How to Cook, Buy, and Store Food When You Live in Your Car: The Complete Guide

Everything you need to know about how to cook food in a van, spend less on it, and store it right--plus a free $10 for your grocery budget!

Let me just say something: I love food. Oh man, do I love food. But food when you live in your car? It’s much harder to love.

I come from a Spanish-Mexican family. Food is powerful, emotional, and intertwined with my everyday experiences and deepest-set memories. After I got married, food was the main opportunity outside of my work or study life to reconnect with my family. So when I decided to try living in my car, I knew that food would be a key component in my motivation and success.

The problem is that most good food takes time, equipment, or money–and I can’t spare much on any of those. Unlike many van dwellers, I do not have a kitchen set up in my vehicle… and since I started living in my car during the dead of winter, cooking outside in general, was neither appealing nor stealthy. (I’m almost certain someone would call the cops if they saw me roasting weenies in three feet of snow in the nearest public park.)

During the colder seasons, I admit to relying more on convenience foods and eating out (cheaply) just to get by. However, I have developed a pretty comprehensive plan for “doing” food when my situation allows me to buy and prepare it properly. If you plan on living in a van and haven’t made a food plan yet, I highly suggest trying some of these tips:

Where to shop and save money on food

I’m living in a town with a lot of chain grocery stores for now, so if you’re like me and frequent those places I highly recommend using Ibotta to cut your grocery budget. Ibotta is a free app that works a lot like couponing without the hassle of rifling through paper catalogs; you simply download it, select rebates for things you’re going to buy anyway, capture a photo of your receipt, and get cash back in your PayPal account or on a gift card. If you sign up using this link, you’ll get a $10 bonus after you redeem your first purchase. I can usually save a few dollars with each grocery trip depending on what I buy, so it’s a handy tool.

If you don’t shop at chain stores, though, you have tons of other options for cheap and healthy food:

  • International markets (Asian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern, etc.). These have fresh (and often cheaper) food, but watch out for spoilage since items may be closer to expiration. You’ll also find wide selections of seasonings, plus dried produce and meats that can stay preserved longer. Use Yelp to find one near you–Korean markets are my favorite!
  • Outlet or discount grocery stores: here’s a small directory, but it’s not comprehensive by any means.
  • Bakery outlets (for cheap bread!). You can also find day-old, discounted bread at Jimmy John’s.
  • Dollar stores (Dollar Tree, Dollar General, etc.). You can get everything here from meat to dry goods depending on the location. Food quality varies, and sometimes the price per unit is more expensive than what you might find elsewhere, so use your discretion.
  • Farmers markets (or farms, if you have access to any). They’re best in the summer and incredible for fresh produce.
  • Bakery and grocery clearance sections for chain stores: some have set times when they display markdown items, so it never hurts to ask!

How to cook food in a van (or vehicle)

Van dwellers have a few common ways of cooking. Most of the popular setups you’ll see use stoves or electricity, but those are by no means your only options.

If you want to cook with a cheap setup, though, the classic camp stove is one of your best bets. While single burners (http://amzn.to/2liolS3) have the benefit of portability, most double burners include wind shields that can help avoid propane spillage (which a huge no-no, whether or not you’re cooking inside your vehicle). You will have to buy propane canisters, but overall this method is a very cost-effective, long-lasting, all-in-one solution for cooking and eating fresh food.

If you live in a consistently sunny area, many van dwellers have also used sun ovens (http://amzn.to/2lYYbn9) successfully to cook. Sun ovens are a good route for people who care about sustainability and saving money on energy costs because they require no electricity. While they are more costly than your traditional camp stove, they double as food dehydrators and your risk of fire is much lower. If the weather is hot you also won’t have to worry so much about slaving over a hot cooking surface.

Induction cooktops (http://amzn.to/2lWcnAs) may be a viable option for some van dwellers, but for all their benefits they do come with many drawbacks. Induction cooking greatly reduces fire risk because it does not produce any open flames, provides an extra prep surface when not in use, and allows you to time your cooking. However, these cooking tools require an insane amount of power, so if you invest in one you will definitely need some kind of battery, inverter, and charging system (all of which are large investments in themselves), as well as special cookware (something magnetic like cast iron, for example). There is no “plug and play” option here.

Plugin cooking options do exist like 12-volt portable stoves, slow cookers, and heating pots. These tools work better if you simply want to reheat foods like soups or beans, but are not really appropriate for full cooking–plus, reviews are hit and miss, so you may risk buying something that will only exist to become a melty glob of plastic later on. Beware!
– portable stoves (http://amzn.to/2luRiMJ)
– slow cookers (http://amzn.to/2lwAl52)
– heating pots (http://amzn.to/2kKQQ99)

If you have a way to heat foods to their boiling point (either with a camp stove or microwave), a Wonderbag (http://amzn.to/2lW8QSR) is one last option if you want to expend little energy and still enjoy some fresh-cooked food: simply heat foods to a boil, place your pot in the bag, and let it cook for an extended period of time depending on the food (it works like a slow cooker, so most of the time you’ll need a few hours or more). You can also make foods like rice and yogurt. Wonderbags are bulky, require time to work properly, and are a little pricey. However, they require no energy to work (thereby reducing your footprint) and buying a bag from this particular brand also donates one just like it to someone in an underdeveloped country.

How to cook food… without tools

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to keep your food healthy or cheap if you don’t do some of the cooking yourself. However, you may have a few directions to take depending on your circumstances.

  • Look for public microwaves and use them to cook. Depending on where you dwell, you can spot them in a variety of places: grocery stores, convenience stores, break rooms at your job, or any kind of dining hall you can sneak into unnoticed. I would not recommend microwaving your food for every meal, but it’s an easy way to have hot food without expending your own energy.
  • Use your family and friends. For now, I live close enough to people I know who will let me use their kitchen from time to time. While it’s not a true van dwelling option, you have the benefit of a full kitchen without having to carry the burden of one. (Just don’t be a total moocher–make sure you offer your host some food!)
  • Eat raw, cold, and/or dry. Even eating one raw meal can save you the extra prep and time required to create a full dish. A quick lunch of deli meat, raw vegetables, and crackers are perfectly satisfying without the need to light a stove.

How to store food safely

Nobody wants food poisoning. If your van build does not have a refrigerator, then, you may benefit from buying a small cooler for foods that must stay cold. Don’t waste your time on ice or ice packs, since they will create a huge mess, but you could wrap cold foods in towels or other insulation before they go in the cooler so they can retain their temperature.

Keep three general rules in mind:

  1. Keep food out of direct sunlight and keep food cooler when possible. Cover items when not using them to insulate a little and prevent overheating.
  2. Use your judgment. If food smells or tastes off, just throw it out.
  3. If you’re pregnant, elderly, a child, or otherwise have a compromised immune system, these rules may not apply to you.

Contrary to popular belief, many foods have lenient storage and refrigeration needs. Here are some of the most common rules to follow:

  • Fresh meat and deli items: always refrigerate or consume immediately.
  • Eggs: while refrigerated, store-bought eggs must stay cold, farm fresh eggs do not need refrigeration. Mass-produced eggs in the US get their shells washed soon after chickens lay them, removing their outer protective coating. Some van dwellers don’t refrigerate their store bought eggs and haven’t experienced any issues (while wiping off the condensation that forms when they warm up). If you go this route, proceed with caution.
  • Vegetables: as long as you can keep them dry and out of direct sunlight, you don’t need to refrigerate vegetables. Some types, such as root vegetables, will last longer than their green and leafy counterparts.
  • Fruit: Same rule as vegetables.
  • Dairy
    • Milk: fresh milk must stay in the fridge. Ultra high pasteurized milk (UHT), and other dairy you can find in cartons on the grocery shelf, only need refrigeration after opening. You can avoid the need to refrigerate if you buy these milks in smaller, single-use containers.
    • Cheese: all cheese keeps better when in a darker, ventilated area. Harder cheeses, while they may “sweat,” will keep at room temperature without issue. Wax preserved cheeses (e.g., Babybels) also don’t need a fridge. Soft or moldy cheese should be cold or otherwise eaten right away.
    • Butter: food safety guidelines say to keep it refrigerated, but butter is generally safe as long as it is kept covered. If you’re still worried about the shelf life and still want a genuine buttery taste, try ghee.
    • Margarine: If kept cool, you can leave “stick” margarine out of the fridge. “Tub” margarine may be prone to separation, though.
    • Yogurt: it’s a judgment call. If you go to Europe, for example, you might eat room temperature yogurt without issue. While sealed yogurt is fine in theory if consumed within 12 hours or so, it’s safer to eat unrefrigerated before even two hours have elapsed.
  • Preserved, canned, or packaged foods: keep them out of direct sunlight. Cover with some kind of layers or insulation when possible (like blankets) to keep cool. This method works for opened containers of peanut butter or jelly, too.
  • Dry goods (flour, sugar, rice, oats): no refrigeration needed, though you may want to keep them sealed up to avoid bug infestations. Try mason jars or tupperware.
  • Honey: no fridge needed!
  • Herbs and spices: keep them unrefrigerated in shaker containers, which you can find in bulk sections of grocery stores or online (I would recommend something like these little bottles [http://amzn.to/2livrWw]). Alternatively, reuse any other small food-grade plastic you’ve already bought, such as tins or plastic containers for gum.

For other foods, use a site like StillTasty to determine if you need refrigeration or not. You’d be surprised at how much you can keep on your counter!

How to eat healthier (and eat out less)

I’ll be honest, this issue is still a struggle for me. I love my visits to Panda Express and the occasional beer, neither of which do me any favors. However, I do feel better when I follow a few rules of thumb:

  • Cook your own food. As noted above, there are tons of ways to do it.
  • Eat more fiber–specifically plant fiber. Simply put, your body will have an easier time digesting everything else and you’ll get more vitamins. (Even when I’m at Panda Express, I try to load up on the veggies to downplay some of the damage.)
  • If you eat convenience foods, go to the grocery store. They are more expensive per unit price than cooking entirely from scratch, but you will still save more money and eat better than if you buy takeout all the time.
  • Stay hydrated (with water). You’ll be less likely to have cravings for bad food, which can sometimes be confused for simple thirst. If you need to wean yourself off soda, I highly recommend sparkling water.

Where to find recipes

Search Pinterest–seriously! It’s the best resource for finding portable or outdoor-friendly recipes. I’m also posting new ideas on my boards all the time, so you’ll never get in a food rut.

What is your cooking setup, and how do you keep your food costs low?

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Everything you need to know about food when you live in a van--plus a free $10 for your food budget!
Everything you need to know about food when you live in a van--plus a free $10 for your food budget!

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