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Top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills for Better Meals on the Road

Top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills

Today I have for you my top four vanlife cooking skills for great meals on the road.

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.

My cooking 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 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 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 make my own lunches and sometimes even dinners.

The #1 vital cooking skill for vanlife: ‘Mis en place’

In the French cooking world there’s an expression; ‘mis en place’.

The shorthand often used by cooks and chefs is “mis”: It’s the area of your kitchen where you do all your work and it needs to be organized.

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 arm’s reach either right under the counter, in the refrigerator, or up on top for room temperature things.

Is your cutting board 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.

Campervan design and mis en place

We can extrapolate this all the way out to your van design.

There’s a concept 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 organizing concept.

More Vanlife food organizing ideas

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, 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.

vansage top 4 vanlife cooking skills

Vanlife cooking skill 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 saucepans, 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.

The Campervan Podcast Episode #067: Top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills


Vanlife cooking skill number 3: One pot mastery

Out of my top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills, one pot mastery is one of my favorites.

Most of us have already dealt with this to some extent, but if you don’t cook much, you may not have thought about it.

One pot cooking is a really powerful thing for vanlife.

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 on some plain Greek yogurt, and some salsa on top of that, or sour cream, if you’re into that. The point is, that it all happens in one pan and it makes for very easy and quick cleanup.

One pot Vanlife meal examples

Get specific meal plans in our one-pot easy campsite recipes for Vanlife posts.

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 you like potatoes 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.

Brilliant One-Pot mastery tool

Speaking of one pot. Slow cookers are great. If you have the energy required to run a slow cooker, you can’t go wrong.

There are 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 sizes. 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 of our Top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills: 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 in staying content with your vanlife food.

Plan for Vanlife food variety

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 week long. That’s fine if you can tolerate that.

I know people who eat directly from the can, feral vanlifers, or who eat the same foods all the time 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.

Bonus Tip of our Top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills: Cleanliness

Of all the cooking tips I have and especially in terms of the top 4 vanlife cooking skills, 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.

Professional cooks work clean and we should, too

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 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 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 our Top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills

Recap of the Top 4 Vanlife Cooking Skills

Vanlife Cooking skill #1: Mis en place

  • Get organized before and during meal creation
  • Set up your ‘mis en place’ for better vanlife meals

Vanlife Cooking skill #2: Minimalism in the Vanlife kitchen

  • Keep the gear and ingredients minimal
  • Plan in advance for minimalist packing and cooking

Vanlife Cooking skill #3: One pot mastery

  • Learn a variety of recipes that only require one pot or pan
  • Tools like slow cookers and dutch ovens are great for one pot mastery

Vanlife Cooking skill #4: Variety

  • Keep the troops and yourself content with vanlife food by learning a variety of recipe

Vanlife Cooking skill #4: Cleanliness

  • Perhaps the most important of all vanlife cooking skill
  • Clean while you cook and when you’re done eating, clean the kitchen like a pro chef


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