We’ve often been asked how and what we cook on the road and, to be honest, it’s surprisingly similar to cooking in our apartments in San Francisco and New York City. While some aspects such as working in a smaller space and lack of an oven have required some getting used to, there haven’t been many changes. Especially after dealing with a NYC-sized kitchen did we feel well-prepared for the vanlife! Here is an introduction to cooking while living in a van – from how we prepare the food and what gear we decided to bring with us for this trip, to how we grocery shop. As we continue our travels, we’ll post some of our favorite recipes.
How do we cook?
Aside from an oven, we have pretty much everything that we used prior to moving into a van: a stove top, fridge, pots/pans, cutlery, etc. We designed our kitchen so that we have enough counter space to work comfortably even with the stovetop out. Since the space is really only good for one person, we often split up responsibilities (unless we cook outside) to let one person work at the counter and the other to go play with Leika, drink a glass of wine, or work on preparing food outside. So while space and gear do not limit what we can prepare, it’s taken some time for the three of us to find a ‘rhythm’ and not overcrowd the limited space.
Below is a list of the items we chose to bring to equip our kitchen and our thoughts on the items: (this does not include our camping cook set which we will discuss at a later point).
Kitchen Goods in Review:
Cook Set: GSI Outdoors Bugaboo Base Camper Cook Set (Large) (Amazon)
The set contains 2 pots, a pan and a small cutting board. The set is very compact, stores away nicely and is easy to clean. The sizes of the 2 pots has been ideal, while the pan maybe on the small side. The quality so far is great, with the only issue being the material on the handles of the largest pot melting due to heat from the stove top flame. This only happened the first few times we used the pot but has not since then. Based on reviews we read prior to purchasing it, this is a common issue but we decided to go with it nonetheless due to convenience. Despite this issue, we’re very satisfied with the set.
Stove Top: Camp Chef Everest Two-Burner (Amazon)
This stove uses propane and gets about 20 meals of liberal use from a 1lb bottle of propane (~$3/bottle). The burners are spaced well so you can fit 2 pots comfortably onto the top. The flame/heat is also very adjustable. It’s easy to assemble and to clean. So far after 3 months of constant use, no issues. It’s great.
Fridge: ARB Fridge Freezer – 37 Quarts (Amazon)
While not the cheapest option (at all) we’ve been very pleased with it. Initially we were looking at much smaller models but Nick (Trans World Expedition), strongly advised us to get a larger one… (Thank you Nick!) You can always throw some extra beers in, but we have found it wonderful to help store our perishables, especially when it’s 95+ degrees out. The power usage is negligible for this fridge (<1.5 amps to keep it at 32 with 90 degrees ambient temperature) and provides ample space to allow for once a week shopping. It’s also very easy to clean, with a drain inside allowing you to simply spray down the inside. It is a top loading fridge, making it much more energy-efficient and preventing the door from opening while driving. If you have the space, we definitely recommend going with a larger fridge than smaller.
Sink: Houzer Undermount Stainless Steel Prep Sink (Amazon)
Until the very last minute, we were uncertain of putting a sink into the van. Again, we’re glad we did. We didn’t want to give up too much counter space for the sink but needed it to be large enough to allow for doing dishes, washing food and brushing teeth/hands. It took a little experimenting and getting used to, but the sink is the perfect camper-van size for us. We made a wood cut out to cover the sink so that when it is not in use it functions as counter space.
Initially, we had thought of getting a smaller round sink (thought they might look more aesthetically pleasing) but in practice, we like that we have a flat bottom so we can leave bottles/plates in it while driving. We also like the depth of the sink. In hindsight, we would definitely not get anything smaller than what we have.
Faucet: Valterra Chrome Rocket Hand Pump (Amazon)
We like this pump as it forces us to be more conscious of our water usage. We occasionally think about putting in an electric pump as it would be more convenient, but don’t think it would be worth the increase in water usage so doubt we’ll do it. At around $20, it’s sort of a no-brainer.
Cutting Board: MSR Alpine Deluxe Cutting Board/Cutting boards from Walmart (Amazon)
The MSR cutting board folds up to and is very thick, which is nice but at the same time has small surface area to cut on. I personally think the cutting boards from Walmart are perfect. They’re thin, easy to wash and store away, have a large surface area to cut on and super cheap.
Camp Table: REI Roll-up table (REI Webpage)
Easy to store, a comfortable size and lightweight. The set up initially seems a little strange and somewhat inefficient but after using a handful of times, we really like it. Anytime we want to cook or eat outside, it’s been a great addition. I think it will become even more useful as we continue to travel and spend time away from campgrounds or cities.
Coffee Bean Grinder: Hario Coffee Mill (Amazon)
– This coffee grinder has been getting a ton of use lately. We aren’t coffee snobs at all and have mostly been drinking instant until a few weeks ago when we got the Organic Bolivian Blend coffee from Trader Joe’s. The grinder is really simple to use, takes about a minute to grind up the beans for 2 cups so it’s perfect to do while the water is warming up. So far, it’s been very reliable, stores easily and you don’t really need to clean it.
Reusable Waterbottle / food container: Hydroflask
– Bright, fun, easy to clean and customizable. Not to mention, reusable, and great insulators (both hot and cold!). We love that we can have a smaller footprint while living in a van – that means we don’t buy plastic water bottles or onetime use coffee cups. We love Hydroflasks design, color, durability. Also, we love that you can customize your own bottle! We designed ours with the German and Colombia flag colors!
– While not the easiest thing to clean, it’s been really great to have. It will chop/dice/cut into small pieces almost anything – garlic, onions, olives, carrots, tomatoes, peppers. It saves a ton of time.
How do we grocery shop?
Since we have plenty of storage for dry goods and only 37 qt for refrigerated items, we have to be somewhat selective on fresh produce. We try to buy produce that can be used in a variety of ways and for various meals. As we try to shop at most once or twice per week, a focus for us has been to limit waste and leftovers to a minimum. For us this means finding creative ways to use the things we have; it also means that we don’t follow recipes to a ‘T’ most of the time (if at all).
At the same time, we want to make sure that we get a good variety of different meals and cuisines. Cooking the same go-to meals all the time might be convenient, but it’s also boring.
As this trip continues, we’re learning and figuring out different recipes – from family, friends, the internet or our own creations.
Living in our Sprinter for the past few months has encouraged a lot of healthy eating habits (at least better ones than the ones from our 14-hour work days), but not without some challenges as well. Here are a few “pros and cons” to feeding oneself while living in a van:
– We have time to cook, so we do. When on the road, we don’t go out to dinner much. We spend about $2 per person per meal in the US and Canada. Can’t even get that at McDonald’s.
– Don’t waste any food. We have limited space, so are more diligent about using all the perishables and not letting food go to waste
– Having ‘junk’ food in the van is too tempting to resist so we just try not to keep it (think bags of chips, Nikki…)
– We are trying not to go grocery shopping until all perishables are done so if we snack, we try to eat those first which usually turns out to be a fruit or vegetable, or small sandwich.
– No oven, so Nikki can’t bake dessert
– Limited space makes storing food a little more difficult. If something needs to be refrigerated after opening, you need to be sure to have room in the fridge before opening it. Somehow we manage to have our fridge completely full at all times, it seems.
– When we drive long distances, food’s always right behind you making it tempting to snack
– Limited space when cooking took us a little to coordinate
– No toaster for bread