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Van Life Cooking Tips: Meal Planning & Cooking

Cooking in a camper van definitely takes some getting used to. You'll have to get creative since there's limited cooking space, materials, and storage room. That's all part of the fun of life on the road, though, and it'll save you some money. This article will give you some expert van life cooking tips for meal planning and making meals in a van. 

Meal Planning 

Food is a significant expense when traveling; however, you can save a few bucks and reduce food waste with careful meal planning. This section will give some tips for cooking on the road

Plan out your Meals

Before heading out on your van excursion, you should write down each full meal you plan to make and list the ingredients required. Try to be as efficient as possible and use the entire portion of whatever you buy. For example, if you need a bag of shredded cheese for one meal, plan another meal where you can use the rest. That way, there's no food waste at the end. 

Also, you have to remember that fridge space is limited. Consider the number of cold items that can fit in your van fridge when you're shopping. Sometimes you'll have to make choices: cold beer or cold food. 

Hot dogs on sticks roasting over campfire

Have a Few Favorite Easy Meals 

Stick to simple meals and family favorites (think: burgers, hot dogs, pasta, tacos, etc.). Making simple dishes will save you a lot of time when grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning. Plus, basic meals require less kitchen equipment, which is a bonus if you're short on space. Another idea is to get pre-made grains like rice packets and heat them on the stove. 

Shop on a Budget

One of the biggest perks of van travel is not having to eat out all the time. However, grocery shopping can get quite expensive if you ignore price tags. Instead, shop at cheaper grocery stores, opt for generic brands, and avoid expensive items like pre-made food.

Consider Vegetarian Meals 

Related to the previous tip, cooking plant-based meals can also be a great way to save money. Fruits and vegetables are a lot cheaper than meat and seafood. In addition, there are many easy vegetarian meals like pasta, stir-fry, and chickpea curry. 

Make Bigger Portions to Have Leftovers

Why cook twice when you can cook once? If you're going to grill hamburgers and hot dogs, make enough to have leftovers for lunch the next day. You can do this for meals that you know the whole family enjoys. Factor this in when grocery shopping and grab doubles of some items.

Get Snacks–Lots of them! 

When it comes to van life, you want to keep cooking to a minimum, so having lots of snacks around is key. Opt for healthier snacks and ones high in protein to keep you full for longer. Our recommendations include trail mixes, granola bars, beef jerky, and apples with peanut butter. 

Bring Extra Food (but not too much!)

If you're going to be off-grid, you should pack some extra food to save you from an extra trip to town or having to leave early. Get some items with extended shelf lives, like beans, lentils, pasta, and canned veggies that you can keep on hand. 

Cooking in a Small Space

Girl preparing a salad in a van

Going from a full-sized kitchen to a mini one in a van may initially seem challenging. Don't worry; there are several ways to optimize your kitchen setup and make cooking in a small area easier.

Prep Everything Before You Start

Before beginning to cook anything, you should chop all ingredients, set out spices, and gather necessary appliances. Doing all the prep work before will save a lot of space and time and make the experience less stressful.

Have an Outdoor Stove

A portable outdoor stove is a great way to expand your camp kitchen. You can handle most of your cooking outdoors if the weather is nice. Plus, it won't use up all your electricity nor take up a ton of counter space. Nothing compares to cooking a delicious meal while gazing at a beautiful view. 

Use Sink Covers

If you are doing most of your cooking inside your van, consider buying sink covers to pop in when you need extra space. Sink covers can double your countertop size. 

One-Pot Meals 

The less equipment you use, the fewer dirty dishes you'll have to clean and the less water you'll use. One-pot meals are advantageous for these reasons. In addition, there are hundreds of delicious and easy one-pot meals you can make on the road– check out Pinterest for some inspiration. 

A family cooks dinner at a campsite over a fire

Bring a Folding Table

Expand your van kitchen into the outdoors. Pack a folding table, and set it up outside for cutting veggies and preparing and serving food. Bring some foldable chairs, and you can also use them for eating meals. It may be smart to bring some non-toxic candles outside or a mesh net to cover food and repel bugs as you cook and eat.

Cleanup and Dishes

You have to be strategic when it comes time to clean up and do the dishes. Water supply is limited, and so is space (sinks, drying areas, etc.). Here are some tips to make the cleanup process go smoother. 

Clean Dishes as You Cook

Everyone has their methods for cooking and cleaning. Some like to leave all the dishes for the end, while others like to clean as they go. In the van, washing dishes as you cook is necessary. Space doesn't allow for piles of dirty dishes, and you may need to use the same bowl for mixing and serving, for example. 

Clean the dishes as you cook, making your van kitchen experience more enjoyable (and practical). At the very least, you should start soaking dirty dishes in a bucket with soapy water, which leads us to the next tip.

Soak Pots and Pans Immediately

Pots and pans, or any other piece of equipment that has food stuck to it, should be soaked immediately after cooking so it's easy to clean later and requires less water. Remove any food scraps with a napkin and throw them away first. Then, soak it to loosen any crusted food.

Use as Few Materials as Possible 

Use as few materials as possible when cooking to save water and space. Try to avoid dirtying extra dishes and get in the mindset of reusing. For example, do you need one bowl for your salad and a plate for your food? Or can you also put the salad on your plate?

A counter with jars full of fires

Kitchen Essentials 

There are a couple of items that you should always keep in your van or bring on your trips. When planning your recipes, consider what equipment you will need to pack. The following items can make a huge difference when cooking in a van. 

  • Keep a Variety of Spices 

Spices are magical. They can make a bland dish way more exciting. One night you can season your vegetables with a certain flavor and then switch up the spice the next night. 

  • Olive Oil and Vinegar 

These condiments are great to have on hand for marinating, cooking, and using as salad dressings.

  • Cast Iron Skillet 

Cast iron is a multi-functional, sturdy material that you can use to cook various meals. Plus, you can also put it over a fire without damaging it.

  • Invest in a Good Knife

It's essential to have at least one reliable, sharp knife that you can use for veggies, fruits, meats, etc. 

  • Collapsible Items 

Opt for collapsible items like colanders, measuring cups, etc. 

  • Easy-to-Clean Coffee Maker 

Whether you prefer a French press, aero press, or another type of coffee maker, choose one that is easy to clean and doesn't take up too much space. 

  • Tupperware

Tupperware can be multi-functional. You can use it to store silverware and also for leftovers. Bring a few different sizes. 

  • Insulated Mug 

Invest in a stainless steel, insulated mug that you can use for warm and cold beverages. 

  • A Large and Small Pot

If you're cooking for a family or want to try one-pot meals, you will need one large pot. However, it's a good idea also to have a smaller one for boiling eggs, hot drinking water, etc. 

Wrapping Up 

Going from a full kitchen to a van kitchen will take some adjusting. However, preparing before a trip, prepping meals, optimizing kitchen space, and adopting a minimalist approach to cooking will help you master the van kitchen. Use these easy van-life cooking tips to make your experience effortless and stress-free.

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