Welcome to Your Van Life Kitchen
Most people living the stealth van life are very lucky in that they have made a conscious choice to live the way they do. They might be the #VanLife Instagram crowd, or maybe just digital nomads, either way, they usually can afford to have some sort of decent kitchen set up in their home on wheels.
But what about the rest of the stealth van nomads? The ones who didn’t choose the life, or who made the choice between living in their car over being homeless? If you’re struggling to make ends meet and need some decent food that won’t break the bank, this post will be my first in a series of easy cheap meal ideas.
First things first, shopping. Not all grocery stores are created the same. We all know Whole Foods is probably going to be expensive, but sometimes the little neighborhood spots that are in a convenient location can really gouge you when it comes to prices too.
Where to Shop For the Best Deals
1. Bulk Bin Food Stores-When shopping for foods we always like to stick to places where we can buy bulk items first and foremost. Since we are in the Pacific Northwest that usually means we end up at Fred Meyer or Winco more often than not. Bulk bins are great because you can buy small amounts of the things you need instead of having to carry around a bunch of food with you.
2. International Markets– If I’m going for spices, I totally skip supermarkets altogether and go to an international market. The spices are always way cheaper and probably fresher. We also like to buy produce there as well. We have a place in town called Fubonn. Their produce is amazingly cheap. It’s not always the prettiest, but it is by far the cheapest and I can buy super small quantities without having to worry that it will go bad if I don’t have my fridge hooked up.
3. Discount Stores– Hello Big Lots! Where have you been all my life?! Places like Big Lots, Marshalls, Grocery Outlet, Ocean State Job Lot, Ross, Home Goods, and Dollar Stores have AMAZING deals on stuff all the time. The thing is, it’s usually discontinued (but not expired) items. I’ll usually buy splurge items here. Things like nut mixes, canned chicken, and jerky can be had for a steal.
4. Manager Special Section– My boyfriend hates that I do this, but I always scope out the manager special sections. This is usually meat and dairy that is going to expire on that day. I don’t eat a ton of meat, but I do love me some cheese and the manager special stuff is great. I feel less bad about not completely finishing something if I paid 70% of the normal price for it. But let’s not kid ourselves here, I always finish cheese.
Cooking Inside a Van
So now that we’ve figured out where to shop, we can plan some meals. As someone with a few extra pounds around my midsection, eating well is important to me. Luckily in my past life, I was a chef, so I tend to do OK even with my very small van kitchen. But if you don’t know what you’re doing or have no idea where to start, I’ve got some ideas for quick easy foods you can make while still maintaining your stealth status.
These ideas are perfect for people with no refrigeration and minimal heat sources.
Oatmeal with Dried Fruit– Find bulk bins at your local grocery store and load up on quick cooking oats and dried fruits. In the morning pour some hot water over the top and allow everything to soften up. Add dried milk powder for a creamier option. Oats and raisins can be super cheap! Stock up and you’ll always have a quick meal ready to go. If you have no way to heat water, just pour the water over the oats the night before and let it hydrate while you sleep. Fancy crowds call them “overnight oats”
Pancakes– Bisquick could not make this one easier on you. Add water to the powder, and BOOM pancakes! Top with some shelf stable syrup and you’re good to go. Bonus points if you go for the generic store brand pancakes.
Hard Boiled Eggs and Toast– Lots of gas stations have hard boiled eggs in their refrigerated case. I, however, think they are gross. If I’m feeling like I want eggs, I’ll grab a 6 pack from the grocery store and just hard boil them when I want to eat them. Sure, the refrigeration issue can be tricky, but in other countries, they don’t refrigerate their eggs at all.
*, do this at your own risk!
PB & J– Ok, I feel like this is kind of a cop-out because it’s so simple, but seriously…PB&J can’t be beat. It’s super cheap and requires no prep.
Instant Soup– This couldn’t be easier. To get a bare-bones soup, add hot water to a bouillon cube. Want to make it more hearty? Cut up some beef jerky and let it sit in the water for a few minutes, add a handful of vermicelli noodles, and last, toss in a handful of fresh spinach and let it wilt. You probably won’t win any awards on The Food Network, but it’s an easy and cheap way to get protein and vegetables in your body.
Chicken Salad- Another easy one, but totally deserves to be on this list. For this to work, you have to have the foresight to grab packets of mayonnaise, relish, and mustard whenever you see them available. Sandwich shops and fast food places tend to have these around for free. I’m not advocating full on theft…but if a few extra packets make it into your jacket pocket, I doubt the police will come looking for you. Open your can, drain your chicken-or tuna, add your mayo, mustard, and relish, then mix. Spread it on crackers, or for a healthier option, use celery sticks as a spoon you can eat.
*Protip-If canned chicken and tuna is out of your price range or you don’t eat those things, TVP is another option. It’s usually super cheap and can be prepared by just adding hot water. In an application like chicken salad, if you add a chicken bouillon to your hot water, you would almost never know the difference. It can also be used just like ground beef for taco meat.
Thai Peanut Chicken– Drain a can of chicken and dump on top of pre-soaked vermicelli noodles. Add a couple of packets of soy sauce, some chili flakes, and a handful of chopped peanuts. Stir and enjoy.
Couscous– Since it’s technically pasta, too much couscous isn’t the best option if you’re trying to watch your carb intake. But for the price, and ease of preparation, couscous can’t be beat. You can do a million different things with it. Toss a bouillon cube into the water and enjoy. Or make it fancy with olive oil, chopped tomatoes and a handful of arugula.
Cheesy Broccoli Mac– News Flash: Velveeta does not need to be refrigerated. It’s a weird orange cheese plastic hybrid, but when you need some comfort food, it will do the trick. For this, you’ll definitely need a way to boil water.
Start by boiling some macaroni, give it a couple of minutes and then toss in a bag of frozen broccoli. You’re going to use the whole thing, so get the smallest bag you can find. When the pasta is done, drain it and put everything back in the pan. Add some Velveeta chunks and your chicken and stir until everything is melty. You might need to add a few spoonfuls of water if everything is looking dry.
You can omit any of those items but always try to get both protein and vegetables in your meal whenever possible. I understand protein sources can be expensive, but you need them to live.
Need more inspiration? Here are a few pictures of some of the items we’ve made on the road.
You Can Eat Great Food While Living in Your Van
So, as you can see, van life cooking doesn’t have to be microwaved burritos at 7-11. You can have some really great, cheap items if you think ahead and do a little planning. Hopefully, these tips will broaden your horizons and show you that you don’t need a 60k van life kitchen, just to eat.