Full time vanlife cooking can be a very different game to that of the vanlife weekend warrior. Cooking three meals a day (or more if you are a fitness freak like me) can be hard to sustain.
The number of times I used to default to the quick pan of pasta and ready made sauce I should really keep a secret. It was unhealthy, boring and didn’t at all spark any of the vanlife dream that had drawn to the lifestyle!
To make it even more embarrassing, I am a qualified nutritionist and I also come from a family of passionate chefs and cooks. I was brought up on hearty home-made meals. I’d be booted from the dinner table if they knew I used a supermarket pre-made tomato sauce!
5 years before starting Vanlife, I was totally hooked on cooking shows, always making the effort to cook with seasonal produce and always keeping everything fresh. I cooked to impress!
Full Time Vanlife Cooking Year 1
My reasons for starting Vanlife were not like most, at least those who are likely reading this post. I had no intention of driving off into the sunset, exploring Europe or getting my bum out for a photograph under a waterfall. I simply needed somewhere to live so I adapted my VW Caravelle into a T4 campervan. Rock and roll bed, mixing bowl sink and a single burner cartridge stove. It really was minimalist living and I loved that about it.
During that year I was still finding my feet and learning about the Vanlife scene which I hadn’t heard of previously but what really did suffer was my nutrition.
Basic meals, basic cooking and regular convenience stores for a quick bite became the norm. With nobody to cook for, the cook to impress was out the window.
Thankfully this same year I met Sophie. Now I had a reason to pull out my culinary skills. Especially as I felt I had to make up for the fact that I was living in a van.
Rather than our usual meals out for our dates, I decided I would make a romantic candle lit dinner in the van. Sophie took the bench seat and I covered up the porta potti with a towel for my seat and a mini collapsible table from homebase and voila! Im such a smoothie huh!
My First Vanlife Romantic Meal
Traditional Bologna Spaghetti & Ragu (Spag Bol)
I made this on the one hob and I remember the spaghetti being cold and I premade the sauce early that day and had to store it in a camping flask! It was such a bodge and there was so much mess in my tiny T4 van. Thinking back, it was hilarious! Tasted good though!
1 x Onion
1 x Carrot
1 x Celery
2 x Garlic Cloves
1 Tin of Chopped Tomatoes
1 tbsp of Tomato Puree
250g Pork Mince
250g Beef Mince
Handful of Basil
Splash of red wine
Salt & Pepper
1 tbsp Sugar
Olive Oil (Extra Virgin)
- Dice the onion, celery and carrot and fry in a pan with the olive oil until soft.
- Finely chop the garlic and add to the pan.
- Season with salt the pork and beef mince and add to the pan stirring until the meat has colour. Add a splash of red wine.
- Add a tin of tomatoes and puree.
- Sprinkle 1 tbsp of sugar and give it all a good stir.
- Leave to simmer for as long as you can. It richens the longer you leave it.
- In the meantime, boil some water and add the spaghetti. Cook until soft.
- Before combining and serving add some chopped fresh basil to the ragu 5 minutes before.
That very meal re-sparked my passion for cooking once again and I felt excited by the challenge of having a tiny kitchen with only the most basic amenities.
Here is everything you need to know about Full Time Vanlife Cooking
Full Time Vanlife cooking should be as nutritious as possible so that you can maintain your health during cold winters, improve your mental health and be full of energy to enjoy life on the road surrounded by nature.
Do you need a fridge for Vanlife?
Generally nutritious food tends to be perishable and storing perishables requires a fridge, freezer or even a cool box. Especially during the warmer months.
If you don’t have any of these in your van you can find yourself limited to tinned food, dried food or making regular trips to the store for your fresh perishable food.
Full Time Vanlife
From my experience of full time Vanlife a fridge is an essential appliance in your tiny home on wheels. I would even say it’s an investment as it will minimise your trips to the store purchasing additional items you may not necessarily need.
If you are a solo full time Vanlifer you will also find that the freezer compartment is an amazing way of storing pre-made meals. It’s difficult to cook for one sometimes so go ahead and make a double portion so that you have one prepped for another day.
Part Time Vanlife
One of the biggest holdbacks in equipping your van with a fridge is the expense. A common 12v compressor fridge will cost between £300 and £1000. The higher end being for brands such as Dometic / Waeco.
For part-time vanlife perhaps all you need is a cool box for the weekend. With a couple of ice blocks stored inside it would certainly keep your perishables cool for a long weekend.
However, for a week or two away in your van you may start to find it inconvenient to keep stopping at convenience stores to stock up on perishables and a fridge would be a worthy asset to your van.
Do you need an oven for Vanlife Cooking?
Many campervans, motorhomes and van conversions make do without a fitted oven, but the real question is can you?
What do you like to cook in your van?
Full Time Vanlife
From my experience as a full time Vanlifer without an oven, I can confess to missing pizza the most but also oven baked delights such as pies and hot pots.
Whilst it is very possible to cook variations of these favourites by using gadgets such as the Omnia oven it lacks that one thing you find you start craving… that crispy topping!
All this being said, even when I was boring and lived in a house I hardly used the oven. Most of my cooking was done in a pan. It is my cooking style.
I’m sure that if you are a passionate cook you will know how to enjoy panlife and will be able to cook most of the things you enjoy. If you are an oven based passionate cook then you are going to need to get an oven installed.
Part Time Vanlife
Ok so you are on holiday right? You will undoubtedly be sightseeing, snacking on pasties, ice creams and local delicacies and a hearty home cooked meal might not be on the agenda. An outdoor BBQ is more likely on the cards when you get back from the local attractions.
Ovens aren’t that expensive, but they do come with their own set of considerations. They are quite large, heavy and they are either powered by gas or electricity.
Gas ovens require professional installation with gas safe approval and electric ovens require a substantial amount of power from your batteries. Both are the main reasons why Vanlifers avoid them. If you are a part-time Vanlifer do you need to go to these lengths for an oven?
Here are some products that will help you cook oven style food without an oven or grill
The Wonderbag Dutch Oven
Great for slow cooked recipes that need long periods of time in the oven.
The Omnia Oven
Cooks a variety of oven recipes with the simplicity of your stove top.
The Stove Top Toaster
Crispy yet spotty toast!
A Stove Top Tagine
Almost everything tastes better when cooked in a tagine!
Full Time Vanlife Cooking Year 4
4 Years along the road and not only have I learnt how to cook the meals I have always loved but I have never been so passionate about cooking. There seems to always be a way to adapt a recipe and make the classics come together in a van. Of course, I like to experiment and do my own take on the classics anyway.
I often make toast on the hob by using my stove-top toaster. It’s possibly one of my favourite van kitchen gadgets. The toast comes out spotty but perfectly crispy.
Another regular feast in the van is roast dinner with roast potatoes. Crispy roast potatoes might I add!
Curry is also a favourite of mine, with so many variations of protein, spices, veg and of course I make my own Naan Bread.
4 years on and I still haven’t found the need to install an oven. I do have a mini electric oven stored under my counter, but I very rarely use it. It’s only because of the kid’s turkey dinosaurs that I keep it. I can’t see myself installing an oven anytime soon and even if I started another van build, I wouldn’t be taking an oven into consideration.
I’d like to say I rock up at some scenic location and make viral TikTok worthy meals but the harsh reality of my vanlife is that I am usually parked up on an industrial estate with a depressing view! Not quite the TIkTok or Instagram shot you lot in Portugal are getting!
During the weekends when I am in the van with Sophie we like to head out into the country with the intention of a nice park up and interesting food and we both get stuck into some van cooking and baking. Sophie usually hogs the Omnia oven and bakes an amazing pudding. I can’t recommend her Omnia cakes enough!
The conclusion of full time Vanlife cooking vs part time Vanlife cooking is as follows:
Full time Vanlife cooking requires a more sustainable diet which will also mean there is a requirement to store perishable food. You shouldn’t be avoiding your veggies and you will need a more varied diet, thus more ingredients to store. Longer periods in the van will free up more time to cook a nutritious hearty meal.
Part time Vanlife is a lot more flexible in what food you need to be storing as you will be stopping off for convenience meals and snacks whilst on your travels. You are less likely to feel the need to cook a hearty meal so cooking will be quick and easy, leaving much more room for those holiday activities.