meals. I recommend plastic containers as they are microwave safe but also light and durable. It’s nice to have a large one for preparing meals and a smaller one for leftovers.

Here’s a large container I’ve used that works well:

* = optional item that requires refrigeration

1. Tuna Roma
2 cans tuna
Ziti pasta
can of mushrooms
Jar of mushroom spaghetti sauce (see if can find in a can instead of glass)
* Mozzarella Cheese
** technically you don’t have to refrigerate Parmesan cheese, so you could use it in the winter

Optionally add on a can of vegetables as a side dish.

Cook pasta, then add it, tuna and sauce (and half the cheese if you have it) in a bowl and cook in microwave for four minutes. (Add the remaining cheese if you have it). Let stand for a few minutes, then serve.

2. Tuna Noodle Casserole
2 cans tuna
1 can of mixed veggies
1 can of mushroom soup
1 can of sliced mushrooms
Bread crumbs
* milk (could use dehydrated milk and water if desired)

Mix all ingredients except for breadcrumbs in dish, then top with the bread crumbs. Cook in casserole dish for 12 minutes. Optionally, stir halfway through the cooking. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

3. Spanish rice and canned chicken
1 can cashews
1 can tomatoes
1 can peas
1 can chicken
1 box Spanish rice

Mix Spanish rice, tomatoes, peas and chicken. Microwave for 10-15 minutes. Top with cashews.

4. Bean Chili
2 cans of tomato sauce
1 can of kidney beans
1 envelope chili seasoning mix
* Chicken, corn and/or sliced tomatoes
* 1/2 pound ground beef

(Heat meat if you have it, with seasoning mix). Combine seasoning mix, tomato sauce and kidney beans. Heat for 6-8 minutes.

5. Creamed chicken
Bowtie pasta
Cream of mushroom soup
Sliced mushrooms
Canned asparagus
Olive oil
* Sour cream
* Chopped onion

Heat pasta into water for 10 minutes, then remove. Heat Chicken in olive oil (with onions, if you have them) for 1 minute. Add soup and mushrooms; heat for 10 minutes. Serve over noodles.

Soup cans
Soup cans are great if you need a very quick meal. They can even be eaten cold if you don’t have a microwave.

The one issue with soup cans is that many of them contain large amounts of sodium. Store brands tend to be especially bad here. Therefore, I recommend sticking with the “healthy” versions of brand name soups — Campbell’s Select Harvest, for example. Prices can vary widely depending on if there’s a sale going on, so watch them and stock up when they’re cheap (ideally, $1.50/can or less).

Chef Boyardee canned pastas (e.g. Beefaroni) are also good in an emergency, but they’re also very salty.


  • Granola bars
  • Protein bars (I like Cliff Builder bars)
  • Raisins
  • Carrots
  • Dehydrated milk
  • Nuts

Other questions:

Are hobo box meals healthy?
Not particularly. You shouldn’t subsist on an exclusively hobobox diet. However, a hobo box meal is healthier than just eating chips or some types of fast food – which is what you might have eaten if you didn’t have a hobo box meal. You can also make hobo box meals healthier by purchasing low sodium versions of ingredients.

Hobo box alternatives

If you have access to a freezer, you can purchase and freeze meat and vegetables, which often taste better than their canned counterparts and last just as long. Of course, frozen items are not portable like canned goods are.

Some of these recipes are inspired by (but not identical to) the ones in A Man, a Can, a Plan: 50 Great Guy Meals Even You Can Make.


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