It’s a group-normative world out there, and we’re here to help. 

By Stacey Ballis
April 28, 2020
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With all the three-meals-a-day plus snacks being cooked at home these days, one thing is really clear: Food media is generally skewed toward people who are cooking for families or entertaining.

Dinner recipes for two, four, or eight abound, and with the minor exception of the lamentable world of the microwave mug dessert (a phenomenon that is hopefully reaching its gummy, rubbery end), there is just not nearly enough advice and support out there for cooking for oneself—and only oneself. 

As someone who spent a decade happily single and living alone between the end of my first marriage and the start of my real marriage, I often struggled with recipes that were clearly not designed for me. Part of my love of ratio-based and technique-based cooking instead of strict recipes is the flexibility inherent in being able to make as much, but more importantly, as little as needed. So, I thought it might be time to give some overdue love and instruction to those of you who are sheltering alone, and wanting to be smart about your shopping, prepping, and cooking.

Step 1: Assess what you’ve got versus what you deserve

First off, take stock. Really do a deep dive into what you have on hand in your pantry, fridge, and freezer. Anything that you know in your heart of hearts you are just not going to eat? Give to a neighbor or friend or donate to a foodbank. Clear the decks of those items that are never going to call out to you for consumption and get ready to make things that you will enjoy.

Part of self-care during this time is to focus inward on what you want and need, and to be kind to yourself. Food is a major part of that, and one of the benefits of being solo is that no one else gets a vote! You don’t have to accommodate anyone else’s restrictions, preferences, or quirks of palate, and you don’t have to worry about their idea of what mealtime is. It is all up to you, so do what will make you happiest. If that means your upstairs neighbor inherits that box of quinoa that seemed like such a good idea when you bought it, but you know you’ll never cook? So be it.

Step 2: Shop smart

Many of us looked at the lists of recommended pantry items to load in, and just bought them regardless of whether they were items we usually had in our diets. But you know what you normally enjoy eating, so if you've never liked beans, don’t buy them just because the whole world has gone into a bean frenzy. Buy as much as you need and can store properly, for as long as that intersection of fridge space and appetite can manage. A two-week supply is ideal but try for a minimum of a week’s worth of supplies at a go.

Step 3: Plan ahead

When you think ahead to your week and what you want to acquire, think about this back and forth rhythm—basic, fancy, basic, fancy—to avoid the leftovers rut. If you keep your “first night” cooking fairly simple, with basic preparations and seasonings, then you can get extra creative with whatever you don’t finish, for a one-two punch of smart cooking. For example: Make a simple seared steak or chicken for dinner tonight. Tomorrow, plan to use your leftover meat in fajitas or tacos. The next night? Baked salmon! The night after that? Salmon cakes!

On the flipside, if your “first night” cooking is super specific—butter chicken or boeuf bourguignon—you’d be surprised how awesome leftover stews like that taste inside an omelet (yes, for dinner!). Some random surprise favorite omelets at our house have been Dijon braised chicken, pork lo mein, and Bolognese! Again, you have no one to please but yourself! Experiment away.

Step 4: Practice a new way to prep

Here’s where things get interesting—and really helpful. As soon as you receive your weekly delivery or get home from your shopping run, it’s time to prep for two to four days’ worth of cooking. And here’s what I mean by prep: If you bought a package of chicken thighs and you know you only need two for dinner, and don’t really want cooked leftovers, then freeze the rest of the package for a later time. Clean and prep vegetables for ease of cooking, wash fruits, do everything that takes extra steps out of future projects and makes cooking feel manageable.

If you know you mostly do pan-sautés or stir-fries of meats and vegetables, then you can chop onions, dice carrots, shred cabbage—whatever will make things simpler when it is time to make dinner. Par-boiling pasta, pre-cooking some rice or potatoes and then storing in the fridge can also make for fast meals when your brain doesn’t want to process dinner.

Step 5: Reduce your recipes (some of them, anyway!)

Do some math. Many recipes, especially those that are not baking, can be halved or even quartered with no problem. When reducing recipes, be sure to adjust the size of baking or cooking vessel and the cooking time as needed.

Then, adopt the mantra of make and store. If a recipe that intrigues you makes more than you need, and you don’t want to have to live on leftovers for days, just freeze the extra in single-serving portions for another day. If you cook every day for one week, and always freeze half, then you have a second full week's worth of dinners ready to thaw and reheat!

Step 6: Learn to play

Think jazz, not classical. Let go of needing to stick to strict recipes and embrace a little bit of kitchen improvisation. You know what a single person’s amount of a protein, carb, or vegetables looks like, so get just that amount together of whatever you have on hand and start to experiment with how to cook them. Cook them separately or together. Sauté, braise, or roast. Nearly any imaginable protein and/or vegetable can be tossed with pasta or rice, with simple and delicious results.

Step 7: Be yourself

Despite what Instagram might be telling you, what and how you eat is no one’s business but your own. If you love to cook, cook. If you hate to cook, then don’t. If you don’t care about eating cereal and sandwiches four meals out of five during normal times, there is no need to start changing that now just because you are at home and the world seems to be turning their homes into little private pop-up restaurants. If you are usually a take-out and delivery person, and you can still afford to eat that way, your local restaurants will be ever so grateful for your continued support. If you always wanted to cook more, this is a great time to learn to cook the things that you most enjoy eating, whatever that looks like for you. We are all in this together, but that doesn’t mean you have to cook (or not cook!) for anyone but you. And that’s a thing to take comfort in.