Like so many other things, eating and cooking from the cozy confines of a van takes some getting used to. Overnight I went from having a full home kitchen at my disposal to just a camp stove and a plastic cooler. Sarah and I had to quickly learn to organize a kitchen, cook our meals, and keep everything clean while traveling around every day.
The first few weeks were slightly chaotic. Kitchen utensils got misplaced. The original cooler we brought was poorly insulated and several items spoiled. We weren’t even sure about the best foods to buy. Of course we wanted tasty and nutritious food but storability, ease of preparation, and shelf life were also factors that we had to consider.
These problems became more manageable with experience and after a few weeks the kitchen routine started to come naturally. Here are my top 6 lessons (so far) for eating and cooking on the road:
1 – Keep it Simple
Space is precious in a van, so make sure the kitchen contains the essentials and nothing else. The first weeks of this trip showed that an over-cluttered kitchen can be as problematic as being under-stocked. Having too much stuff makes it difficult to find the things that are really needed and after the first week several items had to be removed from the kitchen.
Sarah and I have a couple pots and pans, serving utensils, and 2x plates, bowls, cups, forks, and spoons. We have a few other things, but these items have largely covered our needs.
2 – Organize and prioritize
Things that you use the most should be the most accessible. For instance, I like to eat a bowl of oatmeal or cereal every morning so a spoon and bowl are two of the first thing I see when I open the kitchen. The boiling pots and frying pan get less use, maybe 2-3 times per week, so these are stored a little deeper in the kitchen. At the very bottom are rarely used items like extra fuel bottles. These stored out of sight so they aren’t in the way.
I’ve gotten in the habit of storing dry food according to the same system. Food that I eat all the time sits right on top so I can simply reach in and pull it out at mealtime.
3 – Refrigerate
Refrigeration isn’t essential but it makes it much easier to maintain a balanced diet. Plug in refrigerators are expensive and consume a lot of energy so Sarah and I decided to get a cooler for our perishable items instead.
Having a cooler makes it easy to keep fresh meat, cheese, and veggies for several days. Ours is big enough to store a dozen food items (plus a few beers) and makes a comfy seat in the back of our van. It is worth investing in a well-insulated cooler for a prolonged trip. Ours needs to be drained and refilled with ice every 2-3 days but is well worth the hassle.
4 – Cook Whenever Possible
I would eat out at restaurants every night if i could, but my trip wouldn’t last for long. Purchasing meals, especially at sit-down restaurants, is the least cost effective way to eat on the road. While it is good to go out once in a while to get a taste for local cuisine, I try not to make it an everyday thing.
Stove cooking is a much better option. Simple meals like pasta, soups, and stir fries are quick to prepare and usually quite filling. The ingredients are also cheap to buy. One of my favorite meals since getting on the road is stir fry over rice. It costs about $5 for ingredients and makes enough for 2 people, plus leftovers.
5 – Quick Meals and Leftovers
If I am in a hurry or sleeping in an urban area it may not be practical to pull out the stove and start cooking. For times like these I like to fall back on simple options like sandwiches or wraps. Its quick, easy, and a good way to hold me over until the next meal.
Leftovers are another great way to prepare a solid meal if I’m short on time. On days that I do cook, I like to make extra. Leftovers go in a tupperware container in the cooler and it takes just a few minutes to reheat in a pot on the stove.
6 – Keep Things Clean
Dish washing, kitchen cleaning, and taking out the trash aren’t exactly chores that I look forward to, but they’re super important to keep up with. The van contains less than 100 square feet and serves as a bedroom, kitchen, and hangout area for two people. A small mess can quickly morph into a big problem if we aren’t careful. At the very least it makes the van less pleasant to be inside.
Living out of a van isn’t always easy, but it should always be clean.