Simple Ideas for the Van Kitchen That Every Overlander, Camper and Van Life Cook Should Know
When you picture van life cooking, what do you see? It may be pretty grim. Packets of freeze-dried foods? Cold meals out of a can? Roadkill on a lucky day? Realistically, van life meals and good home-cooked food don’t need to be mutually exclusive. With a little adjustment and some simple van life cooking hacks, there are plenty of delicious meals that can be cooked on the road.
Cooking in a van (or a tent for that matter) could mean limited access to water, refrigeration, even heat. Of course, some van life kitchens are fully equipped with fridges, sinks, and even ovens. Nevertheless, the fundamental challenges remain the same. These tips from the van life playbook can be applied to any mobile kitchen. Whether you are spending a weekend in a fully equipped converted school bus or twelve months in a tent that can be packed down into saddlebags and slung over your unicycle, these van life cooking hacks are sure to find a place in your van life kitchen.
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, chili, curry, and stews are just some of the recipes that can be confined to just one pot.
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 kitchen essentials allow you to make big meals and save them for later, provided you have a way to keep things cold (sorry unicyclers). 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.
Continuing on with revolutionary products that save time and money. You know what’s hard and expensive? Building a fully functional sink in your van. You know what’s easy and cheap? A collapsable sink. Pop it out wash your dishes and then stack it away.
Quality Cast Iron Cookware
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 stove top. 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 caremalising, cast iron does the job better than other pans we’ve used.
Eggs are your best friend in the vanlife kitchen, keep them stocked. They are a great source of protein, keep well, and are super versatile.
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.
Switching Out Meat for More 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 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.
A Good Dinnerware Set
Stainless steel, enamel-coated dining set with plates, bowls, and cups. These durable dining sets last and adds a touch more class than eating from plastic bowls every night.
Keeping Your Cool in the Van Life Kitchen
Portable Fridge > Cooler with ice > Thermo Electric Cooler
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) and can keep things super cold as long as you have electricity. BUT they are expensive, upwards of $500.
If you’re on a budget you may have come across a 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. I strongly advise against getting these. Instead, grab a reliable cooler (Igloo makes a range of affordable effective coolers) and fill it with ice as required.
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, turmeric, and some salt and pepper are a good base to start to 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?
A Couple of 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. Check out our top 4 kitchen gadgets to help elevate your van life recipes and you’ll be cooking like a pro in no time!
What do you think of van life cooking hacks? What’s your tip for cooking on the road? Let us know below!
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