SALT LAKE CITY — If you cook for one and have ever said “I like cooking for others, but not just for myself” this list is for you.
As a solo cook for more than 10 years, and a dietitian who works with people who cook for one, I’ve realized just how few resources there are for us. No one taught me to cook for one. My mom cooked for our family, my middle school home economics teacher never mentioned it, we always cooked recipes with 4+ servings in my high school cooking class, and it was never mentioned in any of my nutrition classes in college.
That’s not a criticism, just a fact. If I never learned how to cook for one, then my guess is that you haven’t either.
Cooking for one is completely different than cooking for a family. We have to shop differently, plan a bit differently and get resourceful to avoid letting all our produce go to waste. Not only that, but many solo cooks share kitchen and fridge space with roommates or we have small kitchens without all the gadgets some families may rely on to save effort and time in the kitchen.
Now, don’t worry. That’s why I’m here. I’ve got my own experiences as well as those of my clients and friends to save you the effort, frustration and even loneliness that can come with cooking for one in a world full of 4-6 serving recipes. Let me also add that most of these tips are for people who want to cook more or want to save money/time/effort while cooking at home.
So, whether or not you enjoy cooking —or want to learn to like it — here are 10 tips to help you when cooking for one.
1. Plan your meals around your life
Let’s be honest, you’ve probably heard about meal planning many times. But when you cook for one, the approach is different. Meal planning for one needs to be flexible, reuse ingredients and needs to fit within your lifestyle. When I work with clients, I have them write out (or just take note) of what they have going on in the evenings. Your life may look very different than this time last year, but it’s still important. What this helps you avoid is planning on a recipe that you’re looking forward to eating, then realizing that you have a late meeting or evening plans and won’t have time to make that meal. Your plan is worthless if you don’t fit your meals around your life — and that’s a huge reason why some meal plans fail.
2. Stock your pantry
OK, by pantry I really mean kitchen. Stocking up on basic ingredients in your fridge, freezer and pantry will set you up for success on nights where you don’t have anything planned for dinner. Because, again, we’re living in the real world. There will be meals not planned or changed plans that require something quick and homemade. Here’s a list of pantry staples to stock up on if you can. Stock up all at once or over time depending on your budget.
3. Shop in the bulk section
A big bag of rice or flour may go bad before you use it. I recommend shopping in the bulk section of your grocery store for pantry ingredients and spices. They’re usually less expensive and allow you to just get what you need. Winco, Harmons, Sprouts, Hello Bulk, Whole Foods, and some Smith’s stores have great bulk sections. Winco and Hello Bulk (a zero waste shop in Salt Lake City) have the biggest bulk sections.
Expert tip: Get your spices from the bulk section. I spend usually spend $0.20 or less on enough to fill a spice jar. That’s way better than $3-$5+ on a new spice jar. Same goes for produce, unless you know you can and will eat a whole bag of carrots, get individual ones.
4. Pay attention to the number of servings in a recipe
This may be a lesson you learned a while ago or are learning right now. Either way, pay attention to the number of servings in a recipe. One person can eat less than one recipe serving up to two or more. Take that into account. And don’t do what I did in college which was find four recipes that I wanted to make, buy all the ingredients for them, and then end up with 16-20 servings of food for myself in one week. That was a lot of wasted food and recipes I haven’t been able to make since. One of the biggest questions I get from my solo cooks is how to cut down on wasted food. This is one answer.
5. Rely on frozen fruits and vegetables
They’re usually less expensive and last way longer than fresh produce. If you’re going to cook fruits or vegetables, I highly recommend using frozen produce (in most situations). Plus, produce that’s to be frozen can be picked and frozen really quickly so it’s even fresher than most fresh produce you’ll find at the store.
6. Buy convenience foods
Look back at what you eat and what you get stuck on. Do you rarely have time to cook brown rice? Then buy frozen or quick rice instead. Do you hate chopping vegetables? Get pre-chopped vegetables. Take a look at the deli section of your local store. You can buy pre-chopped ingredients from the salad bar or precooked foods. I’m including frozen and boxed meals here, too.
We all have days where we don’t want to cook, don’t want cereal, and don’t want to spend money on takeout. A frozen pizza or something of the sort is great on those days. Oftentimes, reducing your stress around cooking/eating is better than forcing yourself to cook the food you’ve been told you should eat because it’s “healthy.”
7. Batch cook
Batch cooking is essentially cooking extra servings of an ingredient while you’re already cooking it. For example, if you’re cooking rice for dinner, cook 4+ servings and refrigerate or freeze it. This will save you time and effort later. Batch cooking works well for rice, beans, some vegetables and proteins. Personally, I like batch cooking rice/grains, beans, meat and roasted vegetables.
8. Know your options
Some people like eating the same meal every night, some hate leftovers. You may fit somewhere in the middle. Experiment with batch cooking, single-serving recipes, and recipes with multiple servings. Personally, I look at my schedule and decide between these options based on how much time I’ll have to cook or how much energy I expect to have. I’ll batch cook ingredients or make 4-serving recipes when I have some time and know I’ll have a few days where I won’t be able to cook.
9. Accept what you really eat
For this tip, you’re going to have to look inward and critically think about what you really enjoy and what you don’t. It’ll also be helpful to suspend judgment on yourself while doing this. Do you ever buy lots of produce because you want to eat more veggies? Then, do you open the fridge and find lots of spoiled vegetables in your fridge? Lots of us fall into the camp of aspirational eating. The problem with this aspirational eating is that it can waste lots of food and money and it might cause you to think that you’re a failure every time you see that spoiled food.
Instead of buying food out of aspiring to eat better, look back at what you actually ate over the past week. Include those foods on your grocery list. If you’re someone who does want to eat more vegetables or try certain recipes, that’s fine, still look over what you actually ate and wanted over the last couple weeks and add what you want to try one item (or so) at a time. This will set you up for wasting less food and money and it’ll also put you on a more positive trajectory to eat how you want to eat.
10. Substitute vegetables in recipes
Lots of vegetables can be substituted in recipes. Instead of buying five or six different vegetables for five or six different recipes, buy 1-3 and use those same vegetables in all your recipes. This is an easy way to cut down on your vegetable rotting. You can also buy vegetables in bulk so you can get a smaller amount of each. You can switch up the vegetables each week or keep frozen ones on hand so it doesn’t get too repetitive.
Bonus tip: Make cooking/eating more fun
Cooking and eating by yourself can get really lonely, so I recommend turning on your favorite music, podcast or TV show while cooking or eating. You can also schedule virtual dinner plans with someone or read while eating. Mindful eating is great, at times, but a quiet dinner night after night can get boring and lonely pretty quickly. Try exploring these other options to look forward to cooking and eating at home if you have that as a goal.
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