Cook Smart on Your Vacation in a Small Rental Space

Whether you’re renting a cozy little cabin or trying to feed a family of five out of an RV kitchenette, we’re not all lucky enough to have massive amounts of counter real estate and sprawling farmhouse sinks while on vacation. If your rental kitchen is more “efficiency” than “Pinterest-worthy semi-pro cooking station,” this guide has you covered.

By using small appliances, taking advantage of an outdoor grill, and preparing “no-cook” or “low-cook” recipes, you can create delicious and nutritious dinners on vacation that don’t require huge amounts of space. After all, some of the world’s top restaurants exist in densely populated cities, where teams of cooks work back to back in tight basement kitchens to churn out award-winning fare. If they can do it, so can you!


Working in a small kitchen starts with keeping your tasks efficient. Being organized makes time in the kitchen shorter, and starting with a clean kitchen means it is easy to get back to a clean kitchen after you’re done cooking. In short, you want easy prep, easy cooking and easy clean up, and that begins with a good workspace. Clutter-free countertops, spotless surfaces and clear sinks for all that fresh produce will make cooking a breeze.

1. Start with a Clean and Durable Workspace

  • Most people agree that the worst part of cooking is cleaning up, so it’s best to stay ahead of that by creating a workspace that is easy and inviting. Take a note from professional kitchens. If you go to the back of the house at any restaurant, you won’t see lots of knickknacks or clutter on the countertops. Professional chefs look for convenient access to tools, durable work surfaces and a clutter-free space.

    If cooking meals for family and friends is an important part of your vacation plans, take time to seek out a rental space with an appropriate kitchen. Look for a rental with sleek counter and backsplash surfaces and appliances that will make cooking easier every day.

    Choosing the right surfaces for prepping your meals is also important. A proper cutting board reduces your cleaning time, helps organize your ingredients and makes it easier to prepare your food.

    2. Clean Up After Yourself

      After you’ve prepared your meal, clean and put away all dishes and tools, or place them in the dishwasher if one is available. Then, make sure you wipe down all surfaces so you can get started seamlessly the next time you cook. Once you’ve finished eating, get those dishes cleaned right away. The more you do now, the easier it will be when you’re back in the kitchen again.

      Keep It SIMPLE

      Now that you have the workspace ready, the best place to start is the simplest! Start with the refrigerator as your first “cooking tool.” Salads, appetizers and refrigerator desserts can all be made without even turning on an oven or range.

      1. Salads

        Lettuce-based salads are a great start, but there are plenty of creative ideas to try in this category. Grain salads, bean salads and even bread (such as the recipe below) can be good options. Chef Charles Hunter III of The Salted Table says that the best place to start building a salad is the base.

        “I like to give the greens I’m using for the salad base a good rinse, then shake off the water and put them back in the fridge,” he says. “I put four paper towels in the base of a colander or bottom of a bowl, place the greens on top and then let them have another chill and dry out a bit while I compose the other ingredients.”

        Hunter makes a lot of salads for himself and his wife, and he cautions against using too many ingredients, as it can take too long and the flavors get too jumbled.

        When building a salad, Hunter opts for ingredients that really stand out, whether it’s fresh, ripe peaches from the market or even his homemade cornbread, which he uses to riff on a classic Italian panzanella salad. It makes sense since he’s a resident of Nashville and loves updating classic recipes with Southern touches.

        2. No-Bake Desserts

          From classic banana pudding to no-bake pies, the fridge and freezer are made for dessert-making. This is a place where the “not-quite-from-scratch” recipes can shine. For instance, starting with a store-bought gelato or ice cream and building from there makes everything even faster.

          Jessica Fisher of Good Cheap Eats recommends ice cream pies with cookie crusts or icebox cakes with fruit.

          Although it’s easy to find a recipe for combining whipped cream and cookies, this recipe goes a few steps further. First, it creates a party ambiance by building the dessert in individual portions. And secondly, it makes use of berries that add a fruity counterpoint to the chocolatey cookies.

          Keep It COMPACT

          If you’ve rented a tiny home or efficiency apartment, you may not have the luxuries available of a full kitchen. Don’t fret—with the right small appliances like a toaster oven, blender or slow cooker, you can prepare almost anything.

          If you’re serious about cooking, you may want to pack some of your favorite small appliances along with you.

          A favorite breakfast recipe go-to for Jennifer Fisher is vanilla almond French toast, made with a panini press. It uses up any leftover bread you have on hand and makes the kitchen smell delicious. This one is genius because it starts with—of all things—a sub roll, which can be an easy and cool dinner option earlier in the week.

          Likewise, slow cookers are like secret weapons for an effortless vacation meal. Not only are they hands-off for most of the process, but they keep things cool in the kitchen with their low-and-slow approach. Best of all, you can eat well as a family in the evening after a bit of prep in the morning, and still have the whole day to relax together outside.

          Writer and podcaster Stephanie Burt of The Southern Fork says slow cookers are the solution to an easy and delicious summer meal. Most recipes don’t require a lot of prep time, and they cook all day without heating up the kitchen, so you can arrive home to a cool vacation rental and a hot meal.

          Take It OUTSIDE

          Finally, there’s always the option of cooking outside, if you’re lucky enough to have an outdoor space with a grill, or a communal area that includes a grill for renters. The grill is synonymous with cookouts, and smokers are becoming hot items for many vacation rentals.

          Grilling and Smoking

          From gas to charcoal to hardwood smoking, grilling options have expanded as we’ve taken cues from restaurants into our backyard. Grilling is great for meat, but did you know that it makes veggies sweeter and fruit a little smoky?

          “The good thing about vegetables is that even if you toss them in a little olive oil before placing them on the grill, they’re not going to have melted fat creating flare ups,” says Jay Ducote, a tailgate expert, radio host and chef. Ducote recommends cutting your vegetables in big pieces or adding them to a skewer to prevent them from slipping through the grill gates.

          In the following recipe, Jay paired with another chef to show off how seafood and veggies can combine for a skewer main dish easy enough for anytime but elegant enough for a party. Don’t substitute that garlic in a jar for the fresh garlic, because it’s the fresh cloves that marry all the flavors together.

          Smokers are also becoming more popular, and Ducote has plenty of experience with them, winning the Tony Chachere's Tailgating Cook-off one year with this recipe, now one of his classic go-tos. You will definitely impress your family or friends with this one.

          If you’re lucky enough to have a rental unit with a fire pit, consider cooking over flames.

          Nowadays, it’s easy to go beyond s’mores with an open fire. The whole family will love this recipe from Christina Hartnett of Shock Munch.

          With a little planning and creativity, the limitations of a small rental kitchen can actually open up a world of possibilities. From no-bake desserts to taking the tasks outside, the whole family can enjoy all of the benefits of cooking while on vacation, even in a small space.

          Stephanie Burt is culinary expert and native North Carolinian who host a weekly podcast on her blog, The Southern Fork. Stephanie offers lots of options for creative cooking and gives advice on the different devices you can use while cooking in a small vacation rental space. To view some of The Home Depot’s small appliances options, like the toaster ovens that Stephanie talks about in this article, click here.