The key to our new lifestyle is frugal living. If we have to eat at restaurants and fast food chains because we don’t have a kitchen, we might as well stay in a cheap apartment. Fortunately, it is very easy to cook in your van. If you have ever backpacked or car-camped you are ahead of the game.
The easiest and healthiest thing is to eat raw foods like fruits, vegetables, salads, nuts and trail mix. With these you don’t have to do any cooking. Adding sandwiches to the menu gives a lot of extra variety without any cooking. A loaf of bread and some cans of tuna, lunch meat, or peanut butter is all you need. The problem with most store bought luncheon meats is they contain a lot of salt and chemicals. One solution is to buy your meat at the deli counter where they slice it right in front of you. A little more expensive, but much healthier.
Even for this simple cooking we need refrigeration for the vegetables, lunch meats and salad dressings. A cold drink on a hot day is real nice as well! I recommend an extreme cooler. Many companies make these now. They have extra insulation so they will last five days in hot weather. I bought one that had a spigot on the side at the bottom. Make sure you can screw a regular garden hose onto it, makes draining the water much easier. Leaving the water in helps it to stay colder up to a certain point. Once enough ice has melted it is better to drain off the water.
Keeping food in the water is a bit of a problem. I have used double-bagged Ziplocs but eventually, after a few days, the water always seems to get in. You can get Tupperware and Rubbermaid containers at thrift stores that work well. I like using one block of ice and one bag of crushed ice, seemed to be a good compromise between space efficiency and slow melting. The fuller the cooler is, the longer it will stay cold. With a cooler, we can buy a milk and have cereal, one of the simplest meals, and with the right cereal, very healthy. Transfer the milk into a couple of insulated containers and it will keep much longer and water won’t get in.
Since our vans tend to get pretty hot in the summer, I recommend adding extra insulation to your cooler. Go down to Home Depot and buy one or two (depends on the size of your cooler) sheets of blue styrofoam insulation, 2 foot by 8 foot. The blue kind won’t be damaged by getting wet and is tougher. Cut them with a kitchen knife to fit your cooler on all 6 sides, making sure that the lid will hinge open. Also, cut openings for the handles and spigot. I just used superglue to attach mine and duct tape at all the corners to be double safe. Never had any problems with it. I measured how tall my cooler was (and the Rubbermaid tote I used for the rest of the kitchen stuff) before I built my bed out of 2 X 4’s and plywood. I made sure they would slide underneath for storage. I slide it out when I need something out of it. The styrofoam takes up a lot of space. An alternative is to use Reflextic insulation you get from any hardware store. Just wrap it around the sides and glue it to the top and bottom.
Many of us are going to want to do some actual cooking for a greater variety of meals. This is no problem of all. I used a Coleman 2 burner propane stove. Why use a stove that big? While I have never used both burners, I wanted the extra stability it provides. When the lid is up it provides security on three sides so it is very unlikely to tip over and spill. I don’t want to lose the food but more importantly I don’t want to catch the van on fire! If space is at a premium, you can use a backpacking stove. You just have to figure out a way to stabilize it so you can’t accidentally kick it over. I personally would not use one that burned white gas or Coleman fuel. The flare up in the van would scare me.
Next thing we need is pots and pans. I like a 12 inch Teflon frying pan and lid. I can fry hamburgers, grilled cheese sandwiches, or make a Hamburger (or Tuna) Helper meal. I can fry up a couple pounds of hamburger for tacos or sloppy joes. I prefer to cook extras and put the leftovers in the cooler for a later meal. That minimizes the cooking and cleaning I have to do. A 2-quart pot with lid can be used for mac-n-cheese, stew, spaghetti, chili, or boiling eggs. Basically anything you can make on your stove top at home you can make in your van with these two pans. Add a few plates, bowls, spatulas and utensils, and you are good to go. They are going to get some rough treatment so plastic picnic plates (frisbee?) and bowls are good. A Lexan knife, fork, and spoon and a plastic spatula won’t scratch your Teflon.
After we cook we need to clean. Again, this is no big deal. Go to a thrift store and buy a tub large enough to hold your pans one at a time. Go to Walmart and buy a 1-quart spray bottle that people use to mist their plants with. While there get a a dish scrub brush that holds the soap in the handle and has a sponge cleaner, and a small bottle of anti-bacterial dish soap. Next we need water. You can buy it at the grocery store in 2 1/2 gal jugs but that will get expensive. I generally just go into a public restroom and get a quart or two at a time. The smaller containers are easier to fill in bathroom sinks and don’t draw attention to you. To wash the dishes, fill a squirt bottle with clean water and the scrub brush with soap. Use a paper towel and wipe off excess food. Hold your pan over the empty tub and squirt it until it is wet all over. Clean it with the scrub brush. Rinse it thouroughly with the squirt bottle. Dry and put away. That used maybe a cup of water. Wash your plate and utensils in the same way, except now you have soapy water in your
tub to use. Find a good place to dispose of the water. It is very simple as long as you do it right away. If you wait long enough for the food to harden then you may have to let it soak which will use a lot more water. I try to wash as soon as I’m done eating.
I keep all of these things in a Rubbermaid tote that I store under the bed. When I want to cook, I slide it out, empty it, turn the tote over and cook on top of it while sitting on the bed. This has worked very well for me and hopefully will work well for you.