Cooking in a Small Vehicle, Part One

Traveling in a minivan camper does have its challenges, and one of them is cooking in a small vehicle. It requires a convenient setup that is flexible to all circumstances. Some would say it’s not worth the effort, and would just as soon eat out. That’s perfectly fine if you have the budget and lack of dietary restrictions to enjoy it without a hassle. But traveling in a camper van means you may be out away from areas that would have restaurants, and it may not be convenient to just pack up camp and drive a long distance for a meal.

In this series of three posts, I’m going to talk about how I do my own cooking in a small vehicle, first from the problems of dealing with the small space, to the foods I recommend, to the equipment I use.

The great thing about a self-created minivan camper, is that it is usually laid out basically like a tear-drop camper trailer, and those have proven themselves over many years of camping! The major difference is that with most tear-drop campers, the kitchen is not accessible from the inside. With a minivan, it is entirely possible to do most things from the inside… making it much more versatile.

Even so, it makes common sense to plan your variety of meals for all contingencies. There will be many times you will want to stop and just grab a quick lunch while enroute to your next destination. But if it happens to be raining, extremely windy, or just plain cold, you will want something you can reach from inside the van, and preferably not have to cook. Using open flames inside of small spaces is never a good idea.

You will probably want snacks while enroute, also, and those have to be accessible from the driver’s seat, either from a center console, immediately behind it, or at least reachable on the passenger seat. Because you may be sitting for long periods of time and not burning calories, those should be limited to sugarless drinks, and low-calorie snacks like veggies, or if you need a little more energy to stay awake, eat fruits.

Once you are parked, you have a choice… to go outside and open the lift gate to access the full kitchen, or to simply reach what you need from the inside, and make do with whatever you can make without cooking. Most people will prefer to go outside and do their meal preparation from the back of the van… but again… what happens if the weather is bad? With a properly planned kitchen setup in the back of the van, you should be able to at least get into your cooler from the inside of the van and reach whatever kitchenware you need (plates and silverware, mainly).

If the weather is nice, and you can prepare your meals and eat outside, many more opportunities are available. The lift gate itself provides rain and sun cover, the same as the rear hatch on a tear-drop trailer. The kitchen area can also be laid out just as efficiently, giving you the ability to use a small heating appliance for cooking (outside the van, of course) and access to a small sink to clean things up after the meal. If those things are portable, you can even take them out to a picnic table, if that works better for you.

As far as what kinds of food to stock, I am only suggesting what I would take. I have no dietary restrictions and although I try to eat healthy and in moderation, and get a decent amount of exercise, I am not a fanatic about it. There are very few foods I just don’t like, and therefore I wouldn’t have to worry too much about my provisions for cooking.

There are many fruits and veggies that don’t require refrigeration, and will keep for at least a week or more at a time. Just search Google and you can find web sites that list them all. Obviously, I would make a list of those things that fit the requirement, and try to keep them on hand whenever possible. The refrigeration capabilities in a van are going to be very limited, mostly in size. Therefore, the more things you can avoid having to keep cool, the better off you will be.

Although there are small 12-volt refrigeration units that can also freeze things if necessary, they come at a high price, both in money and power consumption. Even if you can afford one, you have to figure out how to keep it running if you plan to park for more than just a day. With enough secondary battery power, you can probably get by for a few hours without restarting your van to charge the batteries, but unless you have solar power, or constantly use campsites with power (which also cost more), it could be a waste of your time and money.

A van roof is quite small, so you won’t have the area to provide much more than a couple hundred watts of solar panels. If you need a roof pod to carry extra “junk”, you may not even have that space available! And you aren’t going to have a lot of room in the inside to carry portable panels with you, nor do you want to take up extra space and weight with more batteries than you need. So one way or the other, you have to gear your refrigeration needs to what is practical for the space you have!

If power is a problem for any kind of portable cooler, and you are only go camping for long weekends and holidays, then you might be better off with a plain old ice chest. If you start out with some plastic quart-sized jugs full of ice (that you can make at your “home base”), then the ice cost is very little. Those jugs should keep things cold for several days, and you may not need to buy a bag of ice. You also won’t have water building up in the bottom of the cooler to ruin food, and you won’t have to empty it, either.

Even if you have to buy a bag of ice, it’s not that expensive and it should last nearly a week in a decent cooler. You can help it by not getting into it any more than necessary and adding a cover over it and around it to keep the heat away from it.

In the next post, I’ll talk about what kinds of foods you should plan on for cooking in a small vehicle. What you actually buy for yourself is entirely up to you! I’m just offering suggestions! Feel free to offer up your own suggestions or ask questions in the comments.

Thanks for reading,


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