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Van Life Cooking – 10 Tips To Meal Prep In Small Space

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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 be preparing and cooking multiple meals each day, every day. And 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, forced to cook in a confined area, and wash-up can be a nightmare. Not to mention that clean water is a finite resource. It all adds up to a potentially stressful to prepare meals in your van! But we believe that with the right mindset and strategy, cooking in your camper van can become a fun and rewarding experience.

In this post, we put together 10 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!

1. Shop Wisely & Plan Meals

Wouldn’t it be great if your camper van had just as must space as your kitchen back at home? Unfortunately, this is almost never the case and it will be essential to make the most of every inch of space available in your van. This means it is important to only purchase what you need, with careful planning before each grocery trip.

When planning meals, consider what you’ll be eating 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 good mix of fresh and dry food, to avoid the fridge and cabinet space overcrowded.

In our case we usually create a list of fresh food that will last 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, if you’re planning to go off-grid, it’s best to buy more than 7 days’ worth of food.

2. Effective & Efficient Food Storage

Personally, I hate food waste and take pride in emptying my fridge before going grocery shopping. 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. Properly stored, in a cool and shaded place, these items can last quite a while, preventing unnecessary waste.

Storing meat or fish needed to be careful and stored in separate and sealed bag because bacteria can grow in other food. They are also chunky in the package so we usually cut them into meal or bite size and put them into ziploc bag individually.

3. Clear Out The Kitchen Space

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

We all have experience that you tip over the cups or bottles from the counter and spill the liquid all over the place on the floor (YES, it is very frustrating common accidents in van life). A cleared kitchen also ensures that there is enough room to move and maneuver as you prepare food, allowing you to work efficiently and safely.

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


4. Don't be obsessed with following recipes

Most camper van kitchen set up is much simpler than at home, maybe you don’t have two burner tops, or you don’t own 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 personal 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 personal preferences, using ingredients that you have on hand and substituting as needed, the most important thing is that you are nourishing yourself with something delicious and enjoyable.

5. Spend A Day to Bulk Prep Side Dishes

A useful 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 are an effective way to preserve leftover vegetables. This approach minimizes the need to worry about side dishes and enables you to focus entirely on meal preparation when the time comes.

6. Stick To One Pot Meals

One of the best way 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 cleaning up afterwards is also much easier. If you are equipped with a robust electrical system, one of the most practical kitchen items available on the market is an Instant Pot.  You can pressure cook a variety of vegetables, meats, fish, or beans, without having to babysit the process constantly once the start button is pressed. 

We love to eat soup especially in cold weather and we have been using Instant Pot for our entire 4 years of van life. We just put whatever the vegetable or meat we have, add some seasoning for flavor and usually be done in 20 minutes. One of our must have item in van life for sure!

7. Make Easy Access To Frequently Used Seasoning & Sauces

It’s important to have your ingredients at your fingertips, ready to be used in a moment’s notice. If you’re constructing a van or designing a kitchen space, creating a spice rack that easily accessible to the countertop is one good option. You could opt for shelves attached to a kitchen counter, or you could use magnetic spice jars that attach to your refrigerator or wall with ease.

8. Be Mindful Of Energy Usage

When living in a van, it’s important to build an adequate electrical system and think about how you use energy.  Relaying 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 the sudden, it’s better to use different sources of energy.

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 and it makes sure you have energy available and helps you be more flexible when traveling in a van.

9. Prewash The Food Scraps

Throwing dirty dish straight to a dish washer…..well the luxury of house life doesn’t apply to van life unfortunately and you have to work a little harder to maintain your tiny house on wheels.

It is critical to maintain the cleanliness of your camper van’s sink water system, 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

If you have limited access to a water source, cleaning greasy dishes can be a tough task. 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 a tissue paper, simply 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 then continue washing the dishes as usual with soap. 

Thank You For Reading!

We’re Yuko and Eric! We both grew up in Asia ( Japan & Hong Kong ), we left our jobs and homes in 2018 and started traveling full time from Canada to Argentina in our self-converted camper van since end of May 2019. “Asobo” means “Let’s play” in Japanese. We named our site “Asobolife” because the life is always uncertain and we live only once so it’s important to always keep positive, playful mind and enjoy the moment you are in the present. We also want to use this website to share our road trip and van building experiences to inspire our readers. We hope you enjoy!

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