Solo folks face unique challenges for eating healthy, beyond a lack of cooking skills. It's less fun to cook and eat alone, and very little food comes in packs of one. The trick is to muster up the will to cook once a week so you can enjoy healthy meals for the next few days. Illustration by Nick Criscuolo and based on Shutterstock.
Since I have to cook for myself, I'm all about being efficient and spending as little time cooking as possible, yet still have food ready for me. The emphasis on efficiency helps override those feelings on nights when I have very little motivation to cook or do anything beyond vegging out on the couch.
At first, cooking even once a week sounds like a hassle. But preparing days' worth of food in one fell swoop removes many of the barriers that keep you from a healthy meal -- such as time constraints, low energy at the end of the day and 2-for-1 margarita emergencies. Plus, being prepared lets you streamline and maintain good eating habits, and helps you curtail hunger-induced decisions at the drive-through.
Your Solo Dining Plan of Attack
Preparing meals for one isn't complicated, but it's definitely a skill. You will need to learn your way around a spatula, dice things up without spilling blood and be able to juggle just enough food so that things don't go bad. Here are a few things you should do:
- Plan your meals: Know what foods you will eat and gradually grow your number of go-to recipes. If you don't know where to even begin, check out these 10+ dishes that everyone should (at least eventually) know how to make.
- Shop once a week: Or twice, if you prefer, instead of shopping every day. This is a time-saving manoeuvre, yes, but it also reduces the chance that you pick up an errant bag of Chips Ahoy for no reason; or basically anything you don't need or aren't able to finish that week. This is also why planning ahead of time is step numero uno.
- Cook in bulk: If I had a highlighter, this part would be in bright-arse neon yellow. Cooking in bulk saves you time, and best of all, turns those recipes for a family of 4 into meals for the rest of the week. You really only have to schedule a couple hours once or twice a week (whatever you have time and energy for) to do this part. You can always adjust the "bulk" amount accordingly (I personally rarely make more than a few days worth of food just to have a bit of variety).
- Stock up on the right kitchen equipment: The right equipment makes the actual preparation and cooking process so much more effective and efficient. It's like having Batman's utility belt for the kitchen: convenient and bad-arse. But if you don't have one or many of them, don't sweat it. We'll go over the specifics shortly.
- Store your food for later: Cooking for one means you'll have plenty of food that you can place into plastic food storage containers and allocate into meals throughout the week.
Clearly, this is a process. Planning your recipes and shopping ahead of time are the most important parts to this plan, and will go a long way.
Build Your Meals Around Foods You Don't Hate
One of the perks of living alone is that you don't have to cater to another person's preferences. Unfortunately, it's also easy to sneak in less-than-stellar food choices since nobody's looking anyway. When building a healthier looking meal, include foods you like and will eat. The healthiest meals in the world mean squat if you give up eating them after a week. Know your own food preferences and then design your healthier meals around them:
- Make sure your meals are balanced: In general, a "balanced meal" means you don't eliminate entire food groups or micronutrients, and you try to include a bit of everything (proteins, carbohydrates and fats). You don't have to love everything you eat, but occasionally eating foods that you know are good for you and offer something you don't normally get in your diet is a nice touch.
- Avoid dichotomous thinking: Don't label foods as good or bad. Fitness coach Benjamin Tormey advises, "Don't zoom-in on small details taken in isolation. Instead of eliminating foods, try to eliminate things from your environment that influence you to make bad food choices."
- Feel full and satisfied from your meals: Portion control is a great but flawed concept. Sometimes small portions of anything (like half a doughnut instead of a whole) is like a fart in your metabolic hurricane. Plus, you may have a tendency to keep munching on those "small amounts" all day. Incorporate "high-volume" foods such as leafy and fibrous vegetables and berries, to name a few, to help fill your stomach without piling on calories needlessly.
- Carbohydrates: rice, beans, lentils, tortillas, potatoes, pasta, noodles, bread, oats, fruits and non-leafy green vegetables
- Proteins: eggs, protein powder, beef, chicken, fish, tempeh, tofu, beans, lamb, bison, turkey
- Fats: cooking oils, nuts, full- or low-fat dairy, egg yolks, fattier pieces of protein, avocados
Choose two or three from each category for each meal to start with -- the simpler, the better. These foods will be your staples around which you'll build your meals. For example, for breakfast I typically go with oats, eggs, dairy and protein powder (to mix into the oatmeal). For most lunches and dinners, I base many of my meals off rice with some sort of protein and vegetable.
In other words, I mainly mix and match one carb with a protein (or two) and fat. Meals are easier to diversify and mix up too when you can cook your foods as individual components versus fused into a complex dish (for example lemon chicken versus lasagna).
When it's time to shop, it's not a bad idea to buy dried goods (such as rice, oats, pasta, beans and spices) in bulk, but buy only the protein and produce you need. Frozen vegetables, fruit and meat are all really great options, so you don't have to constantly worry about eating them before they go bad.
For a myriad of healthy and hearty recipes, take a look at FitMenCook, The Protein Chef, this Greatist collection of recipes for one, and the Epicurean Bodybuilder. Choose a few that include your staples and keep them as simple as possible. Of course, you are not restricted to only these foods forever; it's merely a starting point to simplify things at first.
As you get the hang of things, you'll start to figure out what will work and what won't. The crux of all this is to have recipes that you can lean on for a majority of your weekly meals, and save the more time-consuming, lavish recipes for when you want to try something new, or for special occasions. The more you improve, the more creative you'll get with the same ingredients, too.
Cook In Bulk, and Use Tools That Save You Time
Pick a day, like a weekend evening, and dedicate 3-5 hours to shop and cook (or you can split the tasks however they fit your schedule). Remember: when you put in the work all at once rather than little by little, you have healthier meals all ready for the next couple of days (or the week), which takes out the guesswork over what to eat every time and relieves the stress of making sure you have something that will fit your nutritional goals for your meals.
You can still prepare these meals even if you aren't a skilled cook. Here are some kitchen tools I use that streamline the cooking process (from a person who sucks at cooking):
- Microwave: The almighty microwave is useful for making oatmeal (and even eggs!) in the mornings and a bunch of "one-cup" microwavable recipes and reheating meals. I'm also a fan of taking frozen vegetables and nuking them if I don't feel like washing and preparing fresh vegetables. The microwave is your star player here.
- Slow cooker: This baby lets you cook without actually cooking. Just throw a bunch of things into the slow cooker, "set it and forget it". I generally cook larger amounts of protein in the slow cooker. For example, I'll add chunks of chicken thighs or breast, red onions, bell peppers, carrots, spices -- and boom -- in 5-6 incredible smelling hours, I have delicious chicken at the ready. I've yet to have anything that tastes bad come out of a slow cooker, but Sriracha cures all anyway. Plus, you can make a lot of "one-pot" dishes that can be a hearty meal.
- Rice cooker: A legit rice cooker will save you so much time. Some even steam your veggies (or potatoes) along with cooking the rice. If rice isn't your thing, you can cook other things like quinoa, beans, or even a giant pancake. Set it and forget it (starting to see the theme here?).
- Blender: Smoothies are great meal replacements, but more importantly, blenders are really convenient for whirring together sauces or pureeing things like cauliflower. My Lifehacker colleagues would fight me on this, but I find the Magic Bullet to be a great little blender for my needs as a solo dweller.
- Food processor/scissors: While some have the time to slice and dice their foods like kitchen ninjas, I roughly chop up or sometimes even tear my food items, then throw them into a food processor for it to do the rest of the work. With proteins or bigger items, I use heftier meat-cutting scissors. Snip, snip, cook, bam, done.
- Spice rack: Spices go a long way. They make the same foods taste all sorts of amazing.
When I make food, I generally have a protein, one or two carbs and vegetables for the next couple of days. For convenience and efficiency's sake, all of these get separated into their individual storage containers and placed in the fridge. If you've got more than a few day's worth of food, divide the portions you definitely can't (or don't want to force yourself to) finish and put them in the freezer.
Now you have meals waiting for you when you get back home after a long day, or need to pack a lunch for the office, or wherever you need to be for a long period of time. Basically, there's little excuse for you to choose a Hot Pocket over those ready-made meals. When it's time to quiet that grumbling bear of a stomach, throw the individual components together to form one meal.
If you want to go the extra mile, you can divvy up all of your prepared foods into individual servings sizes in a variety of plastic containers or mason jars for portability and convenience. So, your food is all ready to go when you need to be out the door 15 minutes ago.
Preparing regular healthy meals for yourself will go a long way in any long-term health goal, but here's the big caveat: don't expect to get this process down immediately. As with many things in fitness, meal preparation is simply a series of healthier habits and skills that will take you time to get better at.