What You Need to Know When You’re Cooking for One

Cooking for one doesn't have to be boring, depressing or (shudder) pre-processed. How can a single person create menus, limit food waste, and keep things interesting?

Dinner Place Setting On A Garden Table with Silver Spoon And KnifePhoto: Shutterstock / Gyorgy Barna

If we were to judge solely by media portrayals, cooking for one is depressing. We’ve all seen the scene, in any number of TV shows or movies, of the poor, lonely single person sitting alone in a restaurant…if they even get to go to a restaurant. More likely, he or she is seen at home, ordering takeout, eating cold leftover pizza or, worst-case scenario, slurping up cold cereal for dinner. It’s usually set to a montage of sad music designed to convince the audience that this, right here, is the saddest thing ever known to mankind.

Now, I won’t say that I’ve never indulged in a bowl of frosted shredded wheat for dinner (one of the benefits of eating alone is that no one can tell you no), but cooking for one is not boring or sad. There are definitely hurdles to overcome: sometimes it seems like everything in the market is packaged for families of four and food waste is hard to avoid. But for all the hurdles, there are ways to vault over them. You’ll be surprised to know that prepping, cooking and actually enjoying your spoils solo will help you grow as a cook (and as a person, too!).

Plan ahead & make ahead

Experienced cooks with an improvisational flair can afford to go to the store without a shopping list, but for the rest of us, a few planned recipes and a shopping list are key. (Check out these easy recipes for inspiration!) Be realistic about how many meals you’ll be eating at home each week, and how much time you’re going to have for cooking—as opposed to how much time you think you should spend cooking. Take time to sit down and plan out your meals, and then hit the market.

If you’ve got a busy week coming up, think about spending Sunday afternoon making meals in advance, or just doing prep work. Chop up veggies, or slice pork strips for the stir fry you’ll make on Wednesday. If you make cooking on the night easier, you’re more likely to do it. And if you do run out of time, you can easily transfer those bags of prepped goods to the freezer before they hit their expiry date.

At the market: Buying the minimum

Yes, the price-per-pound on that “family pack” of chicken is tempting. And yes, you can take advantage of bulk-buy bargains (more on that later). But you can also buy small— even tiny—quantities. Bypass the prepackaged cuts of meat and buy individual pork chops, steaks, or chicken breasts at the meat counter. Unless there’s a special bulk-buy sale, the meat in the glass case will be the same price per pound as that in the plastic-wrapped trays, and you can get exactly as much as you want.

When buying produce, it’s easy to pick out just one or two of something. But there’s another option—the salad bar. Think of it as a source not only for a salad, but also for small amounts of individual ingredients, such as cheese, chickpeas, strawberries, or even strips of grilled chicken. Depending on what you’re buying, the price can be less than the per-pound price elsewhere in the store. Even if it’s a little higher per pound, you’ll come out ahead if you don’t buy twice as much as you need and throw most of it away.

Check out the bulk bins, if your store has them. Buying dried fruit, nuts, grains and other dry goods by weight lets you walk out with just as much as you need, and no more.

And one of the benefits of shopping for one—you can splurge on expensive ingredients from time to time, when buying enough of that ingredient to feed a whole family would break the budget. Hello, stuffed figs!

At the market: Stock up

When does buying that family pack make sense? If it’s an ingredient that you use frequently, when you know you can use it in several different recipes, or if you have a freezer. Back to that family pack of chicken breasts. The natural instinct is to think of each breast as a discrete portion. But if you cook it all at once, you can incorporate the leftovers into many different dishes, say enchiladas, soup or a cozy casserole. Psst! We’ve got tons of a great uses for leftover chicken, here.

The same goes for a whole chicken (a rotisserie chicken from the deli or one you cook yourself) or any other large cut of meat. Try our easy meal plan that lets you cook once and eat all week.

It also makes sense to stock up on non-perishable items, like rice, beans (dried or canned), grains and pasta; having them close at hand means you always have options.

Learn the meals that work for you

There are great go-to meals that are perfect for one person—and they tend to be really easy and quick, which makes them all the more attractive. Simple dishes like omelets and grilled cheese sandwiches are ideal for a one-person dinner, and the potential for experimentation is almost limitless. Far from boring, “Grilled cheese” can mean anything from a Green Chili Cheese Melt to Grilled Pesto Ham & Provolone. And omelets run the gamut from jazzy southwestern to rich and sophisticated. If you have a few basic recipes in your back pocket, you’ll always feel comfortable facing the kitchen after a long day at work, even if you have to improvise!

Remember: The freezer is your friend

Rather than filling your freezer with processed frozen dinners, make and freeze your own dinners. If you make a recipe that serves four, eat one on the night, have one for lunch the next day, and put two in the freezer. It’ll keep you from eating the same meal four nights in a row and you’ll have a meal waiting for you on the nights that you’d otherwise reach for the delivery menu. And there are lots of freezer-friendly meals to choose from.

The freezer can potentially become a graveyard for old and unidentifiable items that you end up tossing. To prevent that, be sure to label your food, with either the date you froze it or its expected expiry date. And it sounds silly, but make a point of visiting your freezer from time to time to remind yourself what you have—both ingredients and ready-to-eat meals—to help in your planning.

For way too long, the thing I was most guilty of wasting was stock. Making a pot of soup and freezing individual servings was obvious, but somehow I never made the logical leap to do the same thing to stock. To preserve stock and broth, pour 1/4 cup of stock into each cup of an ice-cube tray (for most trays, this is a pretty perfect fit), freeze, then pop the stock-cubes into freezer bags. You’ll always have a small, pre-measured amount on hand to throw into the pan (or slow cooker). You’d actually be surprised at the ingredients you can freeze.

Think small

Just as its name implies, a toaster oven is actually an oven, and a good alternative to full-size appliances. You can roast a single serving of vegetables, or bake cookies—no one says you have to either bake a whole batch of cookies (and live with the temptation) or go without. Instead, freeze cookie dough in cookie-sized portions, then bake them a few at a time in your toaster oven. Try it out with our favorite cookie recipes. The same goes for small pans or baking dishes; it makes a difference to have a dish that’s properly scaled to what you’re cooking.

Scale down

And on the subject of thinking small, it takes a little bit of thinking (and yes, sometimes it takes some math), but scaling down most recipes is not difficult. The quickest way to check if a recipe is scalable is to scan the ingredient list and find a non-dividable ingredient, such as eggs. If everything can be split, you’re golden. Recipes meant for two are a great head start; you can either scale the recipe down further, or you can save the second serving for another night. Here’s a helpful guide for how to cut down recipes.

Pay attention to portions

One of the hardest things for a single cook (or for this single cook, anyway) is portion control. Sad to say, there aren’t many shortcuts here; it’s all about awareness and discipline. If your recipe serves two or more, portion it out before eating, and eat only one portion at a meal.

Finally… Be adventurous!

One last thing—the best thing about cooking for yourself (and yourself only) is that you don’t have to worry about anyone else’s tastes. If you have a cooking fail or a kitchen disaster, you won’t disappoint anyone but yourself. In fact, no one else even has to know about it—ever! And on a personal note, yes, by all means open the wine! Wine will keep happily for a few days, so if your meal deserves a glass of wine, have the wine. And if it’s longer than a few days, use the rest of the bottle as cooking wine for a (freezable!) soup or stew.

Get started with these small-batch recipes.
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Hazel Wheaton
Hazel is a writer and editor who has worked in the publishing industry for over 25 years in the fields of travel, jewelry arts and food. As the editor of the Taste of Home Christmas Annual (among other titles), she's in the holiday spirit all year round. An enthusiastic baker, she's known for her cookies, cakes and other baked goods. And she still wishes she could cook like her mother.