Cooking and Meal Suggestions
When I first moved in to a van, cooking inside the van seemed complicated and difficult, so I found myself eating out at restaurants or buying fast food. After a week of doing that I realized I was spending a lot of money and starting to gain weight. So I decided I had to find a way to cook in the van. Fortunately, it isn’t that hard. If you want to save money and eat more healthily, by cooking in your van you can. Let’s take a look at it from the very basic to more advanced.
Nothing could be easier than a raw diet. You don’t need to cook, wash dishes, have refrigeration, or carry pots and pans. Done right it is very healthy and relatively inexpensive. It involves eating lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and anything that can be eaten raw. Proponents claim that cooking kills enzymes that are essential to good health so you will be much healthier with a raw diet. It’s too sparse a diet for me, but I do try to add as much raw eating as I can. If you are interested in learning more, start with a Google search, join forums (like http://www.rawfoodtalk.com/index.php), and go to the library or buy some books and start reading.
Basic, Simple Cooking:
This is what I do. It is very simple and basic cooking that requires the minimum of cooking supplies, knowledge, and cooking ability. Anyone can cook and eat this way inside a van. Before we get started, a word about safety. Many people are worried about using a stove inside the van. I’ve lived in a vehicle for over nine years, and cooked a meal on a propane stove nearly every day of that time. That adds up to more than 3,000 meals cooked in a van or camper without a single problem. I have a fire extinguisher, a smoke alarm, and a carbon monoxide detector just in case and have never needed any of them. If you use common sense you won’t have any problem.
This is my basic cooking set-up. I have two propane bottles, one is 1 gallon (4.25 lbs.) and the other is 2 1/2 gallons (10 lbs). One is for my 2 burner Coleman Propane stove and the other is for the Mr Buddy Portable Heater. You can also see the adaptor hose which screws into the bottle. The other end is exactly like the 1 lb green bottles (on the left in the picture) so it screws into any portable propane appliance. The minimum price for the green bottles is $2.50 and as high as $5.00 each. Since it takes four of them to equal the one gallon, you are paying between $10 and $20 a gallon for them. You can refill a bulk bottle for between $3 to $4.50 a gallon, saving you lots of money. Notice the holes in the lid of the 3 quart pot. When I turn those to the “spout” on the pot, it becomes my strainer–very handy for pasta.
- Stove: The two best choices for a stove are either a butane or a propane stove. I know many people who love their butane stoves. They are small and compact, start easily, and work well. But the fuel bottles are expensive and can be hard to find. Even worse, you don’t have the option of hooking it up to a bulk tank and saving money. To me the advantages of propane are so clear, I never even considered butane. I have had both a one and two burner Coleman propane stove and I think one of them is your best choice, depending on how much room you have. They both use the little green propane bottles but you can buy a hose that has adaptors to connect it to a bulk, refillable bottle. The most common size is the 5-gallon bottle that comes with most propane barbeque grills, but you can buy 1 gallon or 2 1/2 gallon bottles that are easier to carry in a van. I have carried a bulk bottle inside my van/camper with me for 9 years without any problem.
- Vandwelling without Refrigeration: You don’t have to have a cooler, some people don’t have any at all. It takes some adjustments, but it can be done. Most of the recipes below can be used without it, you just buy perishable foods the day you are going to cook them and make smaller portions so you don’t have much leftovers. A website that sells food in small, individual packages (condiment packages for example) is http://www.minimus.biz/default.aspx
- Ice Chest: To me, it is more than worth it to have a cooler. Ice melt is one of the biggest headaches of an ice chest. The solution is to buy one large enough to put a kitty litter tub in the middle of it. The ice (blocks are better if you can find them) goes in the kitty litter tub. As the ice melts the water stays in the tub (leaving your food dry), then when it gets too full you just lift it out and dump it. You will want to buy one of the “5-day” or “extreme” coolers that guarantee to keep ice for 5 days. I added extra insulation as well. Pink or blue Styrofoam is a great choice and Gorilla Glue will keep it on forever. For sure you want a piece to rest under the ice chest to keep the heat from the van floor from getting into it. Then I cut pieces to go on all four sides and you can either glue it on or wrap bungee cords around it to hold the Styrofoam on. Then make a cover out of Reflectix to slide on and off. I put a pillow on top for insulation.
- 12 volt Compressor Refrigerator: I estimated I was spending about $5 a week on ice. I realized that a 12 volt compressor fridge could pay for itself in about 2 years so I bought a Dometic/Waeco CF 25 fridge and I have been very satisfied with it. It costs about $425 but I bought mine for $350 on sale. See my review of it on the Reviews Page.
- Pots, Pans, Utensils: For basic cooking you don’t need much. I could get by with a single, three quart pot. I could make everything from a can of chili, to a pot of spaghetti in it. The bottom is 8 1/2 inches wide which is wide enough to fry hamburger, eggs, or make a grilled-cheese sandwich. It is by far my most used pot. I also keep a 1 quart pot for canned goods because it is easier to clean and cooks faster than the 3 quart pot. Finally, I carry a griddle that goes over both burners of my two-burner stove so I can occasionally cook for larger groups. It also lets me fry four hamburgers at a time, or make pancakes, bacon and eggs and have them all done at once. All my pots and pans are non-stick Teflon, but there are health risks associated with it so some people use cast iron or stainless steel. Cast iron is too heavy and stainless steel lets food stick too easily, so I stay with Teflon. Beyond that you need a spatula, can opener, knives, forks, spoons and a few plates and bowls. You will also need a dish pan to wash dishes in.
Eggs (served many ways)
Cooked Grains (hot cereal of all kinds)
Chicken salad (canned or fresh)
Peanut Butter and Jelly
Cup of Soup
Chicken Helper (with canned chicken)
Tuna Helper (with canned tuna or chicken)
Pasta (of all kinds)
Beans (of all kinds in pressure cooker)
Grains (of all kinds in pressure cooker)
Mac & Cheese
Roast (Solar Oven, Pressure Cooker)
Fried egg sandwich
Frozen diners (thawed and cooked on stove top or RoadPro Oven)
Meatloaf (solar oven or pressure cooker)
Fish (solar oven or campfire)
Frozen pizza (solar even)
Seafood (fresh or frozen)
Small bags of Prewashed Veggies:
Crackers and Cheese
Hummus (chickpea dip)
The cooking we do in vans and other vehicles is very much like what backpackers and car campers do, so we can learn a lot from them. A wonderful website with lots of tips and recipes is http://www.trailcooking.com/
Where Does the Kitchen Go?
I have always built a kitchen area into all my vehicle homes so my stove is always out and ready to be used. But if you don’t have a place for your kitchen, you can put all your kitchen supplies into a single Rubbermaid plastic tote. You can slide it under your bed when you aren’t using it and then pull it out to cook. I put the lid on the tote and set the stove right on top of it to cook. Or, if you are at a park, you can carry the tote to a picnic table and cook outdoors.
Now that you have some ideas for cooking basic meals, let’s look at a variety of ways you can cook in your vehicle home. While I am presenting many ways to cook, the reality is most of us have a limited amount of room and can only carry a set amount of weight (the more your van weighs, the more gas it burns). So you are going to have to decide for yourself which to carry. Generally the smaller and more versatile items should be your first choice. I think the pressure cooker wins that contest hands down so I recommend it to everyone, but I know some people are intimidated by pressure cookers. I also think the Roadpro Oven adds a lot of cooking options at a very low cost and size factor, so I strongly recommend it to all vandwellers. While the others aren’t as versatile, there are still reasons they may be worth carrying for some people. If you can’t live without barbequed meat, then a propane grill make sense even though it is fairly large and heavy and not very versatile. I live in the National Forest all summer which means I am in the shade (bad for the solar panels and a solar oven) but there is an unlimited supply of twigs and limbs to burn, so a Stove-Tec wood stove makes good sense for me. I spend my winters in the desert with almost unlimited sun, so a solar oven is ideal. You have to look at your own circumstances and decide for yourself which works for you.
Pressure Cooker for Beans, Grains, Meats, Stews and More: Beans and grains are just about the ideal food. They are extremely nutritious and very inexpensive. Plus, they don’t require refrigeration until they are cooked. But generally they take a long time to cook which requires a lot of electricity or propane, both of which are in short supply for most vandwellers. A perfect solution is a pressure cooker. It cuts the time to cook a pot of beans down from many hours to a few minutes, making them a very practical tool. Another big advantage pressure cookers have is they allow you to use cheaper cuts of meat that tend to be tough, but when cooked under pressure turn out tender and great. I often make a roast, stew or meatloaf in mine. Believe me, if I can learn to use one safely and love it, anyone can. I highly recommend the Presto 8-quart stainless steel cooker I bought from Amazon. To learn more, this is probably the best site out there: http://missvickie.com/. She is also the author of “Miss Vickie’s Big Book of Pressure Cooker Recipes,” a cookbook I recommend.
RoadPro 12 Volt Oven: I had seen these 12 volt ovens in truck stops for many years, and couldn’t bring myself to buy one. I thought, “How could they work, they must be toys.” But then a friend bought one and loved it so I decided to give it a try. I am so glad I did, it works extremely well! I have baked corn bread (Jiffy Mix) brownies and cookies in it. It works really well for frozen foods (let thaw before cooking) like fish sticks, pizza, burritos, dinners and anything else you can fit inside it. I have enough solar panels that I can use nearly as much power as I want during the day, so I limit myself to using it when there is sun. But if you don’t have solar panels you can plug it into the cigarette lighter of your car and use it while you drive. Most foods will cook in 30-45 minutes so all you have to do is plug it in, go for a drive, and your meal will be done when you get to your destination. To make clean-up easy, I line it with aluminum foil before cooking and then recycle the aluminum foil after it’s done. Very handy. Highly recommended.
Solar Oven: I have an article about my solar oven and how much I love it at http://cheaprvliving. com/Solar_Oven.html so I won’t repeat it all here. Just let me say that it works extremely well. My Global Sun Oven will easily reach 350 degrees on a sunny day so it works great for baking or making meals. It is a nice, slow, gentle way of cooking so the food literally comes out tasting better when cooked in a sun oven. Best of all, it requires no fossil fuels so it is cheap and good for the environment. A big plus is that in the summer it doesn’t get the camper hot from cooking inside. You can make your own solar oven pretty easily or there are many models of commercial models available. My favorite it the global sun oven found here: http://www.sunoven.com/ If you are interested in solar ovens, I strongly encourage you to join the solar cooking group at Yahoo.com. They are extremely knowledgeable and helpful and have lots of photos and plans for making your own oven. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SolarCooking/?yguid=431100334
Crock Pot: When I lived in a house I love cooking with a crock pot. But I have never tried it in a van, so I have no direct experience. However, the people I know who do use them say they are just as great in a van as they are in a house. They come in 12 volt models that plug into a cigarette lighter plug or you can use a 110 volt (wall outlet) and plug it into an inverter. Unless you have a lot of solar panels, you are probably going to want to buy a smaller crock pot in the 1.5 to 3 quart size range. If you have solar panels, you can use them all day when the sun is out, if not you can use it while you are driving. I suggest you put it in a tub of some kind so if it spills it won’t be a mess.
You can use a thermos bottle to cook many grains. Here’s how to cook wheat for breakfast:
- Preheat the Thermos (or Stanley) with boiling water for 10 minutes or so before you put the wheat in.
- Dump the preheat water.
- Pour in 1/2 to 3/4 cup of whole grain wheat into the Thermo.
- Add boiling water in a 3:1 ratio. For example, 1/2 cup wheat gets 1 1/2 cups water.
- Put the lid on the Thermos, wrap it in a blanket and go to bed.
- Breakfast will be fully cooked, hot, delicious and waiting for you when you get up. You may need to adjust the wheat to water ratio depending on the type of wheat you have. When the ratio is perfect you’ll have completely cooked wheat and no free water.
You can follow this basic formula to cook many different types of grains. I’ve tried thermos cooking and I’m not a fan. I found cleaning the bottle to be too difficult to bother with. But I’m lazy and didn’t really give it a fair chance, so bear that in mind. The wider the mouth of the bottle, the easier clean-up is and mine was fairly small. Here is a great website to learn more: http://www.thermoscooking.com/
Portable Propane Barbeque Grill:
I have carried a Weber Portable Propane Grill in a camper with me and I loved cooking on it. Hamburgers, chicken, steaks, fish and hot dogs turned out quick and delicious. Best of all clean-up was super easy. But it took up a lot of space and so eventually I sold it. If I had more room, I would have one in a heartbeat. The Weber costs more than the cheap ones, but it is what I would buy. It will last so much longer than the others that it will cost less in the long run.
Stove-Tec Rocket Stove or Sierra Stove:
This is a highly efficient stove that burns leaves, twigs, and sticks to cook by. If you live in the forest where there is an abundance of fuel it might be just what you want. Check it out at their website: http://www.stovetec.net/us/index.php . Another stove to consider is the Sierra stove which is a smaller backpacking stove that also burns twigs and sticks. Check it out at http://www.zzstove.com/mcart
And there you have it, lots of ideas on what to cook and how to cook it. We would love to have your feedback on meals you cook and how you cook them.