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How Do You Cook in a Van?
Well, pretty much the same you would at home. Water boils at 100 degrees, too many cooks spoil the broth and, when you drop it, the toast always falls buttered side down.
But there are some differences. Mostly to do with a reduced amount of space in the kitchen and, sometimes, restricted access to amenities like running water and electricity.
On top of that, enclosed spaces, open flames, reduced ventilation, and portable fuel can present increased risks.
Nevertheless, ideally cooking in a van will become one of your favorite past times on the road. We find ourselves looking forward to the weekends when we have the time to sit down and prepare a delicious meal. One that will hopefully be shared around a campfire overlooking a beautiful view somewhere.
Cooking in a Camper Van Kitchen: Stovetops, Ovens and Microwaves
When it comes to the way you are actually going to cook food, your van life cooking options are pretty simple. And the few choices you do have will be heavily dependent on what type of campervan you have.
Your camp stove may be the single most important item in your van kitchen unless you are planning to make a lot of no-cook van life meals, so you want to make sure you get the right cooker for what you want.
Do you want something that is portable or would you prefer to have something a bit more stable that feels more like a traditional kitchen? Are you ok with carrying around propane or do you have nightmares of your van blowing up while driving down the highway?
These are all things you should consider when deciding on which van life cooking option is best for you.
High BTU Two-Burner Camp Stove
Our personal choice and the option that we have used in all three of our van life kitchen setups is a high BTU camp stove.
The main reason we choose this cooking option is flexibility. We love the flexibility to cook anywhere we want.
If there are swarms of mosquitos outside, we cook indoors. If we are perched on a headland overlooking an amazing sunset, we probably will cook outdoors. And sometimes, we even lug our camp stove down to the beach for flame-grilled steaks with our toes in the sand.
The benefit of a camp stove is that you can literally take it anywhere. The benefit of a two-burner (or even three-burner) camp stove is that you can cook more complex meals than a single burner.
The downside is that you have to set it up every time you want to use it. Another downside is that you could run out of propane while cooking. This, however, is avoidable if you remember to check your LPG (propane) levels regularly.
If you do choose a camp stove, make sure you grab one pumping out heaps of BTUs. High-out put stoves can get a lot hotter. It just packs a bit more punch than your typical camp stove making sure you can whip up some pretty decent meals on the road, and don’t have to spend too long waiting for your water to boil. It also means you can burn through gas more quickly so you’ll need to stay on top of your gas usage to avoid a half-cooked dinner disaster in the middle of nowhere.
Single Burner Camp Stove
The cheapest and most portable of all of the van life cooking options but also the most limiting.
A single burner means that you can only cook one thing at a time. Not ideal for mornings when you need to cook your eggs and coffee at the same time.
Single burners also require a small butane gas canister that will need to be replaced regularly. Unfortunately, these canisters are not refillable and as such don’t win you any ‘green’ points.
Permanent Gas Cooktop
A permanent gas cooktop inside the van is closer to a regular kitchen setup at home.
The downside of a permanent stovetop is that you are stuck where you put it. On the upside, you don’t need to open it up every time you want a pot of coffee.
Permanent stovetops require propane gas similar to a two-burner camp stove and can be single, double, or even four-burner set-ups.
An induction stove uses a process known as electromagnetic induction to heat your pots and pans.
If you are concerned with carrying around a cylinder of gas, then an induction stove is probably your best bet. Other benefits include no open flames in your tiny home, precise temperature control, and rapid heating times.
The downside of an induction stove is that you are going to be using a lot of power so you will need to factor this in when you are determining your solar power needs.
For those who have a little more space inside and couldn’t imagine their van life without oven-baked foods, you’ll be pleased to know that there are options when it comes to ovens for van life.
The first, and simplest option is to use a wonder pot. A wonder pot is designed to simulate oven cooking using the stovetop. You can bake pizza, loaves of bread even cake in a wonder pot.
If you have your heart set on a real oven then there are some options that can bring real oven cooking into the tiny confines of the van.
When looking for a van life oven you are going to want to focus on propane ovens. Electric ovens will draw too much power for most battery banks to handle. You also should also focus on models that have stove components to save space.
If you love the convenience of a microwave, you might be wondering if you can take yours along on your van life adventure.
You will want to focus on small models with a lower power draw, around 600 – 700 watts, this will help you save on space and energy.
Choosing a Van Life Fridge or Cooler
Just as important as heating food up on the road is keeping it cool. And again there are some options when it comes to refrigeration on the go.
Basically, our preference for fridge options goes, portable compressor fridge > cooler with ice > thermoelectric cooler, but there are some things to consider.
12-volt Compressor Fridge for Van Life
If you have the space and the budget a 12-volt fridge and freezer with a compressor is the best option for storing cold foods. These car fridges have low power consumption, less than 5 watts at the maximum draw but they only draw power as they need it. They can keep things super cold as long as you have electricity. On the downside, they are expensive, upwards of $1,000.
Cooler, Ice box, Esky, Chilly Bin
Whatever you call it, there’s a reason these things have been around for a long time. They are a simple and effective solution to a challenging problem. If you are on a strict budget or only using the van occasionally a good quality cooler doesn’t need electricity, won’t break down in the middle of the night, and can keep food fresh for days with a single bag of ice.
Thermoelectric Coolers for Van Life
If you’re looking for refrigeration solutions on a budget you may have come across thermoelectric coolers for about a tenth of the price of a true fridge. Super inefficient these “cool boxes” (which also have a heat function) draw lots of power (5 watts all the time). They only keep things cold that touch the side and they can break easily. We have used these in the past and can’t recommend them.
Equipment for cooking in a camper van
Cooking requires a lot of equipment outside of your stovetop, we get it. From slow cookers to blenders to air fryers, the number of kitchen essentials we think we need to whip up restaurant-quality meals is endless.
In the van, with limited space and limited electricity and running water, you may not be able to take every gadget under the sun. Luckily, what we have found living on the road is that you can get by with a few key items.
Rather than avoid recipes that call for a blender, spice grinder or crockpot we adapt the recipe to our equipment as best we can.
In terms of cooking equipment, you really only need the basics. With these van life cooking essentials, you can make almost anything you could ever want on the road. From stove-top pizza to braised pork shoulder, we have done it all and all from the back of our van. All with a few basic van life cooking essentials.
Great heat properties, non-stick, easy to clean, and food tastes better! We love our cast iron.
Because of the heat properties of cast iron, you can use a cast-iron pot with a lid (or even two pans) to create a dutch oven on the stovetop, allowing more versatility in the kitchen.
Cast iron veterans know that less is more when it comes to cleaning. Simply wipe the pan or pot down after use. Or if they are really dirty maybe a small amount of warm soapy water.
Cast iron is a naturally non-stick surface. But unlike other non-stick cookware, they will not lose this property over time and you can use metal utensils with cast iron.
Finally, food just tastes better on iron. Don’t ask me why but when it comes to searing, browning, or caramelizing, cast iron does the job better than other pans we’ve used.
Saucepan with a Lid
While your cast iron will be where you do the most of your cooking, a good saucepan with a lid will go a long way. Perfect for rice, pasta, and a great substitute for a kettle, a standard saucepan will be used almost daily depending on your meal choices.
Driving around with sharp knives in your van was probably not a lesson that you learned growing up, but a sharp knife will make meal prep a lot easier on the road.
Better yet, grab a knife sharpener to take along with you.
A Good Dinnerware Set
Stainless steel, enamel-coated dining set with plates, bowls, and cups. These durable dining sets last and add a touch more class than eating from plastic bowls every night.
I guess I realized I was old when I first got excited about Tupperware. That being said, these bad boys are switching up the game.
These vanlife cooking essentials allow you to make big meals and save them for later, provided you have a way to keep things cold.
You can also substitute them for cereal bowls, mixing bowls, any kind of bowl you like! When not in use they collapse on themselves to make storage a dream. Get your collapsable Tupperware from Amazon.
Premium Kitchen Utensils
So you’ve decided to adopt the spartan existence that is van life and the rudimentary van kitchen that comes with it. It is time to lift the veil of secrecy and reveal the truth… it doesn’t have to be that basic.
Simple mechanical utensils can transform the cramped van kitchen into your own creative culinary space. Think cocktail shakers, spice and coffee hand grinders, perhaps a Microplane or stovetop espresso maker.
Discover Our Top 25 Van Life Kitchen Products
12 Simple Van Life Cooking Hacks, Ideas and Tips
At the beginning of this article, we mentioned cooking in a van is similar to cooking at home. Well, it is and it isn’t. While cooking in a van and cooking at home are not entirely different, there are a few handy van life cooking tips that we can share from our time cooking on the road.
Tip #1 Consider the Environment You Will Be Cooking In
A lesson learned traveling through a variety of climates and environments.
When a cold wind is whipping up it’s going to be difficult to cook food outside without a lid.
If you are at altitude, water boils at a lower temperature, making it difficult to cook with liquid.
If you are traveling to an area where it is raining all the time, you are going to want to set your van kitchen up so that you can cook inside, and have proper ventilation systems that work even when the car is closed and dry.
If you are traveling through hot regions, you will want to make sure you have a plan to keep food cool so it doesn’t spoil.
Tip #2 Never Turn Your Back on an Open Flame
Ok, so this one really isn’t specific to van life cooking but a great reminder anyway and a lesson we learned the hard way one cold night in the Andes.
Had we not been huddled in the front seat of our tiny Sukuzki trying to stay warm, we may have been able to turn off the flame before our cooker exploded while cooking at a high altitude.
Luckily, we only damaged the cooker and didn’t blow up the car, but it was a great reminder to never turn your back on an open flame.
Tip #3: Carry a Fire Extuinguisher
We got to revisit the above lesson one night when traveling in Australia.
An elderly traveler knocked meekly on our door, asking us softly if we could give her a hand. Figuring she needed help opening a jar or something we were annoyed to be dragged out into the cool night.
Imagine our surprise when we found her van fully ablaze. As we put out the fire with our fire extinguisher, the woman commented that she didn’t know how this had happened, as she hadn’t had a problem with her kerosene stove in the last 30 years!
While it’s not something you necessarily consider for your house kitchen when your stove is so close to your bed, your car, and all your worldly possessions, an extinguisher is a must in your van life kitchen.
Tip #4 Clean Up as You Cook
Unlike at home, you (probably) don’t have a dishwasher handy to take care of things later. Cleaning up as you cook will make your life a lot easier and will keep your tiny space a lot cleaner.
Also, if you are like us, you are probably using your table as your bench space so you will need to clean up as you go to give yourself a place to eat.
Tip #5 One Pot Meals
Less mess is best. Living in a van very often means you don’t have unlimited access to water, a dishwasher, or a bunch of space to wash up.
Save yourself the headache of washing up any more pans than you need to by making a list of handy dandy one-pot wonders. Jumbalaya, risotto, curries, slow-cooked meats, pasta, and stews are just some of the recipes that can be confined to just one pot.
Tip #6 Eggs
Eggs are your best friend in the vanlife kitchen, keep them stocked. They are a great source of protein, keep well, are super versatile and one of the best van life food hacks around.
Eggs are a perfect source of protein if you don’t have access to other reliable sources of protein (traveling in wilderness areas or in developing regions for example).
Another benefit is how well eggs keep*, up to three weeks. And they are easy to transport, just keep a couple of egg cartons on hand if you are getting your eggs at farm gates.
You can use eggs in many different ways! From the humble boiled egg to full meals like shakshuka the opportunities are countless. Some of our favorite van life recipes are huevos rancheros, frittata, carbonara, and omelets.
*If you buy eggs that come out of the refrigerator (or later put them into the refrigerator) they need to stay refrigerated. Unwashed eggs that you get at room temp from stores outside the U.S. or farm-fresh in the U.S. can be stored at room temperature.
Tip #7 Make Sure to Carry a Few Spares
You never know when you will find that special place, the one that makes you want to stay for a few extra days. That is until you realize you are out of food and you have to leave.
Keeping a few of your staple items around will really come in handy on days like this. We find that a pack of pasta, a can of tomatoes, onions, and garlic can really go a long way. Other items we typically keep well-stocked include beans, rice, popcorn (who doesn’t love movies and popcorn), peanut butter, and wraps.
Tip #8 Soak Your Pots and Pans Immediately After Cooking
Trying to remove crusted food from pots and pans can be a hassle on the best day. Try doing it from the back of your car with a limited water supply and no hot water. Impossible.
Soak your pots as soon as you have finished cooking. This simple trick will make cooking in a van so much easier!
Tip #9 Switch Out Meat for Veggies
If like us, you plan to use your vehicle to get off the beaten path then you may find yourself far from the refrigerated section of your local supermarket and without access to a reliable source of fresh meat.
Traveling through developing countries and shopping at village markets is one easy way to motivate yourself to eat less meat. Chickens swaying in the midday breeze and flanks of steak covered in flies dripping blood into the dirt were all the encouragement we needed to adopt a more vegetarian diet.
Vegetables keep well, are easy to prepare, and easy to clean up. Heck, you don’t even need a refrigerator.
We haven’t gone to a full vegetarian or vegan van life diet. We haven’t cut out meat completely, we will buy a small amount when we can buy fresh and prepare it soon after purchase, or we will order meat in restaurants. But a lot of our day-to-day cooking has shifted toward vegetable-based meals. Soups, curries, pasta, burritos bowls, veggie tacos, and stirfries are some of our favorite go-to vegetarian dishes on the road.
Tip #10 Plan Meals Each Week With Similar Ingredients
Meal planning is one of my favorite times of the day. No really. I LOVE to plan my weekly meals out.
Aside from being immensely enjoyable, it is also one of the best ways to cut down on costs and save much-needed fridge space.
When planning meals our strategy is to plan meals with similar ingredients. This is especially true for fresh ingredients like veggies, herbs, dairy, and meat.
In Australia for example, herbs cost a FORTUNE. Herbs and tomatoes. Planning meals where we can use all of the herb bunch we have purchased not only allows us to save money but also reduce waste. How many times have you let that coriander bunch sit in the bottom of the veggie drawer rotting away?
This simple van life food hack will change the way you think about grocery shopping.
Tip #11 Only Buy The Fresh Fruit and Veggies That You Need
This van life cooking tip goes hand in hand with meal planning. Knowing what meals you are going to eat for the week will help you when you do your grocery shopping.
For one, you just simply won’t have the space in your van fridge for unwanted veggies. You will want that for beer. And two, you will do your part in helping reduce food wastage around the world.
Sounds like a win-win right?
Tip #12 Spice Is the Variety of Van Life Cooking
The easiest way to elevate your vanlife cooking and bring the heat to your van life recipes is to buddy up to spices. Spices don’t take up much room and can transform bland ordinary cooking into something special. You don’t need every spice there is, but cumin, oregano, paprika, cayenne, garam masala, turmeric, and some salt and pepper are a good base to start from.
Make sure you have a secure spice rack, some plastic containers for your spices, and a bit of shock cord because the first thing to go when you hit a bump is always the spices!
If you’re feeling really self-sufficient why not grow your own herbs in your indoor van garden?
What Do You Cook in a Van?
The only thing standing between you and delicious homemade meals is your imagination. You can cook almost anything you want in a campervan if you have enough time and the right cooking equipment.
We typically cook easy van life recipes during the week that are packed full of delicious veggies.
We eat eggs, wraps, and fruit almost every day because it’s healthy, easy, and delicious. Lunchtimes are often leftovers, a veggie wrap, or maybe quesadillas. For weekday dinners we concentrate on one-pot wonders that make plenty of leftovers so we are only cooking two or three times during the week. These are meals like vegetable curries and stews.
On the weekends, we like to try to create some new meals. Finding a recipe we love and adapting it to van life is a rewarding and delicious challenge. Pizza, black pepper tofu, fried chicken on biscuits, homemade gnocchi, pulled pork, and lentil ragu are some of the dishes we have tried (usually successfully) to make on the road.
The Best Van Life Cooking Recipes
Cooking on the road doesn’t have to come at a price. Some of our very best meals have been made from the comfort of our tiny home on wheels. Some of our worst cooking moments have also come at the hands of our van life cooking escapades like when we set our cooker on fire in the Andes.
Our van life cooking recipes are often times super simple and easy to make without resorting to bland to boring dishes.
Easy Van Life Recipes
Our easy van life recipes are our go-to meals. The meals we prepare regularly during the week. Most of these meals are vegetarian, make several serves, and keep well for a few days.
A few of our easy campervan meals include rice paper rolls, burrito bowls, vegetarian chili, roasted mushrooms with butter bean mash, emerald dal, pad thai, and a cannellini bean with leek dish.
Check out a few our of favorite recipes below!
- The Easiest Saag Halloumi Van Life Recipe
- The Best Vegetarian Chili: A Vanlife Recipe
- Camping Pad Thai in 30-Minutes, a Van Life Cooking Staple
Vegan Van Life Meals
Full disclosure, we are not vegans. Since living a life on the road and cooking on the road, we tend to incorporate vegan van life meals into our diet more often than not, especially during the week. Most of our vegan van life meals are also super simple, and things that can be done in a single pot.
Van Life Food No Fridge
I know earlier we said a 12-v compressor fridge is absolutely essential. While I still firmly believe this is the case, especially for full-time van lifers, we realize not everyone’s budget can accommodate a $1,500 Dometic fridge.
We have been in your shoes, and it is doable. We traveled through Mexico and South America with a “cool box” which drained our batteries regularly so we get not have a fridge.
Not having a fridge simply means you will need to frequently visit the local markets or grocery stores for fresh produce. You will also need to cook regularly, unfortunately, no leftovers.
Recipes for cooking on the road should be veggie-focused. Many of our easy van life meals and vegan van life meals are perfect for those van lifers without a fridge.
Our Favorite Van Life Cookbook
Full transparency here, we don’t own a van life-specific cookbook, and looking around at the van life cookbooks available on the market, I’m not so sure we want one.
The majority of the more popular “van life cookbooks” seem to offer one of two solutions to van lifers. The first is to have a full-size kitchen on board (or as one book suggests, prep at home before you go on the road), in our humble opinion, that is not a van life cookbook, that is a cookbook marketed to a niche. The second solution is to present recipes aimed at kindergarteners, open a bag salad with safety scissors and serve, or the ever-popular raisins and peanut butter on celery sticks, thanks, but I already know about ants on a log.
That being said there are a couple of diamonds in the rough worth checking out.
New Camp Cookbook
The New Camp Cookbook by Linda Ly might be made for camping but really what is the difference between camping and living full time in the van.
The New Camp Cookbook puts a little bit of pizazz in your van life kitchen. Think dutch-oven lasagna, tin foil seafood boils, blueberry skillet scones with lemon glaze.
You may not have all the ingredients in your cupboard for this one, but this campervan cookbook is perfect for those special van life nights.
Campervan Cooking by Chefs Claire Thomson and Matt Williamson is a great cookbook to have on the road. Delicious van life cooking recipes that are easy on the road.
We love this cookbook as many of the meals are easy to prepare and don’t require a whole lot of fancy ingredients. Things like spinach and paneer curry and egg-fried rice. Campfire classics and one-pot meals.
This is our pick of the litter for easy campervan meals.
Yotam Ottolenghi Cookbooks
Ok, so these cookbooks are 100%, not van life cooking related, nor do they try to be. In fact, many of these recipes are van life unfriendly requiring ovens, specialized equipment, and dozens of exotic ingredients. Nevertheless, we would be remiss if we did not include Ottolenghi’s cookbooks in our list of the best van life cookbooks.
These are our favorite “regular cookbooks”. Yotam makes incredible, mostly vegetarian dishes, and many recipes are, with a bit of tweaking, adaptable to van life.
Now hopefully you are prepared to fit out your van life kitchen, so you can start whipping up some amazing van life meals. If you have found this van life cooking blog article helpful, or if you have a question or a comment please let us know below.
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