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135 Meals in a Van

My husband, a friend, and I just returned from a lifetime trip to Alaska. We drove more than 7,000 miles, and—except for a few nice meals out for special occasions like anniversaries and birthdays—we cooked all our meals in our van or outdoors in our trusty cast iron camp Dutch oven.

The galley in our van is super-small—only one person can cook at a time. It has one induction burner, a tiny fridge, and a sink that holds 10 gallons of water. Sounds tight but, compared to our normal kayaking trips where we have no refrigeration or running water, it felt like the galley was the Taj Mahal.

Contributor Katy Wilken shown with the shepherd's pie she and her husband cook on the road.

Enjoying Shepherd’s Pie in the great outdoors

We turned out more than 135 meals with one person chopping and prepping the food, one person cooking, and one person cleaning up after. We cooked our way through the land of the midnight sun. Indeed, it was often light all night long.

We were often far away from grocery stores (when the road signs tell you next services are in 300 miles, you know you are remote). But with the luxury of our small fridge, we were able to take produce with us, allowing us more variety in our meals. We stayed away from highly salted convenience foods, using only low-sodium canned goods.

We made the great baking mix recipe featured on the Northwest Kidney Centers website. The recipes for pancakes, biscuits, muffins are low-sodium and making it in advance means you don’t have to use salty packaged mixes like Bisquick or Krusteaz.

The Dutch oven, which uses charcoal to cook, allowed us treats like blueberry scones for breakfast, and tamale pie, shepherd’s pie, and nachos for dinner, with plenty of leftovers to keep cold for lunch the next day as we drove to the Arctic Ocean and back.

If you haven’t cooked in a van or outdoors, try some of these recipes at home first. You want to streamline the cooking as much as possible, decrease the number of dirty dishes to wash (remember, only 10 gallons of water), and plan for both leisurely meals when you have lots of time and quick ideas for when everyone is tired after a long day, and no one wants to cook.

Spending time roaming the grocery store aisles to look for low-sodium foods you want to work into your recipes—before hitting the road—will save you hours of shopping in unfamiliar stores on your trip. One of our great finds was precooked pasta in bags, which we combined with red sauce or pesto we had made ahead at home. Another was boxed or powdered coconut milk for Phad Thai. Smoked salmon with cream cheese and purple onion was a favorite for lunch, on low sodium crackers or a bagel.

Because of our small refrigerator, we focused on more plant-based meals, and came up with a list of some of the more “sturdy” veggies that we could keep for a week or longer. Celery, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, bell peppers, blueberries, and apples—even cherry tomatoes and cucumbers—kept pretty well. Here are a few of our favorite van meals, followed by several recipes:

  • Van Yoghurt breakfast
  • Van Blueberry Scones
  • Van Salmon Bagel lunch
  • Van Salads
  • Van Phad Thai
  • Dutch Oven Shepard’s Pie
  • Dutch Oven Tamale Pie
  • Van pasta with pea salad

Van Shepard’s Pie in Dutch Oven

1 12 ounce can of chicken or roast beef

1 tablespoon oil

1 cup onions, diced

1 cup mushrooms, chopped

3–5 small new potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes

¼ cup unsalted butter

¼ cup flour

2 cups milk (made from powdered milk), or UHT milk in a box

1 can low-sodium mixed vegetables

1 cup low-sodium dehydrated vegetables

2 tablespoons dried parsley

½ teaspoon black pepper

2 cups instant mashed potatoes, made according to package directions.

In large skillet, add oil, onions, and mushrooms. Cook until onions are transparent. Add potato cubes and cook for five minutes.

In a saucepan, melt the butter, add flour, and cook over medium heat until light golden color. Slowly add milk, stirring until thick and creamy. In a 10” Dutch Oven, with an aluminum liner for ease of cleaning, combine beef with potatoes and vegetables, parsley, pepper, sage, and sauce. Spread evenly in oven.

Make instant mashed potatoes according to package directions. Spread mashed potatoes on top. Bake with 12 coals on the lid and 8 under the base for 30 minutes.

Nutrition (based on six servings): Calories: 174; Carbs: 18 g; Protein: 3 g; Sodium: 171 mg

Low sodium Baking Mix for Scones (etc.)

8 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon low sodium baking powder

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 cups instant nonfat milk powder

2 1/4 cups shortening or unsalted butter

Sift together flour, baking powder, cream of tartar, baking soda, and milk powder. Cut in shortening with a pastry blender until evenly distributed. Store in a large, airtight container in a cool, dry place. Use within 8-10 weeks.

Nutrition Facts: Based on 42 (1/3 cup) servings: Calories: 171, Carbs: 22 g, Protein: 5 g, Sodium: 78 mg

Van Blueberry Scones in Dutch Oven

3 cups Baking Mix (see above)

2/3 cup water

1 cup blueberries or wild huckleberries if you are lucky. Dried cherries or cranberries and orange peel are good as well.

Preheat 10-inch Dutch Oven with 11 coals under oven and 15 coals on top, have extra coals ready to add when you put scones in hot oven. Goal is 450 degrees.

Combine above ingredients and blend well. Let stand 5 minutes. On lightly floured board, knead dough about 15 times. Shape into round loaf to fit inside Dutch Oven aluminum liner. Cut in 8 pieces, put loaf back together in greased liner. Bake 15–20 minutes until golden brown.

Nutrition Facts: Based on 8 servings: Calories: 202, Carbs: 28 g, Protein: 5 g, Sodium: 79 mg

Katy G. WilkensContributor Katy G. Wilkens recently retired as registered dietitian and department head at Northwest Kidney Centers. The National Kidney Foundation Council on Renal Nutrition has honored her with its highest awards for excellence in education and for significant contributions in renal nutrition. She has also been awarded the Medal of Excellence in kidney nutrition from the American Association of Kidney Patients.

 Photos by Rich Wilkens.

Eating Well, Living Well classes

Studies show that working with a registered dietitian can delay kidney failure and postpone dialysis for longer than two years. FREE nutrition classes taught by Katy’s former team of registered dietitians are available at convenient times and locations around Puget Sound. Eating Well, Living Well classes teach people how to eat healthier to slow the progress of kidney disease and postpone dialysis. Learn more at

Posted in Food