In September of 2018, I spent a week in Italy cooking for a yoga retreat. The retreat was housed on an old Tuscan vineyard in cottages that were originally built in the 1500s for farmhands and their families. I was immediately overwhelmed by the thought of all the women who, for hundreds of years, had prepared meals in that same tiny space.
The experience was humbling in the same way I feel humbled by travel itself. It connected me to the vastness of life on this planet beyond my little experience of what it means to be me.
The kitchen itself was about the size of a dining room table. It had a 2-burner stove and a finicky “RV-size” oven. It wasn’t the first tiny kitchen I’d cooked in, but it solidified a truth that would come in handy just a couple of years later:
The size of a kitchen has little relevance to the quality (or quantity) of the food that comes out of it.
Fast forward to April 2020. My husband and I had just sold our house of 16 years and moved into a 43-foot 5th-wheel toy hauler. In comparison to many RV kitchens, mine is humongous. But, compared to the kitchen in our former suburban house, it is absurdly tiny - especially for someone who makes a living as a recipe developer and food photographer.
But… I had already cooked in tiny kitchens like the one in Italy and knew that creativity, high-quality ingredients, and organization are much more important than the size of the kitchen.
Since moving into our RV, I’ve cooked my way across 30 states, created and published over 100 recipes, and hosted gatherings with as few as 2 guests and as many as 40.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far about cooking and baking in a tiny kitchen on wheels.
- We always “need” all the space we have, even when we don’t
- 4 Creative storage solutions
- Living in a small space does not mean we can’t entertain
- My favorite flavor-packed space saving ingredients
- Be choosy about your appliances
- Essential pots and pans
- Essential baking dishes
- Baskets and bins to organize our refrigerator and small kitchen cabinets
- Tools to maximize drawer and counter space
- Nice to have and fun to have pans (If your kitchen has enough space)
- 💬 Comments
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We always “need” all the space we have, even when we don’t
If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that nature abhors a vacuum. I always “need” all the money I make and all the space I have. Somehow, even when I let go of commitments, I still manage to fill up all my time.
For me, the only way to “need” less of anything is to limit what’s available. That plethora of kitchen appliances, pans, and dishes that I had been collecting (and really, really needed!) over the years…. Turns out I don’t miss them at all.
4 Creative storage solutions
Maximizing the use of space is something that RVers excel at. I am constantly learning from other nomads who post photos of their creative storage solutions on social media. Here are 3 ideas that have worked well in our tiny kitchen:
1. Utilize the space under cabinets. I didn’t want to give up mugs and wine glasses but didn’t have the cupboard space for either and wasn’t sure how to keep the glasses from breaking on travel days.
The solution was to hang them underneath our upper cabinets. The mugs are suspended on simple hooks. The wine glass rack is a genius design, created by my talented brother. The rack holds 8 bottles of wine and 6 glasses, all nestled in felt-lined compartments that keep them secure and protected during travel.
2. A flat spice rack built on the outside of one of the cabinets.
This is another genius design built by my brother that allowed us to take advantage of the cabinet wall next to our oven. Spices take up a lot of room and they are super difficult to organize (and keep organized) in a drawer or cupboard.
This simple spice rack makes them accessible and easy to keep organized.
3. Use the top of your stove for extra counter space. If you have limited counter space it can be extremely helpful to have a wood stove. I like to use this for prep work before I start cooking. Anyone with a small kitchen knows that it's more difficult to measure and chop as you go - there's just not enough counter space to hold multiple ingredients.
Chopping and measuring in advance makes the process of cooking in a small kitchen so much less chaotic. And a stove top cover creates a significant amount of increased counter space.
4. Adding a couch and ottoman with storage. Soon after moving into our 5th wheel, we removed the typical “RV style” couch and replaced it with a couch and ottoman from Home Reserve. Besides loving the look and feel of our new sofa, each seat, and the ottoman, includes storage.
People always laugh when I tell them that our ottoman is full of baking supplies, but it’s true.
Living in a small space does not mean we can’t entertain
Since moving into our 5th wheel, we’ve hosted many small and large gatherings, with as many as 40 guests. There’s been a substantial amount of trial and error in figuring out what works for larger groups, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:
- When feeding a crowd, soups and stews, and casseroles are the way to go. They are easy to serve and keep warm, do not require separate serving dishes, and can be made ahead of time. Also, aside from maybe a salad and some bread, they don’t require a bunch of side dishes.
- Stick to finger food for dessert – things like cookies, brownies, and cupcakes. Nothing that requires slicing, plating, and serving.
- Paper plates are great, but plastic utensils suck. I opt for paper plates when entertaining a crowd but draw the line at plastic utensils. To save drawer space, I keep a container for utensils on the countertop with easy access to knives, forks, and spoons for 36 people.
- Set up an outside drink station on a folding table. Food inside, drinks outside.
Yes – hosting a party in an RV is crowded and chaotic. So what? Everyone you invite knows what they’re getting into, and honestly, the sheer madness of all those people in a tiny space is part of the fun.
My favorite flavor-packed space saving ingredients
These four ingredients have become indispensable to me because they pack a powerful punch, keep for weeks in the refrigerator, and take up very little space:
- Pomegranate Molasses: It’s fabulous in salad dressings and cocktails, and brushed over beef, pork, or chicken, or veggies, and used in marinades. You can make it yourself or purchase a bottle in specialty shops or online.
- Browned Butter: Browned butter is easy to make and makes almost anything more delicious, especially these massive, gooey chocolate chip cookies. It will keep for weeks in the fridge and makes a fabulous drizzled over roasted veggies or used to make brown butter pasta.
- Better than Bullion: Better than bouillon is a concentrated paste in a tiny jar made of cooked meat or vegetables that you dilute with boiling water and use in place of stock. In my refrigerator at all times are chicken, beef, vegetable, mushroom, and adobo.
- Aleppo Pepper Oil. Pour 1 cup of extra virgin olive oil into a skillet and stir in ⅓ cup
Aleppo pepper(You can order Aleppo pepper on Amazon). Heat until the oil begins to simmer and then turn off the burner. Let cool and store in an airtight container. Even better, fry some chopped garlic in olive oil until crispy and dump that into the same container. Drizzle on red lentil soup, eggs, tacos, toast, sandwiches, stir into salad dressing, anything and everything.
Be choosy about your appliances
Our 5th wheel came with an outdoor kitchen equipped with a tiny refrigerator and a 2-burner gas stove. Since we already have a refrigerator and gas stovetop inside the rig, we replaced them with a Blackstone griddle and Traeger smoker, doubling our options for what we want to cook with.
This concept also applies to multi-tasking appliances. If you don't have room for a grill and a smoker, the Ninja Woodfire Grill and Smoker is a fantastic solution.
When we lived in a house with a large kitchen, I had an instant pot, slow cooker, and an air fryer. When we moved into our RV, I replaced all three of those appliances with a Ninja Foodie.
The ninja foodie is also perfect for anyone with a very small oven. Most RV ovens are so small it's difficult to cook anything in them. If that's you, I'd highly suggest investing in a Ninja Foodie. I'm certain you'll end up using it instead of your oven for pretty much anything that needs to be baked or roasted.
Essential pots and pans
The most that anyone needs to make pretty much anything is a skillet and 3 saucepans - small, medium, and large. And honestly, you could get by perfectly well with nothing more than a skillet and one medium saucepan.
But there are a few more that are useful if you have the space. I have one cupboard underneath my kitchen sink for all my pots and pans and here's what you'll find in there:
I just added the HexClad frying pan to my collection because it doesn't have a long handle. This is not only good for space saving reasons, the pan also fits inside my oven better. When making dishes that move from the stovetop to the oven, the long handle of my non-stick skillet prevents me from being able to set the pan in the center of the oven. The HexClad pan solves this issue and just might replace my skillet entirely.
8-inch skillet. I use the small 8-inch skillet almost exclusively for eggs. It’s the perfect size for a creamy french omelet or when I’m making scrambled eggs for one or two. I also use it for things like making flavored oils like the
Large stockpot. I use the 8 quart stockpot for soups and stews of course, but I also like to use it for anything I'm going to fry like these crispy chile rellenos and pork green chili. Using a deep pan for even shallow frying keeps spatters contained which means a lot less mess. It's also my pasta pot and my pasta sauce pot. You'll see it in photos for things like homemade marinara. Cooking both the sauce and the pasta in the same pot means being mindful about timing, but that's a worthwhile tradeoff for not taking up space by having two large pans in my cubpard.
Small and medium size saucepans. Likewise, you'll notice both the 1-quart saucepan and 3-quart saucepan in step-by-step instructions for so many of the recipes on this site like general tso's cauliflower and quinoa stuffed acorn squash.
Cast iron skillet. A cast iron skillet is also great for both indoor and outdoor cooking. I use mine all the time to make buttermilk biscuits, skillet pecan pie, giant chocolate chip cookies, and savory dishes like stuffed mushroom dip and skillet vegetable lasagna.
Dutch oven. A cast iron dutch oven is fantastic because it can be used for both indoor and outdoor cooking including over an open flame. You'll see it in this recipe for camping tacos, Filipino chicken adobo, and dutch oven pot pie.
Essential baking dishes
Cookie sheets. The inside of my oven is about 4-inches smaller than a standard size oven so regular size cookie sheets and half sheet pans don't quite fit. That's ok because the smaller cookie sheets pictured above are perfectly suited to any task I put them to. They are great for baking cookies, of course. But also great for sheet pan dinners, crisping up carnitas, and as serving trays for appetizers and other small bites and snacks like these delicious oven baked crispy carrot fries.
Muffin/ cupcake pans. Obviously, if baking muffins or cupcakes is not something you do, you don't need these in your kitchen. Since I feel that a life without cupcakes and muffins is no life at all, I have these pans in my kitchen.
An 8x3 inch round cake pan. I love the depth of this cake pan which is about twice as deep as a standard round cake pan. It's perfect for thick single layer cakes and makes it so I can bake a layer cake by baking one cake and just cutting it into layers. This, of course, means only having to store one cake pan.
A springform pan. A standard springform pan is essential for things like cheesecake, buttermilk coffee cake, and cakes that would otherwise be impossible to get out of a regular cake pan like this streusel topped French apple cake. Springform pans are also great for savory baking. Use it to bake a quiche or meat and cheese filled pizza rustica.
A loaf pan. Loaf cakes are probably my favorite kind of cake to bake because they are so easy to make and easy to serve. But I use my loaf pan for all sorts of other things besides baking loaf cakes, like banana bread! It's a great pan to use if you're only going to roast a small amount of vegetables and is essential for things like classic meatloaf.
A bundt pan. Like loaf cakes, bundt cakes are easy to make, easy to transport, and easy to serve. This makes them perfect for cookouts, BBQs, and camping trips or any kind of entertaining. Bunt cake pans come in all sorts of fun shapes (like the pine forest bunt pan used to bake this gingerbread holiday cake), but you really only need one.
One more tip for anyone like me who has a smaller-than-average oven. One of the problems with smaller ovens is that the food is always too close to the heating element. I've found that keeping a pizza steel in my oven is a great way to mitigate this challenge.
I use the steel to make homemade pizza, of course, but I keep in my oven at all times because it helps conduct heat more evenly around whatever it is I’m baking or roasting. It also creates a barrier between the bottom heating element and the food which helps prevent the bottom of things like cookies or biscuits from burning.
Baskets and bins to organize our refrigerator and small kitchen cabinets
Nearly every single one of my kitchen cabinets contains baskets and racks that help me take full advantage of every single inch of storage space. Baskets are especially great because you can pile a lot of things into them and keep everything contained.
For example, I have a basket for vinegars and oils and another basket for baking supplies like baking powder, baking soda, cornstarch, and vanilla.
Not only do the baskets keep everything contained, I can pull the entire basket from the cabinet if I want to use what I need then just put the whole thing back.
Here are a few of the baskets and racks I've found the most helpful:
#1. Soft sided baskets for inside cupboards. These are the baskets I have inside every single one of my kitchen cupboards. Their soft sides makes it easy to move them around as needed to fill all the available space inside our small cupboards and makes them easier to get in and out when I want to pull a whole basket out of the cupboard.
#2. Sturdy sided pantry storage baskets. I love the narrow width and chalkboard labels on these pantry organizer baskets.
#3. Baskets for the tops of cabinets. I have a set of baskets like these on the very top of our cabinets to take advantage of the otherwise wasted space in between the tops of our cabinets and the ceiling. Having handles on the baskets is essential for us short people to be able to get them down. 😂
#4. Refrigerator bins. Since we live in an RV, these organizer bins do double duty for us. They help keep our refrigerator organized while helping us to maximize space, and they keep everything from rolling around all over the place when we're traveling.
Tools to maximize drawer and counter space
My tiny kitchen only has two small drawers for things like flatware and utensils. In order to maximize the space of those drawers, I keep our flatware, wooden spoons and serving utensils in baskets on the counter right next to the stovetop.
I also keep knives suspended on a magnetic strip right above the stove. All of these products free up so much space in my drawers and keep knives and utensils in easy to reach places.
If you don't have a good spot in your kitchen to to add a magnetic knife holder, this magnetic wood block is fantastic:
Nice to have and fun to have pans (If your kitchen has enough space)
Wok. If you cook a lot of stir fry, having a wok is extremely useful. I love this smaller sized wok, which is perfect for small kitchens!
High-end saucepans. If you really want to splurge on a great set of pans that will cover all your bases, this set from HexClad is worth the investment. Yes, it's on the pricy side, but as with most things, you get what you pay for. This is one of my favorite brands of cookware and it'll last forever.
Mini loaf pan, 12-cup muffin pan, jumbo muffin pan. I love this set of three pans in the first image. There's the regular muffin pan, of course but I've used the mini loaf pan to make mini pumpkin loaves, lemon ricotta loaves, and little lime pound cakes. And I use the mini muffin pan to make these cinnamon streusel mini muffins, mini double chocolate muffins, chocolate peppermint cupcakes and chai latte cupcakes.
Tart pans. I have all three of the tart pans in the image above because I use them frequently enough to justify the small amount of space they take up in my kitchen cabinet. The long rectangle pan is great for things like this chocolate tahini tart. I love using the round tart pan to make this poached pear frangipane tart. And the mini tart pans are perfect for these individual sized amaretto custard and blackberry tarts.
Honeycomb pan. I know that not everyone with a small kitchen can justify the storage space for a honeycomb pan but I use this pan surprisingly often. I use it to make almond honey cake and chocolate honey cake of course. But it's also great for brownies because every little section has the perfect combination of crispy, chewy edges and gooey middle.
Mini bundt pan. I keep this mini bundt pan for one delicious reason - mini cranberry bundt cakes. I make these at least once every holiday season and the pan is small enough to justify storing it for that once a year use.
Mini springform pans. These 4-inch mini springform pans are perfect for smaller portions of anything you'd bake in a regular size springform pan. In fact, if you don't have room for a regular size springform pan, a set of these mini pans are a great option. I use them to make mini almond cakes with cranberry sauce and cranberry pineapple upside down cakes.
A jumbo muffin pan. Why bake small muffins when you can bake jumbo muffins instead? 😉 I especially love to use my jumbo pan to bake crumb topped muffins like these raspberry muffins because the larger size allows for plenty of crumb.