They say the world is built for two, and the world of food is no exception. Cooking meals you actually want to eat, with minimal waste, is the goal of cooking for one, and fear not: You can do it too — with just a little forethought and planning. Here’s how.
Illustration by Angelica Alzona. Photos by aehdeschaine, Caden Crawford, Stephen Yeargin and Kathleen Franklin.
Get to Know Yourself and Your Real Eating Habits
Aspirational grocery shopping is the death of eating at home, and you should buy things you know you like to eat so you will eat them. To do this, make a list of those vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy products that you know you’ve enjoyed in the past, and try not to stray from it too much. If you like trying new things, limit it to one or two adventurous purchases a week, so you don’t end up with a fridge full of stuff you don’t really like. If you have a hard time coming up with a list from memory, track your food by keeping a food journal or snap a quick pic with your phone.
Similarly, it helps to get a handle on your true feelings on leftovers. Are you the type of person who can eat the same thing several days in a row, or do you need variety? It’s all fine to make a big pot of soup on a Sunday evening and eat from it until Friday, provided you like soup enough to eat it five days in a row. As a single person, you must always assume that you are the only one eating from this big batch of whatever; no one is going to save you from your soup.
Finally, take a hard look at how much you eat out, without judgement or criticism. I’m a big fan of eating out alone, but sometimes forget to subtract those meals from my overall meal plan and adjust my shopping accordingly. If it’s worth it for you to buy your lunchtime sandwich, rather than taking the time to make one every night, then just buy the sandwich and leave bread, ham and sandwich bags off of your grocery list.
Being realistic with yourself about who you are and what you eat is one of the most important factors in planning your meals. Would I like to be the type of woman who starts every day with an kale-acai smoothie bowl? Yes, but I’ve tried that, and all it got me was a bunch of wilted kale and a neglected blender. I’m the type of woman who starts her day with a can of Diet Coke, and knowing this helps me shop accordingly. In the words of Maria Bamford: “You can’t change people. You can’t change me… I’m a sea cow. I know the motor boats are gonna hit me, but this is where I freaking swim!” Once you have a clear vision of who you are and how you eat, it’s time to make a list (or several lists).
Plan Your Attack
Before you even go to the store, go through your fridge and pantry, throwing out any old or questionable items and taking stock of what you already have. (This is a good way to make sure you don’t end up with seven jars of jam.)
If you are a list maker, consider keeping a bullet journal to keep track of what you buy, how much you spend and any favourite items or recipes you would like to buy and/or cook again, making everything a little more streamlined.
If you’d like to bring things into the current century there are some great meal planning apps out there, such as Cooksmarts, Paprika and Plan to Eat. Copy Me That is also a great, free option that works on every device and generates shopping lists from recipes you select. If you really want to get really highfalutin, check out Eat This Much, which generates personalised meal plans and grocery lists for you, based on your diet needs and food preferences. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with just plain ol’ pen and paper; the most high-tech I get is taking a pic of my written out grocery list on my phone, so I don’t have to carry the piece of paper. In addition to keeping track of the things you do eat, it’s also helpful to keep a log of the food you throw away, so you know to either buy less of that item or none at all. Once you have your lists in order, it’s time to head to the store.
Shop Smart, and Buy What You Can Actually Eat
Given the fact that I have a smaller-than-normal fridge and no car, I prefer smaller, more frequent trips to the grocery store. Fresh food is tastier (which means you’re more likely to eat it) and keeping your fridge on the emptier side helps you actually see what’s in there. In terms of perishables, I try to follow the “one or two from each category” rule:
- One Protein: Ground beef, roasted chicken, tofu and even deli meat all fall into this category. Buying one at a time not only forces you to eat all of it, but encourages you to think of new and creative ways to prepare that protein.
- One Dairy (two if you’re a milk-drinking adult): In addition to milk, I only allow myself one dairy item, such as labneh or cheese per shopping trip. This is mainly so I don’t eat only cheese.
- One Bread: Bread is wonderful, and it can be tempting to stock up on sandwich bread, bagels and that delicious looking baguette in the bakery, all at the same time. This is fine if you have enough room in your freezer (bread keeps well in there), but it’s also a good way to end up with a bunch of sad, mouldy or stale bread.
- Two Fruit: Aim for one that will keep a while (like apples or oranges) and one that you know you’ll eat pretty quickly (like berries).
- Two Vegetables: You could stretch this to more if you get frozen, but sticking to two fresh will ensure they both get consumed.
- One Treat: A bottle of wine, a tub of ice cream, whatever. I try to stick to one per shopping excursion or I will buy only treats and eat meals comprised of chips, ice cream and alcohol.
- One Dozen Eggs: Eggs are the best food for a single person to have around. They instantly add protein, vitamins and delicious yolk-y richness to each meal, and they keep a lot longer than other proteins like meat.
In addition to all that fresh stuff, your single-person pantry should be stocked with non-perishables that can be quickly and easily assembled into satisfying meals. These include but are not limited to:
- Dry Beans, Lentils and Rice: All keep for a long time and are a great base for a healthy meal.
- Canned Fish: Tuna, sardines, anchovies and other canned fish add a good bit of protein and fatty acids to salads, grain bowls or anything else you throw them in.
- Canned Beans: Though I prefer dried legumes, I like to keep a few cans of black, pinto and garbanzo beans around to beef up soups and salads, or to whip up a quick hummus or bean dip.
Instead of buying meat, cheese and seafood from the pre-packaged section, make friends with the deli, meat and seafood counters throughout your grocery store. Cheesemongers are always more than happy to cut a wedge to your exact specifications, and getting lunch meat from the deli lets you customise your order down to the slice.
It’s also a good idea to have some sort of system for keeping track of expiration dates, be that a spreadsheet or a whiteboard. If you need a primer on storage and expiration dates, check out StillTasty, which tells you how and how long to store your food, and this graphic which shows you how to keep your pantry stocked with fresh staples.
Finally, don’t forget the little extras that make you want to cook for yourself. This could be a fancy oil; crunchy, flakey salt; or a flavour packed condiment or seasoning like harissa. We tend to think of “good cooking” as something we do for others, but you deserve tasty meals whether you’re sharing them or not.
Get to Cooking (Or Not)
First of all, know that no food is off limits to you as a single person, not even pancakes. Almost any recipe can be scaled down with just a little division, but if you’re not one for mental maths, our handy calculator can help you out. The Kitchn also has a quite a few recipes specifically crafted for a single person, including a cupcake, a brownie and a tasty soba noodle bowl.
If you don’t feel like doing any maths at all, try to pick recipes that can be repurposed and reformatted so you don’t suffer from mouth boredom. Roasted chicken (or pork roast, or beef roast) is an obvious choice, as it can be incorporated into salads, sandwiches, frittatas or pasta, and almost any grain dish can be given new life by giving it the fried rice treatment. Don’t even bother reheating leftover steak though, turn that business into a cold salad instead. I’m also a big fan of just shoving things into omelettes; I once chopped up a slice of pizza and folded it into an omelette with some cheddar. It was good.
In terms of takeaway, the above video has some great ideas on how to repurpose last night’s spaghetti (make sliders), cheesesteak (use the filling for egg rolls) and even french fries (crisp them up with a waffle iron). I’m also a big fan of buying too many noodles from my favourite Thai joint, then adding more vegetables to them later to bulk up whatever I didn’t eat in my first sitting.
Make Friends with Your Freezer
Your freezer is your secret weapon in single-person food storage. Besides the foods on this list (which are mostly raw foods high in moisture content and creamy things), almost anything can be frozen, giving you time to consume it. A few things you can freeze to take advantage of your icebox:
- Large Batches: As mentioned above, it’s important to know if you’re the type of person who enjoys eating the same thing over and over. If you aren’t, you can still make a big batch of something, just portion it out into single servings so you can have as much or as little of it as you like in a week. If you need some pointers on how to properly store food in the freezer, check out our guide on the subject here.
- Bread: I love bread, but good bread goes bad before I can work my way through a loaf. To prevent this tragedy, I take about half of the package, put it in a freezer bag, and leave it there until I’m ready for it. (This goes beyond sandwich bread, and can also be done with whole loaves of the homemade stuff, bagels, English muffins, tortillas or any other bready item.)
- Bacon: I’ve never actually had trouble eating a package of bacon before it went bad, but if you only eat a few pieces a week, freezing the strips in individual coils is the way to go.
- Herbs: Herbs are the opposite of bacon for me, in that I never, ever use them up entirely unless I freeze them. The best way to do this is to blanch, dry, chop and coat them in a neutral oil, then freeze them flat in plastic bags. No only does this let you break off a little bit of your oil/herb mixture at a time, but it takes up less room than an ice cube tray.
- Desserts: Cookies, cake and brownies all freeze super well, and can be eaten straight from the freezer without thawing. True story: I just ate one of my frozen birthday brownies mere moments ago, and my birthday was in August.
If none of that sounds appealing, there are always frozen burritos and pizza pockets. Sous vide pizza pockets are peak single-person food.