Cooking in a Van

I love cooking, and had naive expectations for the transition from house to van. When I first stocked the van I brought all sorts of kitchen do-dads, a couple appliances (for when the van is plugged in), and an assortment of canned and dried goods for the “pantry” (a tote under the sink). I even brought some baking supplies, bless my heart.

Annie Spratt sm
Surely there would be time for elaborately prepared layer cakes and trendy vintage chinaware. [Photo: Annie Spratt]
A whole year later and amongst other things, both the toaster oven and the slow cooker had been used once. Here’s a few things I learned about cooking with no running water and only 2 stove top burners available at my disposal.

  1. Be cognisant of the weather. If tinned food freezes, it will expand and become unsafe to eat. Frozen liquids will break their containers (if new and unopened) and will definitely explode into a mixture of hot sauce slushie and glass, true story.
  2. Be cognisant of the weather, again. Certain foods will have to be bought/stored/used in certain ways throughout the year. When it’s hot, fruit may need to be stored in the fridge (taking up valuable space), and bananas will need to be bought and re-bought in small quantities. In the winter, olive oil will freeze solid in a few hours if the van is not plugged in and producing heat. That’s when you either switch over to cooking with animal fat that you store in the fridge, or you thaw the oil and pour it into a mason jar instead.
  3. Not everything can be stored in the fridge or freezer. This appliance needs air flow to function properly. And during the spring or summer when the freezer is confused about its purpose in life it may drip water all over your food, so learn to bag things up.
  4. Learn a few things about your fridge and freezer, its likes and dislikes, its hopes and dreams. There were a good few weeks in the dead of winter where our fridge froze things and our freezer (because it was more insulated) cooled things. Don’t get angry, try to sympathize with it.
  5. Accept that if something craps out you may have to throw out food. So buy meat and cheese, but don’t go nuts about it. Speaking of which, you can buy nuts but don’t overstock the pantry.
  6. Bag up veggies and store them in the fridge with paper towel to absorb moisture.
  7. Waste not thine water. Become a pro at putting in juuuuust the right amount of water to cook pasta and rice. Or if you overdo it, save it for later when you need to scrub dishes.
  8. Try to help our your future self. Cleaning up requires water and effort. Use the least amount of pots, pans, containers and implements as possible. Why use a wooden spoon when you can stir with a scooped spoon and then serve with it too?
  9. There is no dishwasher, there will never be a dishwasher. Not such a big deal considering I’ve never had a dishwasher, but the important thing here is to never let your food stick to things, thus becoming a source of much cussing as you try to clean without the aid of hot water.
  10. Paper towels are your friends. If you have something particularly viscous and thus threatening to your sink’s drainage tube, you can always sop it up first.
  11. A scrubby wand is also your friend. The kind that holds detergent in its handle.
  12. Bag up thine kitchen scraps. No one thinks the smell of fermented greenery and thawed chicken fat is delightful.
  13. Ventilate when possible. Just like a house, you don’t want moisture creeping in.
  14. Teamwork, everyone. If someone cooks, the other cleans. And if someone cooks, the other praises and offers a back rub. Right E, right? Worth a shot.
  15. A happy cook is a spirited cook. That means one that’s ingested some spirits.

Jay Wennington unsplash dot com
I bet this was cooked in a van. [Photo: Jay Wennington]
I thought I’d be able to whip up a big batch of something (stew, soup) and we’d just eat that for about a week. But it’s never happened because E and I are out on the job or travelling so much that we can’t sit around and babysit the food as it simmers. And freezer space is so precious I can’t afford to fill it up with mostly one product.

As a result, we make more frequent trips to the grocery store, buy things in smaller quantities, and end up spending a lot more money on groceries per month than when we were living in a house. Sometimes more than double.

For dinners I mostly make dishes that cook quickly and can go into one pot, because, in the timeless words of Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

Sweet Brown
Truly, a woman for our times.

This means: Curries, stews, pastas, jambalaya, soup, risotto, stir fries…things that are saucy, like ME. Another go-to is a simple pairing of some sort of protein and a salad.

Breakfasts are usually cereal, yogurt and fruit but if there’s time I can make blueberry pancakes, eggs and bacon. Lunches are often sandwiches and there are certain staples for snacks: fruit and yogurt (again), veggies and dip, crackers and cheese, smoked meats. Plus a motherlode of delectable sweets if we hit up a bakery.

So while I’m learning a lot about the obscure skill of cooking for two in a very specific manner, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the days when I could spend all day happily cooking large scale, serious meals. At least I still get to grumble about the dishes.


Alright, fine. This is what I’ve been making: