Simplified vanlife cooking
This is our second post of easy campsite recipes.
And check out our post on the top 4 vanlife cooking skills.
In my time on the road, I’ve found that one of my least favorite activities is cooking in my campervan.
I’d rather spend my time adventuring and don’t even get me started on doing dishes. I’ve never loved cooking and living in a van makes it harder.
To try and keep it simple, I stick to things that are easy to cook and result in minimal dishes to clean.
Your taste buds shouldn’t have to suffer just because you live on the road.
I’ve compiled two of my favorite van-friendly recipes to keep you well-fed without the hassle of a complicated meal.
Easy Campsite Pizza
I knew I wouldn’t be able to live without pizza when I hit the road. I try not to eat out and my van isn’t equipped with an oven, so I had to get creative.
Pizza is an excellent option in a campervan or while camping because it’s quick to cook and so versatile.
You can top it a million different ways to make your pizza as simple or as complicated as you’d like.
Below is one of my favorite pizza varieties, but this meal can be made with any topping combination you can dream up.
1 package garlic naan
1, small jar pizza sauce
1, 6 to 10 oz package pepperoni
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 zucchini, sliced
1 Roma tomato, sliced
3 Baby Bella mushrooms, sliced
- Start by slicing up your zucchini, tomato, and mushrooms or prepping the toppings of your choice.
- Spread 2 tablespoons of pizza sauce on top of the naan, covering the naan all the way to the edges.
- Top with 1/3 cup of mozzarella cheese or adjust to your personal cheese preferences.
- Arrange pepperoni, zucchini, tomato, and mushrooms on top of cheese.
- Sprinkle remaining cheese on top of pizza.
- Carefully move the pizza to a pan on low heat and cover.
- Cook for 5-10 minutes over medium heat, or until cheese is melted and the bottom of the naan has started to crisp slightly.
- Remove pizza from skillet and let cool for 2 minutes.
- Slice pizza and serve.
Any type of naan works for this pizza, but garlic naan tends to kick up the flavor of the crust. Pita bread is also a tasty option.
Less is more when it comes to “wet” toppings like tomatoes, sauce, and even cheese. If you overdo it, you may end up with a soggy pizza.
Other great topping combinations
- Hummus instead of pizza sauce, top with veggies
- Bleu cheese dressing as sauce, cooked chicken in buffalo sauce, mozzarella, sliced celery, hot sauce drizzle on top
- Pizza sauce, tomato slices, basil, and small mozzarella slices, balsamic drizzle on top
- Ricotta instead of sauce, brussels sprouts slices, bacon, mozzarella cheese, and balsamic drizzle
The Campervan Podcast Episode #067: Top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills
The Campervan Podcast is an audio program featuring ideas for design and building, cooking, organization, gear and more for a better overall Vanlife experience.
The Campervan Podcast Transcript: Top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills
Today I have for you my top four van cooking and kitchen skills.
Before I start, let me just say that most of these “listicals”, that is, list posts, I think are kind of ridiculous.
I probably have 150 kitchen and cooking skills tips for you, but it helps to condense the ideas now and then, and that's what I've done over the last few days.
I’ve thought about kind of the most important things if you're not the greatest cook or you don't have cooking experience.
Hopefully this will help you understand what you might want to focus on early on as you develop your ability to cook.
I think cooking is one of the most valuable things that you can do for your camper van travel skills and experience.
I love to cook. I spent a few years working in restaurants, mostly as a waiter, but working as a waiter makes you kind of a foodie because you're always paying attention to the menu and understanding specials and things like that.
I also worked for catering companies. I was a a room service waiter in a high end hotel in Seattle years ago, many years ago.
Also I was a retail and wholesale produce worker for a about 15 years in warehouses and grocery stores, so food is kind of in my veins and my blood.
And I've been cooking for myself since I was kind of a latchkey child and that forced me to be able to to make my own lunches and sometimes even dinners.
The number one vital cooking skill for vanlife
In the French cooking world there's an expression; ‘mis en place’. That’s the area of your kitchen where you do all your work and it needs to be organized.
The shorthand often used by cooks and chefs is “mis”.
Is your mis set up? And what that means is, do you have your knife and your rags, and are all of your ingredients in place for the day?
Of course, this would be for a professional kitchen. So the ingredients for the various specials and common things on the menu need to be within arms reach either right under the counter, in the refrigerator, or up on top for room temperature things.
Is your cutting board is ready? Your rags are ready. Your knife, your measuring equipment… Are your pans ready? And in the van, that just means that you set up just before you start cooking.
We can extrapolate this all the way out to your van design.
There's a concept in, in kitchen design called the three point kitchen. And that's basically a counter, that is, workspace, refrigeration, and cooktop.
And obviously it's easy to make all that happen in a van because the space is so small.
The same applies to setting up to cook in a campsite or if you're working out of a chuck box or out of the tailgate of a minivan or something like that.
Keep it in mind, if some builder tries to put your refrigerator at the other end of the vehicle away from your stove, don't let them do that because you'll be stepping over the other people in your van or other equipment to get back and forth to the fridge when it comes time to cook.
So keep that three point concept in mind in terms of mis en place as an organization concept.
Also, organization includes planning and shopping for meals. So if you have an apartment or a house, the tendency is to wander into the grocery store at some point and kind of meander up and down the aisle and, and get some of this and some of that.
But in a van you don't have the space for extras and unplanned things.
So think about those meals in advance. I often plan my meals for the day in the morning over coffee if I have time or at least over lunch or at the very least just before I head out to the store
I actually spend time in the van looking at what I have makings for, and planning meals so that I'm not doubling up on something.
And, and that includes thinking about meals for the coming week.
I will talk about organization more in the future, because again, I love to cook and cooking will be a big topic on this show.
Let’s move on to point number two, minimalism.
You don't need eight spatulas. You don't need six pans. You need one or two spatulas and one or two or maybe three pans.
If you have the room, it's nice to have two sizes of frying pan and two sizes of sauce pans, and a cast iron dutch oven and cool things like that. If you have room, go for it, but you don't need two dutch ovens.
They're so heavy and they take up so much space and getting back to our minimalism topic in general, take the time every once in a while to go through and make sure you're not carrying doubles or triples or unnecessary multiples of things that you only need one or two of.
Tip number three
One pot mastery. This is one of my favorites and most of us have already dealt with this.
But if you don't cook much, you may not have thought about it. One pot cooking is a really powerful thing in a van.
I like to do scrambles in the morning. I'll put sausage and peppers and onions and cheese in a scramble with two or three eggs…
It's one pan and one pile of ingredients that you cook with proper timing and in the end you have a wonderful scramble.
And then I like to pile some plain Greek yogurt, and some salsa on top of that, or sour cream, if you're into that.
The point is that's, it all happens in one pan and it makes for very easy and quick cleanup.
Other examples of one pot or one pan cooking are: Chili. Chili is wonderful because if you have good refrigeration, you can make one pot and have lunches for a week or at least four or five days, depending on how tolerant you are of leftovers.
I love to cook Cajun jambalaya. It's another form of stew, but Louisiana style.
And of course stews are wonderful and I make stew low carb because I'm a low Carber. So you don't have to fill it up with carbohydrates. But if, if you like potatoes and, and pasta, you can really get crazy and make wonderful stews.
Salads. A lettuce salad obviously is only gonna be good for a couple days at the most, but you can make pasta salad if you like pasta.
And that can be very similar in longevity and durability to chili or stew.
Those are all examples of one pot meals.
Speaking of one pot. Slow cookers are great. If you have the energy required to run a slow cooker, you you can't go wrong.
There's some really great slow cookers available,even 12 volt, slow cookers.
And you'll find if you head to vansage.com and use the search function to type in slow cooker, you'll see our recommendations for 12 volt slow cookers.
They come in medium or large or even small size. You can fill your slow cooker with your stew or your chili or whatever you're cooking over a two or three hour period and run the thing while you're driving.
If your power is hooked up to your alternator via a diverter, such as a Stinger, then it won't even cost you anything in power, it just runs while you're driving.
If you do have enough battery power, it's worth it to run it overnight while you're sleeping and the next day you'll have lunch ready.
One pot mastery can always be achieved on a single burner, so if you're limited to one or two burners, it's a great way to cook.
Tip number three for van life cooking and kitchen skills is variety
If you have troops, if you're running with kids or partner, et cetera, variety is a biggie.
Keep the troops happy with variety. Even if it’s just yourself, even if you're running alone, it's just really nice to be eating a variety of foods.
Now I wouldn't try to go too broad and I think it's even better in terms of health to keep your diet within a reasonable range of foods.
Point is, it's easy to get tired of the same old chili or stew or hard boiled eggs. Oh, I get tired of hard boiled eggs, really fast. But I can put those eggs in a salad and now I'm happy again with them.
Or I can switch from chili to jambalaya or I can switch from scrambled eggs to poached eggs… Little things like that can really make a difference with staying content with your van food.
Getting back to our organization and planning… plan in advance to try some new things, change it up and avoid eating the same things all the time.
I know people and I've done this myself who will buy seven cans of some quick and easy food or boxes of some quick and easy food and eat it all all week long. That's fine, if you can tolerate that.
I know people who eat directly from the can, feral vanlifers, or who eat directly out of the can. More power to you, but I like variety and I think there's value in it.
So my advice for tip number three, variety in the vanlife kitchen, is to not eat the same thing over and over again, but to change up your meals and ingredients when you can.
Tip number four, cleanliness.
This is really a biggie. Getting back to the professional kitchen, your mis en place, your cooking habits.
Professional cooks clean as they cook and as they work. A line cook in a restaurant cannot afford to have a big mess while she’s cranking out 200 dinners over the course of an evening.
She cannot afford to have scraps all over the place and dirty knives and pans.
I washed dishes for a summer in a big, high volume restaurant. Our job was to keep those pans clean and rotating through the kitchen constantly.
For the purposes of vanlife, the smaller the space, the more important cleanliness is.
For example, I'll open a can and dump it in the pot and then I will deal with that empty can immediately. I do not set it on the counter.
If it needs to be rinsed out and put in recycling, I do that immediately and I wipe up any spill with the rag. It just takes a couple seconds and now you're ready for the next stage of cooking that meal.
There's a wonderful TV documentary series called ‘Chef's table’ and I'm not sure which service it's available on. Sorry, but if you Google chef's table documentary, you'll see it.
I think it's three or four seasons of focusing on professional Michelin star chefs from around the world.
And one of the things I noticed about these people is that the chefs stay in the kitchen until the bitter end, meaning that they cook all day and all night. And then at the end of the day, when the restaurant is closed, they are involved in cleaning the entire restaurant.
And you'll see these high level, highly paid, successful chefs, that everybody respects it at the highest possible level, on their hands and knees cleaning out underneath the stove and just organizing and making sure that the restaurant will be spotless for the next day.
And that's how I view my job in cooking in the van, whether it's just for myself or other people. It makes such a wonderful difference in the vanlife cooking experience when you open up the chuckbox or the cabinets or whatever, and everything's spotless and just ready to go.
That wraps up my Top 4 tips for successful van life cooking.
This chicken quesadilla recipe takes a little longer to cook, but it makes for simple leftovers the rest of the week.
Usually when I cook this, I just eat the filling as a meal on the first day so that I don’t have to do more dishes. It’s also great to eat with chips.
The rest of the week, I’ll reheat the filling in a tortilla to make quick, delicious quesadillas.
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts, diced into bite-sized pieces
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1/2 cup of diced yellow onion
1 cup uncooked white rice
1, 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes, drained
1, 15 oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 tsp of garlic powder*
1/2 tsp of chili powder*
1 teaspoon of cumin*
*may also substitute these spices for a premade taco seasoning packet
2 cups of chicken broth
1/2 green pepper, diced
2 cups of Mexican blend cheese
Sour cream (optional)
- Sauté onions in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until they begin to soften, about 2 minutes.
- Add diced chicken to pan and cook over medium-high heat until the chicken starts to brown (at least 5 minutes as any chicken needs to reach at least 165 degrees F for safety).
- Stir in rice, beans, tomatoes, chicken broth, and spices.
- Bring to a simmer, cover, and reduce heat to low.
- Cook 20 minutes or until rice is tender.
- Stir in diced green peppers and cover for a few minutes to soften peppers.
From here you can top with cheese, sour cream, salsa, and/or guacamole and serve in a bowl or with chips.
If you’re craving quesadillas though, follow these steps:
- Place tortilla in a large pan and spoon filling onto ½ of tortilla.
- Top with cheese and fold tortilla in half.
- Cover with lid and cook over low heat, flipping occasionally until filling is warm and cheese has melted, about 10 minutes.
- Remove from heat and slice.
Turn heat up to medium before you remove the quesadilla to help crisp up the tortilla and flip to heat on both sides.
I prefer crunchy green peppers so I like to add them at the end. If you prefer yours cooked, you can add them anytime.
Bonus recipe: Super simple chili mac and cheese
Here is a bonus recipe for you that’s quick and easy, with minimal ingredients.
I love keeping this meal on-hand because the ingredients are shelf-stable and it’s a bit more substantial than a packet of Ramen.
1 box of macaroni and cheese
1 15oz can of chili
- Follow cooking directions for the macaroni and cheese.
- Once the macaroni and cheese has finished cooking, pour in the can of chili.
- Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until chili is heated through.
If you don’t have milk or butter, you can make this dish without it. Just substitute water for the milk and skip the butter step.
The oils in the chili will make it difficult to notice that something is missing.
Now, I’m no Chef Boyardee, but these van-friendly recipes will hopefully spark some campervan cooking inspiration.
With any luck, these quick, simple dinner ideas will save you from eating cold cereal again tonight.