8 Lessons I’ve Learned From Cooking in a Van

My boyfriend and I have lived full time in our itty bitty fifty square foot van for two years. We love eating, we love food, and we make our breakfast, lunch and dinner in our van almost everyday, especially since the start of 2020 when we started traveling full time in the van. One thing I didn’t anticipate is all of the lessons our tiny space would teach me about food preparation and cooking. We have a very small kitchen: it has a single burner, a bar sink with a 7 gallon water tank, a 4 foot x 1 foot countertop, a few large food storage drawers and a small fridge. Our van doesn’t support using most electrified cooking appliances.

Being an “organized” cook doesn’t sound very sexy, but it’s what I’ve become since we started #vanlife. Most people want their creativity to flourish in the kitchen and I would say most media focus more on culinary arts than culinary sciences. For me preparing food in a very small space like our van has, however, forced me to become much more methodical, process-oriented cook and much more acquainted with culinary science. So while this list of cooking lessons may not come off as very exciting or creative, they’ve made me a far more prepared, thoughtful & aware, skilled cook. 

I admit there are always exceptions to these rules. For instance, I generally cook for just two adults, so my advice may not work well for a large family. And I admit that I have the luxury of choosing to make time for cooking, since I find it to be a centering, meaningful activity. If you want to improve your cooking, at some point you, like me, must also decide – choose – to make space for it in your life, no matter your lifestyle or circumstances.  

We often look at cooking as something to finish, a chore, where quick and easy prevails. And certainly you can prepare quick and easy but delicious dishes; far from all cooking, in fact, has to be an event. But from a mindful perspective, in fact, everything is an “event,” just by being an active participant in what is happening. 

Cooking doesn’t need to be complicated. You don’t have to prepare elaborate meals to be a good cook. Far from it. A good cook, to me, is just there in the kitchen, involved in what they are doing, using simple ingredients, being creative with what is available, and this is the essence of the following advice. Without further ado, here are the most important lessons I’ve learned about cooking recently.

Be prepared to just cook. 

Distracted cooking leads to mistakes. Meal preparation, baking, etc. is a completely legitimate, worthwhile, meditative, engaging activity in and of itself. So why not give it the attention it deserves, and make it an immersive experience? If the kids are bugging you, get them involved. If the baby is bugging you, well, don’t listen to me! Help the baby! 

Erin's kitchen countertop in her van
My favorite kitchen.

Clear your counters.

Preparing my space is something I learned from sewing. The best way to start sewing is to be prepared and get your space in order. To create space and reduce distractions when cooking, put away unnecessary objects. I have extremely limited space to cook, so I especially like to maximize my cooking space. I also just don’t like looking at things on the countertop that don’t belong there when I’m cooking. For instance, having breakfast things on the counter when I’m starting dinner messes with my flow and the countertop feng shui, if you will.

Cluttered countertop in our van
Because, how can you can you prepare a meal when you have no space!?

Review your recipe, if using one, or review your fridge and pantry. 

My first step when following a recipe or preparing packaged food is to re-read the instructions. I usually realize or remember something important when I do this. If you aren’t using a recipe, try just looking around at what you already have. Looking through our drawers and fridge helps me account for things and get ideas about what to make. I’ll realize we need to use spinach that is spoiling soon, remember that we have this spice or that, and remember to use them!

Gather your ingredients and tools. 

Get out everything that you’ll need, including kitchen tools. Remember to preheat your oven or cast iron. Once you turn on the flame, the clock is ticking. So, not being ready to add ingredients as needed can be a catastrophe. Bonus points if you work ahead and measure out your ingredients. 

Ask questions. 

Be curious! If you have a question, ask someone in the kitchen with you, ideally. Otherwise, consult Google. I recently had a recipe call for cream of tartar, and realized I had been using this ingredient pretty much my whole life without actually knowing what it is. Finding out was totally worth it. If someone has more experience than you or more luck than you in preparing a certain dish, try to learn from them.

Read labels.

I love reading. Everything. Including labels. So I read the entire label from my prepared and packaged foods and ingredients. Not just the nutrition information. Everything. And I always learn something interesting. 

Some package instructions are more useful than others, like this one! Often, the preparer has an intention for you. They want your meal to come out well, so you buy their product again!

Have patience.

Don’t rush it! When you’re impatient you’re more likely to cut corners. This usually affects flavor or texture to some degree. Sure, you can douse your mushrooms in a lot of oil, turn the heat all the way up and saute them in 5 minutes flat. But slowly sauteing over low-medium heat for longer, using less oil, brings out much more flavor, creates a delicate texture, and is better for your health. .

Put everything away when you’re finished.

Invite yourself back into the kitchen by clearing the space. If Michal is being executive chef for the night, I like to follow him around as he is going and put things away that he isn’t using, get things out for him that he needs, and vice versa. I’m happy to act as sous chef in this regard, and it makes cleaning up afterwards quite a bit easier.  

…There you go! That is my non-sexy, apparently basic cooking advice. If you enjoyed the simplicity of this post, then I beg you to advance to reading Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal” whose common sense advice for the kitchen borders on poetry. Cooking will never be the same once you read from her!

What did you think of this post? What is your advice for me for the kitchen? Are there any typos or broken links? Talk to me in the comments below!