I cooked dinner for 2 in a camper van’s small kitchen, and it was surprisingly easy

I cooked dinner in a camper van. Frank Olito/ Insider
  • I cooked taco bowls for two in a camper van’s small kitchen.
  • Chopping vegetables and cooking the meat on the gas stovetop were surprisingly very easy tasks.
  • The hardest part of the process was washing dishes in the van.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

People who live in camper vans full-time often photograph themselves cooking outside on small hot plates in the middle of a beautiful forest, or as they’re cooking a delicious meal in their small kitchen in their van.

Determined to find out what van life is really like, I rented a camper van back in January and took a short road trip from New York City through New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Since most of the restaurants were closed or had limited capacity along my route, I thought it was the perfect time to see if cooking really as is easy as vanlifers on Instagram make it out to be.

From grocery shopping to washing dishes, here’s what it was like to cook dinner for two in a camper van.

When I stepped into the camper van for the first time, I was surprised to find a full kitchen and everything I would need to cook a meal.

The entrance to the van. Frank Olito/ Insider

The 2015 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter camper van I rented included some luxurious amenities, so luckily it had most of the appliances you’d find in a kitchen in a traditional home. But it should be noted that some camper vans don’t have all of these amenities; some vans only have a small stovetop or just a fridge, while others don’t even have a kitchen at all.

On one side of the vehicle, there was a large sink and a refrigerator.

The sink and fridge. Frank Olito/ Insider

On top of the sink, there was a cutting board that fit snugly into place and could easily be removed. To the right of the sink was a stainless steel mini-fridge that actually looked more like a dishwasher than a refrigerator. For a mini-fridge, it felt deeper than most, but I could see it filling up quickly if my trip was longer than a weekend.

On the opposite wall, there was a stove, an oven, and plenty of counter space.

The stove on the opposite wall. Frank Olito/ Insider

The gas stove had four burners – which were covered by a glass protector that could be folded up – and a small oven beneath. On either side of the stove, there was plenty of counter space, which surprised me. In fact, there was more counter space in this camper van than in my kitchen apartment in Brooklyn.

Plus, the kitchen had a ton of cabinet space for all the kitchenware I was going to need.

The cabinetry. Frank Olito/ Insider

In the overhead cabinets, there were mugs, glasses, and other kitchenware. In the cabinets below the countertops, there were bowls, frying pans, and pots. Each of the cabinets had a special lock so they wouldn’t open when the vehicle was in motion.

Some of the utensils were creatively hung on the wall — a great way to save space.

The knives on the wall. Frank Olito/ Insider

When I first saw the knives just hanging on the wall, I thought it might be dangerous. I pictured a worst-case scenario where the knives would slip off the magnetic attachment and hurt someone. Luckily, the knives didn’t budge the entire journey.

On our second day in the van, we decided to buy ingredients to cook a simple American taco bowl for an early dinner.

My friend holding up some of our groceries. Frank Olito/ Insider

At first, we planned on frying up turkey burgers, but then I remembered how frying meat can leave a nasty smell in the air. The last thing I wanted was to be trapped in a small van and smelling fried food all night.

Instead, my friend and I decided a taco bowl would be simple and quick to cook in the van. We headed to a grocery store and bought the ingredients, substituting the usual ground beef for ground turkey.

After shopping, it felt strange to load the van with the groceries and then just keep them there. Usually, there’s the dreaded extra step of taking the groceries from the car into your home to unpack. This lifestyle completely nixes that step.

We decided to cook right there in the grocery store parking lot.

Getting started with the prep. Frank Olito/ Insider

My friend and I were too hungry to drive back to the campground we were staying at just to cook, so we started prepping immediately. First, we had to clear the countertops of our various belongings – like deodorant, toothbrushes, and a laptop – that we put there throughout the day because there was limited space in the camper van.

When I started prepping the meal, I noticed how strange it was to be cooking while people were pushing grocery carts and loading their cars with bags just outside the window.

After the countertops were cleared, I started to cut the vegetables.

Cutting the veggies. Frank Olito/ Insider

As I cut the onions, tomatoes, and avocados, I kept the cutting board over the sink to see if it was functional. Turns out, it was. Not only did it save necessary counter space, but it was also a great way to keep the kitchen tidy.

After the veggies were cut, we started to brown the ground turkey meat on the stove.

Browning the turkey meat. Frank Olito/ Insider

I was nervous to light the stovetop at first because it was run via a gas tank in the cabinet below. I was surprised, however, that the stove lit just as easily as any stovetop I had used in a traditional home.

Once the turkey was browned, we had to dump the excess liquid into the sink, which was a challenge.

The browned meat. Frank Olito/ Insider

When I turned around with the frying pan in my hand, ready to dump the excess liquid into the sink, I noticed too late that the cutting board was covering most of the basin. Although the cutting board was practical at first, it got in the way later in the process.

We then brought all the ingredients together into two bowls and enjoyed our meal.

Our meal. Frank Olito/ Insider

The camper van does have a table that you can assemble once the bed is folded up and the back of the van is cleared. We thought it was too much effort to put everything away and then assemble the table, so we just sat in the driver’s and passenger’s seats, munching on our dinner in the parking lot.

Washing the dishes, however, proved to be a hassle.

Washing dishes. Frank Olito/ Insider

To wash the dishes, I had to press a button to my left to turn the hot water on. I had to then wait a few minutes for the water to warm. While waiting, I realised the van didn’t come with a sponge, so I improvised with a paper towel. There was no towel to dry the dishes with either, so I had to use even more paper towels.

Overall, I was surprised by how easy it was to cook dinner in the camper van.

The kitchen in the camper van. Frank Olito/ Insider

After finishing my meal, I realised there were a few limitations to cooking in a camper van: It would be difficult to cook for more than two people, it would be impossible to host friends for a diner party, and the fridge might be too small for two people living in the van full-time.

I ran into some minor hassles along my journey, but I was surprised to find that the easiest part of van life was cooking. While I didn’t feel as glamorous as the vanlifers on Instagram, I could easily see myself cooking every meal in this vehicle if I ever decided to join van life.