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Food for Thought – The Best Food for Vanlife

Living on the road in our converted van has its challenges; one of those for us has been adapting to a much smaller kitchen for storing and cooking food. We both love to cook and so we try not to compromise on it while traveling.

One of the other difficulties is living without a fridge, something that we’ve found too difficult and expensive to include in our camping van conversions so far. Here’s some observations so far, on which foods we find easiest to travel with in a van. 

Last updated 2019

cooking bread on the fire golden bc
Cooking bread and sweet potato on the fire, near Golden, BC

1 – Root vegetables and squash

Root vegetables and squash are amazing to travel with. They naturally have that hardy skin protecting them from dehydrating and rotting.

Sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, beets turnips, butternut squash, acorn squash and, my favourite, potatoes – they will just stay fairly nice even in warm weather as long as you keep them in the dark.

2 – Grains, cereal and flour

The nice thing about grains is that they are extremely shelf stable. Rice, rolled oats, quinoa, corn meal, wheat flour (white and whole wheat) will keep well at room temperature for months as long as you have them in airtight containers.

Bread does not agree well with warmth so having flour handy is great for pan-fried flat breads or loaves (or even cake) baked over the fire if you have a dutch oven.

baking cakes dutch oven camping
Homemade cake in our mini dutch oven

3 – Beans and lentils

Beans offer a trio of greatness. Probably one of the cheapest sources of protein, they are already dehydrated and shelf-stable. Chickpeas, black beans, mung beans and lentils will supplement any meal.

Red lentils will cook as fast (around 15 to 20 min) as rice even if you haven’t soaked them. How convenient, considering that rice and lentils/beans make for a full protein and are delicious too!

For something different, leaving most whole beans in water for a few days (rinsing them regularly with fresh water) will give you sprouts. Of course, some time and space are needed for this.

Bannock and tomato bean stew camping
Tomato, butter bean and green bean stew with homemade bannock bread

4 – Pasta and noodles

Another food ready for travel straight from the store. Pasta and noodles will keep fresh for months. Rice noodles and rice vermicelli, in particular, are great because they don’t even need to be cooked as such. You just have to pour boiling water on them and wait a few minutes before straining.

pesto pasta backcountry cooking
Pasta with our homemade ‘backcountry pesto’ – blended dehydrated basil with nutritional yeast, oil and sunflower seeds

5 – Nuts and dried fruit

There’s a reason why GORP (good old raisins and peanuts) is a favourite of outdoor adventurers everywhere. Fairly cheap, easy to make and great to keep your energy level high. The mixture can be as simple or fancy as you want it to be.

Peanuts and raisins are inexpensive and easy to find while almond, walnuts, cranberries and mango are more expensive.

Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are good, cheap fillers. These seeds can also be added to oatmeal and homemade bread for some extra flavour.

cooking in inuvik burger coleslaw sweet potato
Potato and sweet potato fries with chickpea burger and coleslaw in Inuvik, NWT, where fresh ingredients were limited and very expensive

6 – Fresh fruit

Some fresh fruit can also last days, potentially even weeks if chosen well. Bananas, avocados, mangoes and pears are a good example of fruit that is picked green and will be expected to ripen during transport.

If you chose those fruit at a different state of ripening you can eat fresh fruit for over a week.

  • Fruit with thick skins will last longer in general like citrus fruit
  • Apples are usually OK but may end up bruised and lose crispness fast
  • Avoid berries and stone fruit unless you are able to eat them quickly – they are affected by heat badly
  • Broccoli, green leaf vegetables and lettuce are not good in warm weather either, but a good replacement for them is cabbage.
mussels desolation sound fresh food
Fresh (and completely free!) mussels, near Desolation Sound, BC

7 – Animal protein

If you have the chance to get your hand on some unwashed free range eggs, these will last for quite a long time at room temperature.

Do not keep store bought eggs at room temperature as the natural protection from the eggs has already been washed away and have to be kept cold because of this. 

Meat jerky will keep for weeks if keep fresh and can easily be made in and oven or a dehydrator.

Candied salmon will also stay fresh for weeks and is one of my favourite foods. Of course, this is easily beaten anytime we manage to catch fresh fish!

jr fishing dempster highway yukon
Successful fishing on the Dempster Highway, Yukon

8 – Prepackaged and pre-dehydrated foods

There is a wide selection of shelf-stable or already dehydrated food available in grocery and bulk food stores. The latter group ranges from vegetables, potato flakes and soups to powdered coconut milk, cheese and hummus.

Shelf stable foods include a huge number of items such as pasta, curries (check the international/ethnic aisle), granola bars, fruit roll-ups, crackers and freeze-dried meals.

We have a mix of both prepackaged and already dehydrated food for adventures away from the van (hiking/canoe trips mainly) and as general back-up for emergencies.

lake louise cooking minus temperatures
Cooking in 5 degrees Celsius in Lake Louise, Alberta

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