“I cook because it’s tastier, cheaper, healthier, and more satisfying than any of the alternatives.” – Leila
Cooking can happen anywhere. For the past year, Leila has been making dinner in a motorhome and proven herself to be a true Kitchen Hero. While Leila’s adventuring spirit extends into experimental cooking, Cook Smarts has helped organize her cooking process to ensure an entire tried-and-true meal ends up on the table every night.
As Leila and her fiancé travel the country and explore national parks year-round, she has gained a host of RV cooking tips and tricks to share. Preparing meals may sound so much harder than grabbing takeout when on the road, but they found the opposite to be true. Read on for some great cooking on the road and RV tips!
Name: Leila Kalmbach
City, State: I’m from Austin, Texas, but have been living and traveling around the U.S. in a very old motorhome since July 2017.
I cook for: My fiancé and I cook together.
Outside of the kitchen I: work as a freelance writer and copy editor and spend much of my free time exploring state and national parks with my partner and our German Shepherd.
If I could have any superpower it would be: teleportation. Driving days are a pain in the ass!
I cook because: it’s tastier, cheaper, healthier, and more satisfying than any of the alternatives.
Favorite CS meal so far: Salmon Poke Bowls! With, according to my Favorites list, 94 meals coming in a close second.
How did you learn to cook?
My mom taught me some basics growing up, but I had some pretty big gaps in my knowledge. I always loved experimenting, though, maybe a little too much — I used to frequently end up with big vats of meh-flavored veggies, slightly odd bread risen with wild raisin yeast, or kale chips cooked in my car on a hot summer day (they were delicious, but the car smelled like kale for days).
I’m fascinated by fermentation, and pre-Cook Smarts I could easily have spent all day baking bread and lactofermenting ketchup or something, then not have an actual meal to eat it with. And if we’re being totally honest here, until Cook Smarts, cooking a complete meal was always a stressful experience where I’d just sort of hold my breath and hope it was edible and that nothing would catch fire.
So how did I learn to cook? Trial and error, but mostly Cook Smarts.
What’s been your biggest cooking challenge?
Getting organized. I always wanted to be the kind of person who cooks on a regular basis, but it never felt realistic. In the past, I would either buy a bunch of random ingredients and then try to turn them into a meal, or I’d spend so long choosing a single recipe, deciding on tweaks and substitutions, getting a shopping list together, and going to the grocery store, that I’d run out of energy and motivation to actually cook. Then I’d find myself snacking through dinner or getting takeout instead.
How has your cooking routine changed since starting Cook Smarts’ meal plans?
Well, I actually have a routine now, so there’s that! I’m a little bit obsessed with Cook Smarts. I love having hundreds of complete meals to choose from, with such variety of flavors, that I know will all be well-balanced and restaurant quality — so all I have to think about is what sounds good, then click for a grocery list. My fiancé and I used to mostly figure out food on our own, but now we cook together almost every night. It’s my favorite part of the day.
Typically, he does the grocery shopping and I do the prep work. I love chopping veggies or mixing up a marinade for the next night’s dinner while relaxing before bed with a show or podcast. When we bought our RV, we were nervous about continuing Cook Smarts in such a tight space, but in fact we’ve come to rely on it even more — it’s much harder now to grab takeout on a whim (and options are often limited). We were also nervous we wouldn’t find all the necessary ingredients at tiny rural grocery stores, but once you have red curry paste, fish sauce, and za’atar seasoning, for example, they last a long time. That means on a weekly basis we’re mostly buying produce, which is easy to find.
“I’m a little bit obsessed with Cook Smarts. I love having hundreds of complete meals to choose from, with such variety of flavors, that I know will all be well-balanced and restaurant quality — so all I have to think about is what sounds good, then click for a grocery list.”
What are some cooking lessons you have learned from cooking on the road / in an RV?
- Accept that everything will take longer in an RV. Everything.
- RV ovens are notoriously terrible, but keeping a pizza stone in the bottom of the oven will help to better distribute the heat. (Bonus: You’re always prepared to make pizza.)
- Take little shortcuts to avoid taking bigger shortcuts. For me this means jars of pre-chopped garlic, ginger, and lemongrass, bags of pre-shredded carrots and cabbage, pre-washed quinoa, etc. Anything to cut down on steps so that cooking feels like the easiest dinner option.
- Don’t try to keep ingredients “on hand.” It’s not just a space issue; things don’t keep as long in an RV. Hard as we try, the cabinets are sometimes exposed to extreme temperatures, and the fridge and freezer, well, they try their hardest, but if this were elementary school Track and Field Day they would definitely just get green participant ribbons. These days, we buy what we need, when we need it.
- Mind the elevation. This is a lesson we’ve learned over and over, but it never seems to stick. Before going from sea level to the mountains, loosen jar lids and push extra air out of bags. Also increase baking temperature and / or cook time, add more liquid and less sugar, and for the love of god, cut down the yeast in your bread or you will create a monster.
- Be flexible. If we don’t have electricity, propane, and / or charcoal, we have to get creative with cooking methods. Our oven is practically the size of an Easy-Bake Oven. And there’s only room for one person in our kitchen. Sometimes you have to find a Plan B. Sometimes you have to bake in the Instant Pot or chop veggies in the bedroom. Sometimes I find an avocado in my bed. It’s fine.
Tell us about your proudest kitchen moment.
My proudest kitchen moment didn’t actually occur in the kitchen at all. Recently I was planning to have dinner with a friend at her house, and I texted beforehand to ask if I could bring over cooking ingredients or grab takeout on the way. She wrote back that she’d prefer takeout, and I was shocked to feel a twinge of disappointment. Me, disappointed NOT to cook! In that moment, I realized that my approach to food had completely shifted. For the first time in my life, I actually felt confident that I could cook something tastier and that made me feel better than almost any takeout we could get. What we got that night ended up being delicious, but the moment stuck with me.
What are your tips for health and success in the kitchen?
Our bodies are so, so smart. If we listen to them, they will tell us exactly what they need. Yet our culture teaches us to distrust our bodies, to override them, to fight them. Count calories, cut carbs, do a juice cleanse, schedule a Whole30, try intermittent fasting, eat-this-not-that. There’s so much advice, half of it conflicts, and it’s constantly changing. We’re taught that a short-term health study of 17 university-age males in England can be universally applied, but our own hunger is probably misguided. To me, that’s absurd. I believe that when we learn to listen to our own bodies without judgment and eat the foods we enjoy and that make us feel good, we become much happier and much healthier — and when food is less fraught, it’s easier to stick with a cooking routine, too.
Thank you so much for your great tips and delightful wit, Leila! We are really glad that Cook Smarts has helped you learn to cook delicious meals and has been a vital resource for your past year of RV adventures. We hope that you and your fiancé continue to enjoy healthy dinners as you revel in the beauty of nature and travel! (Oh, and don’t forget to say hello to your bedtime avocado pal for us! 😉 )