Easy Van Life Cooking Hacks

With a Little Prep, Van Life and Cooking Go Great Together

One of the biggest benefits of van life is the fact that you can take a kitchen everywhere you go. If you love to cook, you don’t have to give it up when you move into a van. It’s different from cooking in a house or apartment, so we’re here to talk about some van life cooking hacks!

There are a few complications or changes that you need to get used to if you want to cook in a van. First of all, you need to make food that is safe to consume and easy to make. Next, it’s important to find a good way to use/create space for food prep. Finally, you need good tools and appliances that are well-suited to van life.

In the sections below, we’ll address each of these areas. There are tips and hacks for all areas of van life cooking, so let’s get started!

Food Storage and Preparation Hacks

Prepare Food Ahead of Time

First of all, it’s a good idea to prepare your food (or at least certain parts) ahead of time. If you’ve just had a long day of traveling, you won’t want to put in the time and effort to make a full meal. That’s why you can think ahead and prepare ingredients or entire meals to save time.

For instance, you may want to marinate meat, vegetables, or tofu in your refrigerator. These are easy to throw on the stove or fire and taste delicious. You can also freeze portions of soup and cut salads or vegetables ahead of time.

Make Vegetarian Meals

Next up, consider going vegetarian (at least for some meals). Van life cooking is great, but it’s harder to regulate compared to homes and apartments. If your refrigerator turns off or develops a problem, the perishable items inside could spoil. This is especially dangerous if you travel with raw meat. Salmonella and food poisoning are not something you want to mess around with.

Of course, vegetarian life isn’t for everyone! But there’s nothing wrong with leaning into it a bit more when you’re on the road. Plant-based foods are more shelf stable, and many meat substitutes taste very close to the real thing.

Pack Your Fridge

Speaking of keeping foods from spoiling, you should pack your refrigerator and freezer so they’re fairly full. It may sound counterintuitive, but the more food that is in your fridge, the cooler it will be.

Think of the food inside as a type of insulation. As one item gets cold, the temperature spreads to its neighbors. If there’s a lot of empty space in the middle, it’s harder for the fridge contents to keep each other at a stable temperature.

Don’t make it so full that you can’t reach important items, but don’t worry about having a packed fridge. It’s actually a good thing!

Increase Van Life Cooking Work Space

Use Sink Covers

Next up, you need to maximize every inch of space when it comes to van life cooking. Even in the best of circumstances, there isn’t usually much room on countertops or tables.

This is why many people use sink covers to fill the gap in their workspace. Simply use a flat, custom-cut insert over the sink basin, and you can convert it into usable kitchen space. These inserts can also double as cutting boards or storage containers (depending on their size and depth).

Keep the Stove in a Drawer

Another good tip to save space is to keep appliances in drawers rather than on the countertop. A lot of small burners and stoves can fit into a drawer. This is helpful because you will only pull it out when you need it and don’t need to work around a fixed appliance.

Butane and propane burners are great for van life cooking because they’re small, light, and it’s easy to adjust their temperature.

Travel with a Folding Table

If you need an entirely new space for food prep and cooking, try traveling with a folding table. Many of these can collapse into a flat, manageable size (complete with handles). If you have a recipe that requires more space, put the table outside and do your food prep there.

A folding table can also be great if you need a portable office or workspace in your van. Sometimes you just have to move outside to gain more elbow room.

Invest in Good Van Life Cooking Tools

Buy an Instant Pot

Multifunctional tools and appliances are so important to van life cooking. Most builds simply don’t have the space for a full kitchen setup, so you need to prioritize the items that will be the most versatile and useful.

The wonderful Instant Pot (or Instapot) has become a necessity for everyone who wants to cook in a van, RV, boat, or anywhere else! You can find one of the top models here and read all the reviews about its uses and performance. Its functions include:

  • Pressure cooker
  • Slow cooker
  • Rice maker
  • Yogurt maker
  • Steamer
  • Sauté pan
  • Food warmer

There are entire cookbooks dedicated to these devices, so you’ll never run out of things to make. In short, an Instant Pot is perfect for van life because they’re multipurpose, compact, and easy to clean.

Explore Nesting Dishes/Cookware Sets

Speaking of compact items, let’s talk about cookware. I love a good matching set of pans, plates, utensils, etc. But once again, you have to contend with the limited amount of storage space in a van. This is why nesting dishes are such a useful addition to your kitchen!

You can maximize the number of pots, pans, and dishes you bring while also saving space. This 3 pot set from Camco is great for van life cooking. The dishes are easy to clean, stack neatly, and are large enough to cook meals and leftovers.

If you want a larger and more versatile set for camping, try the CAMPINGMOON Nesting Mess Kit. This comes with eight bowls, four dishes, a small, medium, and large pot, and one frying pan. These are all made from stainless steel as well.

You can also look into collapsible items like measuring cups, colanders, etc. These silicone utensils are catching on in the van life community.

Choose Good Knives and a Sharpener

High-quality knives are an essential purchase for anyone who loves to cook. Dull knives make the process much harder. They’re also more dangerous because you have to exert more pressure to cut through anything.

A good, sharp knife set will take you a long way. It’s also a good idea to buy a knife sharpener so you can properly maintain your knives over time.

Consider Cast Iron

Finally, consider the fact that you might only need one or two pans to get the job done! Cast iron pans are certainly heavy, but they’re also sturdy and multifunctional. These can be used to cook any kind of food, plus you can even put them over a campfire without damaging them.

Some people who enjoy van life cooking get by with a single cast iron pan. I would also recommend that you get a large cast iron pot with a lid because this will enable you to cook a wider variety of things. However, cast iron is a great investment that will take you far.

What’s Your Favorite Van Life Meal?

Van life cooking is just as versatile and you can have just as good of food as you would in sticks and bricks home. We’re sure many of you already have your go-to van life dishes you return to again and again. Share your favorite thing to cook in your van in the comments.

  • Emily Lawrence lives in Idaho with her husband Nathan. Despite the cold winters in this area, it's Emily's favorite season! She loves to spend time skiing, roadtripping, and just exploring the outdoors.

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