Van Life Cooking: 10 Tips for Making Meals on the Road

Whether you are ready for it or not, cooking in your camper van will be one of your most frequent van life activities. Unless you have the budget to dine out often, you will prepare and cook multiple meals daily. Although we see these gorgeously curated, mouth-watering camper van meals surrounded by nature’s beauty, the reality is that van life cooking can be overwhelming.

You have limited storage space, are forced to cook in a confined area, and wash-up can be a nightmare. Not to mention that clean water is a precious, finite resource. It all adds to a potentially stressful time when cooking in your van! But we believe cooking in your camper van can become a fun and rewarding experience with the right mindset and strategy.

In this post, we put together ten tips to help you prepare stress-free and enjoyable meals. You will learn how to make the most of your limited space, fridge capacity, and resources, all while delighting your taste buds!

If you’re ready, let’s get to it!

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1. Shop Wisely & Plan Meals

Wouldn’t it be great if your camper van had just as much space as your kitchen back at home? Unfortunately, this is rarely the case, and making the most of every inch of space available in your van will be essential. This means it is crucial to only purchase what you need, with careful planning before each grocery trip.

When planning meals, consider what you’ll eat for breakfast, lunch, snacks, and dinner. Creating a list of ingredients ahead of time can make shopping easier. It’s a good idea to purchase a good mix of fresh and dry food to avoid overcrowded fridge and cabinet space.

We usually create a list of fresh food lasting between 5-7 days, depending on our travel schedule and location. If you’re based near a grocery store, taking a more relaxed approach and shopping every other day can be an option. However, buying more than seven days’ worth of food is best if you plan to go off-grid.

2. Effective & Efficient Food Storage

I hate food waste and take pride in emptying my fridge before my next trip to the grocery store. Proper preservation of fresh produce is essential to this goal.

Understanding which vegetables have a longer lifespan and which need to be refrigerated and consumed quickly can be incredibly useful in meal planning. For instance, vegetables that grow underground, like potatoes and onions, typically do not require refrigeration. Instead, a simple wrapping of the individual vegetables in newspaper or craft paper – without cleaning them or leaving any soil residue – will suffice. Stored correctly in a cool and shaded place, these items can last quite a while, preventing unnecessary waste.

Collapsible Food Containers

Space efficient, collapsible food containers. Minimal footprint when not needed, but larger containers can hold a good amount of leftovers. Lightweight and easy to wash.

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Meat or fish must be carefully stored in separate and sealed bags because bacteria can grow in other food. Fish and meat are usually sold in large sizes, so we cut them into meal or bite sizes and put them into Ziploc bags individually.

3. Clear Out the Kitchen Space

Clearing kitchen space before cooking is not just an essential step for cleanliness and tidiness; your cooking experience would be much less stressful, especially in a small area like a camper van.

We all have experiences where you tip over the cups or bottles from the counter and spill the liquid all over the floor (YES, it is a very frustratingly common accident in van life). A cleared kitchen also ensures enough room to move and maneuver as you prepare food, allowing you to work efficiently and safely.

Also, keeping the kitchen clean while cooking is also a good idea. For example, you can wash any utensils used in ingredient preparation, like kitchen knives and cutting boards, while waiting for food to cook. This helps keep the workspace tidy and makes cleaning up after each meal easier.

4. Don’t Be Obsessed With Following Recipes

Most camper van kitchen setups are much simpler than at home. Maybe you don’t have two burner tops, or you don’t own a microwave or oven due to limited space or energy. There are endless possibilities when it comes to cooking, and while the abundance of recipes can be overwhelming.

However, you can find creativity and experimentation while customizing recipes to fit your preferences. Do not let perfectionism stand in your way of exploring and enjoying your cooking journey. 

The beauty of cooking is that you can adapt and customize recipes to fit your preferences, using ingredients you have on hand and substituting as needed; the most critical thing is nourishing yourself with something delicious and enjoyable.

5. Spend a Day to Bulk Prep Side Dishes

A valuable technique for simplifying cooking in cramped kitchens involves prepping a week’s worth of side dishes in advance and storing them in a refrigerator. Pickled side dishes are a great option that can last longer than seven days and effectively preserve leftover vegetables. This approach minimizes the need to worry about side dishes and lets you focus entirely on meal preparation when the time comes.

6. Stick To One Pot Meals

One of the best ways to meal prep in a camper van is to look for recipes that can be made using only one pot or pan. This not only makes preparation less stressful but also makes cleaning up afterward much more manageable. If you are equipped with a robust electrical system, an Instant Pot is one of the most practical kitchen items available. You can pressure cook various vegetables, meats, fish, or beans without having to babysit the process constantly once the start button is pressed. 

Instant Pot Duo Mini (3QT)

The perfect companion when cooking in a van. Throw in your favorite meats, vegetables, and spices, and press the 'start' button when ready. It's that easy. You must have at least a 2000-watt inverter to power this device.

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We love to eat soup, especially in cold weather, and we have been using our Instant Pot in our camper van for the five years we have been. We just put whatever vegetable or meat we have, add some seasoning for flavor, and the meal will be done in 20 minutes. It’s one of our must-have items in van life!

7. Make Easy Access to Frequently Used Seasoning and Sauces

It’s essential to have your ingredients at your fingertips, ready to be used immediately. If you’re constructing a van or designing a kitchen space, creating a spice rack that’s easily accessible is smart. You could opt for shelves attached to a kitchen counter or magnetic spice jars that easily attach to your refrigerator or wall.

8. Be Mindful of Energy Usage

When living in a van, building an adequate electrical system and considering energy use are essential. Relying on one source too much can put a lot of pressure on the electrical system. To keep your van powered up in a good way and avoid losing power all of a sudden, it’s better to use different energy sources.

You can save energy by using different ways to cook. For example, you can boil water with an electric kettle and then use the hot water on a gas stove to cook the rest. It is an excellent way to mix energy sources; it ensures energy availability and helps you be more flexible when traveling in a van.

9. Prewash the Food Scraps

Throwing dirty dishes straight into a dishwasher… well, that’s a luxury of house life that doesn’t apply to van life!

Maintaining the cleanliness of your camper van’s sink water system is critical, as food scraps may obstruct the system and result in a gray water odor. We highly recommend wiping off any food scraps or excess oils using a tissue paper or baby wipe before washing dishes in the sink. By taking this precaution, you will not only prolong the life of your water system but also help conserve water.

10. Soak Dishes in Hot Water

Cleaning greasy dishes can be tricky with limited access to a water source. But don’t worry, you can still make it work!

 When cleaning dishes with too much oil or sauce, like a delicious curry, the fastest way to get rid of the grease is by using hot water. After wiping away the excess dirt with tissue paper, soak the dishes, pots, and pans in a bucket of hot water without soap and scrub them with a sponge. Once done, dispose of the hot water outside and wash the dishes as usual with soap. 

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