10 Tips On Cooking For ONE
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Finally, I’m publishing this post! It’s one that I has been sitting in my “drafts” folder for months that I keep meaning to finish. Because after blogging about cooking for five years, and living (and occasionally blogging about being) single for even longer than that, let’s just say that I have plenty experience and tips to share on the topic at hand:
Cooking for one!
I hear plenty of lamenting out there about this topic from so many single people who feel like cooking for one is depressing, or not “worth” the effort, or more expensive than eating out, etc. And hey, I’ll be the first to admit that at times any of those things can sometimes be true. But over the years, I have actually grown to completely love and value the experience of cooking for one. Even more, I actually look forward to it!
Because let’s be real, there are some total perks to cooking for one. You get to cook exactly what you want, whenever you want. You don’t have to worry about catering (literally) to someone else’s cravings or preferences or special diets. You can have an epic dance party to Taylor Swift, in your pajamas, glass of red wine in hand, cooking up egg drop soup for the third night in a row without a care in the world of anyone else watching (or, um, judging). You can experiment and try new dishes and ingredients and put in the time to learn some new skills. And hey, if the meal goes down in flames (hopefully not literally) as an epic flop, you don’t have to worry about having ruined anyone else’s dinner!
Bottom line — it is what you make it. And if given the option, I’ll choose the fun and empowering and delicious approach to cooking for one any day.
To be sure though, any single person will tell you that cooking for one is an entirely different ballgame than cooking for two people, or a family of three, four, five or six. There are all sorts of random and unexpected challenges that can come with grocery shopping, stocking a kitchen, meal planning, recipe scaling, and more. So today, I thought I would share with you my top 10 tips for making cooking for one work. And hopefully, making it all the more affordable and tasty and inspiring as well.
If you have other tips or questions to share on the topic, by all means, add them in the comments below and let’s get a good discussion going. Also, be sure to tune back in tomorrow (and future Saturdays) for more recipe suggestions in my new Single Serving Saturday series. I’ve got lots of delicious ideas on the way.
Alright, let’s talk cooking for one!
1. (Actually) make a meal plan
This is probably the most obvious tip in the world, but it bears repeating because it’s always effective — take some time to plan out your meals. In advance. Like, before you go to the grocery store.
I’ll admit that I’m a totally impulsive cook and am generally terrible at doing this. But when I do, the results are always convicting. I cook way more delicious, fresh and healthy meals when I plan ahead (versus the last-resort cold bowl of cereal). I waste less money at the grocery store (versus the maybe-I’ll-actually-use-this-ingredient-this-week impulse buys). I actually set aside the time required to cook these planned out meals if the ingredients are at home waiting for me (versus just giving up and going out to eat). And bonus — when I plan out meals in advance, I can also think through a plan for leftovers so that they aren’t wasted either.
Planning ahead really does make me a better cook.
But that said, it’ll only be successful if you’re realistic about it. If you happen to hate planning, then learn how to stock a kitchen with quality staples so that you can be spontaneous. If you love to eat out with friends, maybe start out by planning 1-3 homemade dinners a week, making extra helpings for leftovers that you can have for lunch the next day or freeze. If your work schedule is totally up in the air for the week, plan out meals with ingredients that could be frozen or last for 2 or 3 weeks, instead of using lots of fresh produce that might only last a few days. Or if you don’t have time to cook during the week, schedule a cooking day on Sunday and store up a few meals that you can freeze or keep in the refrigerator. Go with what works for you.
And hey, the good news for meal planning is that there are new apps and websites and resources popping up daily that can help you out. So make a plan (and hey, I know a great food blog where you can get all sorts of ideas)…and get cookin’. ;)
2. Shop the bulk bins and deli counter
Oh man, I can’t recommend this enough. Spend time familiarizing yourself with everything in the bulk bins at your favorite grocery stores, and then shop the heck out of them. Bulk bin pricing is usually equally or less expensive than buying ingredients in full-sized packaging. And you can buy exactly how much you need.
On the same note, take some time to familiarize yourself with the deli counter! I can’t tell you how many single people I’ve talked to who have no idea that you can buy a single chicken breast, rather than a pack of 4. Or 1/4 pound of shrimp, instead of the frozen 1 pound. Or — my favorite — just 3 slices of your favorite cheese, rather than an entire wedge. When cooking for one, the deli counter is your friend!
Also, the people working behind the counter should totally become your friends. They can be a fantastic resources in giving great recommendations on what to buy for a recipe, or how to prepare a cut of meat, or what items are the freshest (or best deals) that week. They can also help with preparation, such as removing the skin or bones from a piece of salmon, or taking the fat off a piece of steak. And deli counters usually also run weekly specials, so keep an eye out for great deals!
3. Don’t overbuy produce
I feel like I should disclaim that I am also very terrible with this. The produce section of the grocery store is like Disneyland to me. It’s magical and inspiring and beautiful and I want to buy it all. BUT, experience has taught me that whenever you can, resist the urge. Because unless fresh produce can be frozen or canned, it will be the food in your kitchen that goes bad the quickest.
So even if you don’t plan out all of your meals for the week, at least try to plan out your produce and resist the urge to overbuy. Because the produce section will always be there again waiting for you the next week. :)
4. Fill up that freezer…
…with ingredients that you can reheat in a pinch, like frozen produce (veggies and fruits), or frozen protein (shredded chicken, or carnitas, or tofu), or frozen grains and pita bread and pizza crusts galore!
…with pre-packaged frozen foods! (Hey, no judgement here against a delicious frozen pizza, or ice cream, or soup that you can warm up in a heartbeat.)
The freezer is your friend. So learn which of your favorite foods can be frozen, and make it a point to keep them on hand. Speaking from experience, your freezer can play a major role in helping you to eat better food and resist those impulse cravings or unnecessary impulse drives to pick up take-out.
5. Reinvent leftovers
Some people love leftovers, and if that’s you, power to you. I frankly hate leftovers, and find them boring and repetitive and frustrating, and I occasionally get all huffy and annoyed that I don’t have someone around to help me eat them. So if you’re in the same boat, my advice is simple — reinvent them!
If you make roasted chicken with vegetables for dinner, reinvent your leftovers into quesadillas or a panini or a soup the next day. If you make a fruity green salad for dinner, keep the onions and dressing on the side, and blend up the leftovers into a green smoothie for breakfast the next day. If you make chili for dinner, pop a spud in the oven the next day and make a chili-topped baked potato.
Sure, repurposing your leftovers takes a little more time and planning. But if you hate leftovers, get creative with how you can change them up the second or third time around. And I guarantee that they will be less annoying. :)
6. Consider investing in the most brilliant small appliance ever…
…the toaster oven.
I’m telling you, I’m convinced that a toaster oven is the single best investment that a single person can make in the kitchen. Because it is hands-down the quickest and easiest way to bake/roast/toast all sorts of single-serving recipes. For example, want to bake some cookies (whose dough has been frozen, per #5)? The toaster oven will let you bake a reasonable serving of 1 or 2 cookies, instead of baking a dozen and trying to resist eating them all. Want to reheat a slice of pizza? The toaster oven will make it nice and crispy, versus all sort and soggy in the microwave. Want to roast a single serving of veggies, or bake a piece of fish, or make a slice of avocado toast? Toaster oven for the win!!!
Seriously, they range in price from $30-$200. And they are way more attractively-designed than they used to be. So pick your favorite (here’s mine), and invest in one!
Other good investments? Some nice glass storage sets, a small-size blender and a grill pan (for paninis and indoor single-serving grilling).
7. Split groceries and leftovers with friends
Want to buy a share in a CSA, or shop at Costco, or just generally buy some groceries that you can’t make it through yourself before they go bad? Find a friend (or a group of friends) and put that lesson you learned in kindergarten to use: share!
Sharing groceries is a great way to be able to buy the food you want to buy, especially if prices are better in bulk. Also, if you’re someone who doesn’t like leftovers, find a friend with whom you can share — or even better, swap — leftovers. You can swap them a day or two after you’re done cooking. Or even better, carve out a Sunday afternoon and cook a few meals together with a friend, and then divvy up the leftovers. It’s a great way to try new recipes, and avoid having to eat the same thing multiple times.
8. Learn how to scale down larger recipes for one
As someone who has worked in recipe development for years, I can definitively say that most recipes are designed for at least 2-4 servings. So chances are if you see a recipe you love in a blog or magazine or on the Food Network, you will be stuck with lots of leftovers if you make it as written. That can be great if you want leftovers (especially if you can freeze them). But if you don’t want the extra food, simply learn how to scale a recipe down to a single serving.
That means learning how to calculate culinary math (hint: Google is a great resource, and you can just type in questions such as “divide 1 cup by 6”, or “how many tablespoons is 1/6 cup?”). It means learning how to divide up various foods (ex. if you need to divide 1 egg in half, simply whisk and then divide it, or buy liquid eggs instead to avoid wasting the leftovers). And it means learning to find substitutions for various ingredients if you don’t want to purchase all of them (ex. learn how to make homemade buttermilk, instead of purchasing an entire carton).
Granted, sometimes it’s hard to scale certain recipes down to a single serving. And often it’s more economical to cook on a larger scale and have leftovers. But if you want to cook more single serving recipes, know that it definitely can be done.
9. Even better, make a list of your favorite single serving “go-to” recipes
And if you ask me, all the better if they fall in the “quick and easy” category, and can be made with healthier and seasonal ingredients that you usually keep on hand. Some of my personal favorite go-to single serving recipes include:
- Breakfast: omelette (or eggs in general), granola/yogurt/berry parfait, smoothie, breakfast skillet
- Lunch: panini (or sandwiches in general), quesadilla, big green salad
- Dinner: protein + veggies (either stir-fried or roasted in the oven, seasoned however I’d like), simple gnocchi or pasta marinara, tacos
- Snack: popcorn (especially this version), cheese and fruit, hummus
- Dessert: chocolate bars/bites, ice cream, single-serving fruit cobbler or galette, cookies (dough frozen)
- Drinks: iced tea (make a small batch in a mason jar), infused water (a great way to use up leftover fruit or herbs), beer (bottles, of course), wine (I recommend BotaBox if you won’t make it through a bottle in time), cocktails (of course, they’re usually already made in single-servings)
10. Most importantly, find ways to make cooking for one FUN!
If you are one of the 50.2% of Americans who are single, know that cooking for one SO does not have to relegate you to a life of cold cereal or ramen noodles or microwave cooking for one (yes, actually a real book). Heck no, that sounds miserable. Cooking should be fun, and creative, and enjoyable. And I, for one, think that should be the case whether you’re cooking for a crowd or just wild and wonderful you. So do some experimenting and figure out what things you can do to make it as fun as possible! Or as my friend, Michelle, would say — “ultimately” fun.
For me? Fun means having some good playlists on in the background that I can jam out to while cooking up a storm. Fun means actually serving my food on my favorite beautiful dishes, or also unapologetically breaking out the paper plates when I have zero desire to do dishes myself. Fun means always having some eggs and chicken broth on hand so that I can whip up egg drop soup on a moment’s notice. Fun means having a freezer full of leftover soups I can heat up in the winter, frozen pestos and marinaras I can savor in the summer, and green smoothie ingredients galore that I can blend up on a moment’s notice year-round. Fun means eating half of my meals at the table with a good book nearby, or cozying up on the couch with a movie, or taking my plate outside to soak up the evening sun after a long day of work. And let’s be real — fun also means mixing up cooking for one with cooking for a crowd, as entertaining and having people over is something that I will always love to do.
Bottom line — the more fun anything in life is, the more you’ll want to do it.
So make it delicious, make it fun, and get busy cooking for one! Cheers, friends!
I love this! I did a post about it a while ago but you have a bunch of tips that I didn’t even think of. You also inspired me to actually up date my Dinner 4 One page.
These are awesome tips Ali! I’m cooking for 2…which can still be really hard, and these tips apply! I LOVE the over-buying produce one! I learned the hard way to just buy ONE apple at a time. Pinning!
This is so perfect! As a registered dietitian in a very rural area with a high geriatric population, I get asked this ALL.THE.TIME. This has so many great ideas, thank you.
I lived alone last year and I’ve experience every single one of these tips! The toaster oven is still my best friend! I love that thing. These are great tips and still something I can relate to. This is a great post and it will be super helpful to LOTS of people. Random question, but do you buy frozen protein (like chicken) or do you buy it fresh and cook it when needed? I always try to buy fresh when I can, but I didn’t know if you kept frozen chicken on hand or if it’s better to buy fresh as needed.
This is a really great post. I always forget about bulk bins!
So I’ve been living with my now-fiance for almost 2 years, but I still miss living along and cooking for just me! He is a weirdly picky eater (no Mexican, basically no cheese, no creamy-type sauces), so I miss making whatever I felt like at the moment. And I can totally relate to the “making the same dinner 3 nights in a row” idea. I used to do that all the time!
From someone who was single are a damn long time, I have to say this is a great post. While I was single, I didn’t want to eat out all the time, as I still loved to cook. So I learned lots of tips and tricks such was what you mentioned so that I could still do something I enjoyed. The other thing I would do …. entertain ….. a lot!
Love these ideas! I am not a fan of leftovers either and end up throwing out so much food. Brilliant repurposing tip!
I agree 100% with all of your comments. A few years ago when I was struggling with the “I don’t have anyone to cook for”, I realized I was the most important person in my life and since I enjoy cooking so much, I should enjoy cooking for myself just as much. The meal plan help so much and repurposing leftovers is essential to me as well. If I’m going to cook a pork loin in the crockpot, I’m going to cook a big(ish) one and then use the leftovers for tacos, salads, burritos, pizza, etc. later in the week! I can’t wait to see your Single Serving Saturdays!
When I was single I would make soup and freeze it. After a long day of making outside sales calls (in the rain….Oregon) I would come home after the gym and have a lovely bowl of hot, comforting soup.
Now that I’m married and a mom IF I get a chance to be alone for an evening I’m buying take out and NOT cooking :-)
Great ideas! I was cooking for one between the ages of 17 and 63, so I have lots of experience with that. Most of the time I was happy making multiple-serving meals and eating the leftovers. That was a far cry from what leftovers meant when i was a child. Those were pretty nasty. I did have a few single serving recipes, my favorite of which was a spinach and feta pie, with a steel-cut oats, walnuts and wheat germ crust (I no longer remember exactly how I did it). Believe it or not, even cooking for two, there are some things I don’t like as leftovers – like roasts, because they no longer taste good the way they did when they were fresh out of the oven – and I haven’t really figured out how to deal with those. So the issues are not just with cooking for one! :-)
I really prefer cooking in batches and freezing. At the end of a busy day, it is wonderful to be able to pull out home made soup, or a stew or (fill in the blank). Cooking for one is a talent – but not always necessary. Then again. I have always believed that most foods taste better the second day.
I absolutely love this post, Ali. Us single girls have to stick together!! Thank you so much for all the tips and advise on cooking for one. You’re awesome!
“The produce section is my disney land” < — #Truth!! And dude. You are so right about not having to deal with various preferences!! My husband is so bizarre and picky – there are definitely times I feel like a short order cook. Good thing he makes cute kids. ;-)
These are such great tips, Ali! I totally agree about overbuying produce – in the summer, I love the farmer’s market so I can have a great variety but just buy one or two of everything and not worry about waste :).
These are great tips. Even for my husband and I. The toaster oven is the best. We use it probably 4-5 times a week for our meals.
Another suggestion — unless you have lots of storage space and a separate freezer, try to avoid warehouse stores like Costco!
love love love this post!! I remember years ago someone saying to me that they just didn’t see the point in cooking for themselves and I thought that was kind of sad. I feel like I need to take care of myself as best I can. These tips are awesome, I’ll be saving this one and can’t wait to read more of your blog!
Such a great post, Ali! I love all these tips (especially since I’m a single lady!). I hope you have a wonderful weekend!
Love these tips- I love actually making a big batch so that I have leftovers throughout the week!
I live alone right now and I love cooking for myself! It’s great being able to eat exactly what I feel like when I want to. I discovered the joy of a toaster oven a few years ago and could never live without one. And I can totally relate to wanting to crisp up a slice of pizza! I agree with everything in this post, but I must say I am sick and tired of doing dishes!
Yes. All of the yeses. I love the nights I don’t have to explain to anyone why I’m eating a can of black beans or making a quiche AGAIN. I know it won’t last forever so taking the time to have fun no matter what is the absolute best advice. For cooking and for living! Thanks for this great post!
our local grocery store in our bigger city from out home showed a store camera at night. Rats were lifting store bins and eating out of them. I have since can not look and shop in bins. I hope your store is different. One case might not mean all cases.
This is a super helpful post! And it definitely applies if you’re cooking for just 2, too. I feel like I’m a mathematician in the kitchen 90% of the time, because I’m desperately trying to reduce portions so I don’t have massive amounts of leftovers. Also, great tip on meal planning – SO TRUE! :)
dang girl, you love egg drop soup.
Wonderful post, and so true! Overbuying produce, guilty! Mainly vegetables…
As a single person/blogger/love of food, this article was PERFECT! Even though I know a lot of these things already, it was a much-needed reminder! Thanks for taking the time to write this!
Excellent tips! Thanks for sharing! I love your photos. :)
Couldn’t agree more about meal planning… that helps no matter how many you’re cooking for! Although I’m usually cooking for two, I often cook for four so we have leftovers for lunches. :)
I cook for one or two all the time and you are right – meal planning is key! I don’t generally like leftovers so I have gotten very familiar with scaling down recipes and also freezing things. In fact, I find it challenging to cook for more than one sometimes! Thanks for the additional tips!
FINALLY …Cooking for ONE! I was thrilled to get this in my email this morning.
As a single retired person I still love to cook and bake. I’m always interested in healthy recipes and meal planning for one or two people because more than that just overloads my freezer and ends up getting thrown away which is definitely a waste of time and money.
My problem is meal planning a week at a time. I always buy way to much of everything, especially produce! I don’t mind leftovers even though my cousin says: “if it was that good the first time, it wouldn’t be left over.”
Anyone who knows me, knows if they can’t find me in the kitchen, I ‘m probably at Whole Foods since I am a big believer of eating certified organic and non GMO foods. I totally get your correlation to WF produce section and “Disneyland”… so hard to pass up that gorgeous organic red kale even though I still have organic spinach in the frig (and probably the freezer) from last week!
I recently bought a Vitamix 7500 and have discovered lots of terrific recipes from hot soups to smoothies and salads etc. I absolutely love my Vitamix and feel so much healthier since I am drinking so many more vegetables than I could ever eat in one day and no more waste. It is a great time saver on those days when I don’t feel like cooking. I hope you will include some ideas & recipes for using Vitamix.
Looking forward to “Single Serving Solutions”….
Thanks so much for this great post! I’ve been doing a lot of house sitting and I am yo-yoing between cooking just for myself, and then going home and cooking for a large family. I find having lots of freezer containers ready and waiting for when I accidentally make way too much really helps as well.
Love this idea packed FUN filled resource!
I definitely would want the Saturday communication!
The salad bar is the deli’s twin sister. Pizza for one toppings. Stuffed portabella or baked potato innards. ( well, they’re not really toppings, are they?) Make one serving of pasta, drain and while the pot is still hot, drop in a laughing cow wedge and a slash of milk or chicken bar and water. Add the mushrooms and spinach from the salad bar and some of those shrimp from the deli. These are my dinner for one after the gym recipes.
I like making chili or split pea and lentil soup in my instant pot. I have to inserts so i can be doing the prep work for the other and start it when the first is done. Then I to freezer to microwave single serving containers and into freezer. Many ways to eat chili. Chili dog,, chili fries, over the spud (as you wrote) and over rice etc. Adding different side dishes an also make it feel like a re-invented meal. Yes I did just buy a healthy cooking for one book to increase my voices and ideas.