Vanlife Cooking 101: Must-Have Appliances + 6 Easy Meals

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If there’s one thing every vanlifer can agree on, it’s that there are lots of misconceptions about vanlife. One popular false assumption, is that you can’t enjoy good food while living in a vehicle.

Believe it or not, being on the road doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice nutritious, home-cooked meals. All you need is a solid vanlife cooking set-up and a few easy recipes, and you’re good to go! Keep reading for key tips on cooking in a camper van.

Do You Need to Cook In Your Van?

Those who are new to vanlife might be wondering: is cooking on the road even necessary? For most vanlifers, cooking isn’t an absolute must – you could probably make do with takeout meals or just invest in a microwave and purchase frozen meals. However, if you decide to cook, you’ll enjoy the following benefits:

  • Nutritious meals: While frozen and takeout meals are tasty, they can be quite unhealthy. By making your own food, you maintain complete control over what ingredients go in your body. This is especially useful if you have dietary restrictions or allergies.
  • Lower costs: Takeout meals are convenient, but if you’re not careful, they can quickly put a dent in your wallet. Not only does cooking for yourself save money, but it also gives you greater control over your portions.
  • More security: You never know when you’re going to get stranded on the road or stuck at a campsite. If you have a van kitchen full of ingredients and appliances, you don’t have to worry about going hungry.

Due to the health benefits, affordability and security, most vanlifers (especially those who live in their vehicles full-time) agree you should cook if possible.

What You Need to Cook in a Campervan

What you need to cook in a camper van
@lostriverbuilds on IG | Photo

Cooking on the road is quick, simple and straightforward (provided you have the right supplies). While you don’t need anything too fancy, you should stock up on the basics:

  • Stove
  • Cooking utensils (wooden spoon, spatula, whisk)
  • Eating utensils (knives, forks, spoons)
  • Pans (at least one medium-sized pan)
  • Pots (at least one small pot with a lid)
  • Mixing bowls (at least one medium-sized bowl)
  • Basic seasonings (salt, pepper)
  • Cutting board
  • Oil or oil spray

By keeping these items in your vanlife kitchen, you don’t have to worry about assembling a myriad of tools every time you want to whip up a quick meal. It’s important to note that these are just the basics – feel free to adjust based on your cooking needs. For example, if you like to bake, you might want to add baking pans and measuring cups to the list. Additionally, a small van sized sink is a must-have if you plan to cook frequently.

How to Safely Cook in Your Van

While cooking in a van is very different from cooking in a typical, residential kitchen, the two share some key similarities. Just like with regular cooking, it’s important to follow basic kitchen safety rules. Here are a few campervan cooking safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Use your roof vent fan: When making meals, make sure your roof vent fan is in the “out” direction. This will help keep air circulating and prevent your kitchen from getting too smoky.
  • Install a carbon monoxide detector: Some cooking appliances can release carbon monoxide, an odorless and potentially lethal gas. Installing a detector will warn you if there’s any carbon dioxide in the vehicle.
  • Store foods carefully: Cooking smells can attract wildlife. If you’re parked at a campsite and/or near wild animals, store food properly inside the van to avoid emitting any enticing aromas.
  • Use appliances correctly: Some cooking appliances (like gas and charcoal grills) should only be used outdoors. Similarly, if you want to start a campfire, keep it a safe distance from your van.

As long as you follow these vanlife cooking safety guidelines, you should have no problem producing delicious meals on the road.

6 Super Easy Meals for Vanlife

One thing you can expect when cooking inside a campervan is reduced space. Since most van kitchens are fairly small, you’ll have to rely on very limited appliances and ingredients to make your campervan meals.

Even though you won’t have a fully stocked pantry, you can still make delicious, healthy food. The trick is using recipes geared toward vanlife cooking. Below, we’ve assembled a list of six super easy vanlife recipes that anyone – from professional chefs to cooking amateurs – can enjoy. Not only are the ingredients easy to find, but these breakfasts, lunches and dinners can be made with just a few kitchen supplies.

Breakfast: Loaded Oatmeal

Breakfast Loaded OatmealBreakfast Loaded Oatmeal
@oatymeals on IG | Photo

Vanlife meals don’t get simpler than oatmeal. With a quick preparation time and straightforward cooking process, this simple, nutritious breakfast is the perfect way to start your day. It offers the following benefits:

  • Shelf-stable ingredients: All the ingredients for loaded oatmeal are shelf stable, so you don’t have to worry about spoilage.
  • Customizable: You don’t have to seek out specific toppings for loaded oatmeal – just use whatever you have on-hand.
  • Quick cooking time: Cooking traditional, steel-cut oats takes around 20 minutes. If you want to cut down time even further, there are quick oatmeal packets available that take just a few minutes.
  • Minimal appliances: Oatmeal can be made using a cook top or open campfire.
  • Healthy: Loaded oatmeal is both healthy and filling (depending on the toppings you use).

Enjoy oatmeal plain, or top it off with whatever ingredients you have on stock (such as granola, dried nuts and fruit).

Breakfast: Omelets

Breakfast Omelet
@campstovechef on IG | Photo

If you’re looking for a savory breakfast option that’s easy to make, omelets fit the bill. All you need to whip up a good omelet are the following:

  • Eggs
  • Salt and pepper
  • Butter or oil/oil spray
  • Stove/cooking top
  • Pan
  • Refrigeration system (fridge or cooler)

A great thing about omelets is they provide the perfect avenue to use up spare ingredients. If you have any leftover vegetables or meat from last night’s dinner, or perhaps some spare cheese sitting in the fridge, just throw them into your morning eggs!

Lunch: Tortilla Wraps

Tortilla Wraps Lunch
@foodonnie on IG | Photo

Tortilla wraps are a great option for camper van cooking because they’re quick, easy and highly customizable. They can be assembled in a matter of minutes – all you need to do is heat a tortilla, cook up your filling, then put the filling into the tortilla. Depending on the filling, you might not even need to cook it.

Don’t be afraid to get creative when putting together tortilla wraps. Here are a few ingredients that go great in wraps:

  • Deli meats (such as turkey or ham)
  • Grilled or raw vegetables
  • Shredded cheese
  • Dips or sauces (such as hummus or salsa)

The best part is, you don’t have to go crazy shopping for ingredients – you can use last night’s leftovers or whatever you have in the fridge.

Lunch: Loaded Ramen Noodles

Loaded Ramen Noodles
@foodieemma on IG | Photo

Ramen noodles aren’t just for college cooking life – they’re also a great lunch option for vanlifers. Like all good camper van meals, ramen is quick, easy-to-make and affordable. Simply follow the instructions on the back of your ramen packet, and – in less than ten minutes – you’ll have a warm, delicious meal that’s perfect for a rainy day.

If plain ramen is a bit too simple for your tastes, try dressing it up by adding vegetables, cheese, meat, eggs and any other leftover ingredients you have on-hand. And, if you’re feeling really adventurous, you can swap out the included seasoning packet for your own homemade seasoning. Soy sauce, chili sauce, miso and spices are all great flavoring options.

Dinner: Sautéed Sausage and Zucchini with Bread

Sautéed Sausage and Bread
@sagebistrotrinidad on IG | Photo

Vanlife cooking is all about making the most out of a few ingredients, and this recipe does exactly that. It requires just four, easy-to-find ingredients:

  • Chopped zucchini
  • Sliced sausage (raw or pre-cooked)
  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Baguette (or any bread)

So, why exactly is this dinner great for vanlife? First, most of the ingredients can last for a fairly long time. For instance, pre-cooked sausages keep well in a fridge or cooler for several days, and you can extend the lifespan of your vegetables by refrigerating them. Second, it requires minimal appliances – the entire meal can come together in one pan. And, finally, it’s easy to make and both nutritious and delicious.

Dinner: Stir Fried Tofu and Veggies with Rice

Stir Fried Tofu and Veggies
@thehungarygreek on IG | Photo

One dish that’s almost universally adored is a good old stir fry. Generally, a stir fry consists of vegetables (such as broccoli, onion and snow peas), a protein (like tofu, chicken or beef) and a sauce. This sauce can range from a simple combination of soy sauce and sugar to a more flavorful, complex mixture of soy sauce, chili sauce, garlic and more. Then, the entire thing is served over rice.

Stir fry meals are popular because they’re quick, easy and can be made in a single pan. Best of all, you may swap out the ingredients depending on your preferences or what you have in your kitchen. The most challenging part of this dish tends to be the rice – however, if you’re worried about cooking rice in your van, there are instant rice packets available. They won’t taste as good as homemade rice, but they’ll get the job done.

Van Cooking Pro Tips

It’s safe to say, vanlife cooking poses challenges that traditional, at-home cooking does not. If you want to produce quality meals in your vehicle, you’ll have to make do with less space, fewer ingredients and minimal appliances. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make the process easier.

1) Keep it Simple

When cooking in your van, remember that less is more. A recipe that requires multiple ingredients may taste delicious, but if you don’t plan to use those ingredients again, you’re going to end up wasting space and food. Similarly, a recipe that calls for several burners or appliances may come out great, but it will also increase your cleaning demands. Ultimately, you should stick to basic meals that are customizable and easy-to-make.

2) Shop Often and Buy Little

It’s easy to plan out your groceries days or even weeks in advance when you have a large kitchen and expansive grocery stores at your disposal. Unfortunately, things aren’t that simple on the road. Storing multiple ingredients at once is virtually impossible when you’re working with a small van kitchen. As a result, you’ll probably make small shopping trips every few days.

3) Fancy Gadgets Aren’t Necessary

Just like with your campervan meals, it’s best to keep your cooking utensils simple. While fancy gadgets like air fryers, electric mixers and blenders work great in residential kitchens, they’re simply not versatile enough to earn a place in your van kitchen. Not only do they have limited functionality, but they also consume valuable space. Thus, it’s best to stick with the basics.

4) Leftovers Can Be a Hassle

Leftovers can be a great way to make multiple meals out of one – for example, you could repurpose stir fry leftovers into a wrap, or use extra meat and vegetables in an omelet. However, too many leftovers can be a problem. If you’re not careful, they might start piling up in your fridge, leading to wasted food and space. To prevent this from happening, try to cook the right portions. For example, if you’re cooking for yourself, but your recipe serves two, cut the recipe down in half.

How Do You Cook in a Van Without a Fridge?

How Do You Cook in a Van Without a Fridge
@vw71westybus on IG | Photo

Refrigerators are considered a staple in residential kitchens, but what about in van kitchens? Surprisingly, the issue of refrigeration is a popular debate topic in the vanlife world. Some people will swear that refrigerators are a necessity, while others will insist you can get by fine without one.

Although fridges are extremely convenient for storing perishable ingredients, the truth is, you don’t need one in your van. For some people, the electricity costs and consumed space simply aren’t worth it. However, if you choose to skip the fridge, you will need to do one of the following:

  • Only use non-perishable ingredients
  • Buy a cooler

If you rely solely on non-perishable ingredients, you’ll end up restricting what you can make. Any refrigerated ingredients will need to be cooked immediately, and you won’t be able to store most leftovers.

A cooler, on the other hand, lets you enjoy perishable ingredients (to an extent). Eggs, butter and milk will remain safe in the cooler, but certain ingredients (like meat) should only be bought if you’re going to use them immediately. Coolers also require some maintenance – you’ll have to refill ice every two to three days and keep the water drained. On the bright side, they’re more affordable than refrigerators and don’t take up too much space, which makes them a worthy investment in the eyes of many vanlifers.

Bon Appétit

Now that you know the ins and outs of vanlife cooking, it’s time to start making meals! While you might encounter a few challenges, cooking in your van will become pretty easy (and fun) once you get the hang of it. And, if you have any questions along the way, don’t fret – our team is here to help. Get in touch today!

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