Single Serving: How to Buy, Cook, and Store Food for One
Living alone, for the most part, is pretty awesome.
I’ve been living alone since college, and I’m also an only child. Maybe it’s my introvert nature, but my personal serenity is coming home to silence. No people, no talking...just me, myself, and I. Pure bliss.
Seriously, the perks of living alone as a single woman know no bounds. For starters, I can blast Beyoncé however long I want, when I want, and at whatever volume I want, without worrying about someone telling me, Fifty consecutive repeats is a bit much for "Drunk in Love," no? Sure, it does tend to piss my neighbor off, but this is merely a trade-off what I put up with from him (but that’s an entirely different story for another day). Point is, I'm not agitating anyone I have to share a bathroom with. Second, my place actually looks and feels like me. There are no compromises to be made at Pottery Barn, IKEA, or Bed, Bath, & Beyond. I’m the only one who has to have the final approval on tacky artwork, throw pillows, and accent walls. And finally, in the interest of not being crass, I'm just gonna say, living alone is a very liberating experience as well.
Yep, if I do say so myself, rolling solo-dolo is the jam...until it’s time to get in the kitchen, that is. This, my friends, is when singledom becomes a challenge. Who's going to do the dishes...take out the trash? Can I cut this recipe in half? Why doesn't _X ingredient_ come in a smaller package? The struggle is real. But in spite of these and other persistent difficulties, I’ve learned how to manage cooking-for-one (as best I can)--even though I do occasionally still wrestle with deciding whether it’s really worth it to cook or just grab a Hot Pocket and call it a night. Don’t judge me.
My options are: tough it out as a single gal, get a roommate, or find a romantic partner. Let’s see...people all up in my private space or go at it alone in the kitchen. I’ll take cooking solo for $500, Alex.
In a world that’s clearly built for two or more (at least at suppertime), here’s a single's guide on buying, cooking, and storing food for one. I can promise, incorporating these helpful habits into your routine will keep you from reaching for the Hot Pockets anytime (too) soon.
Figure Out Your Day-to-Day Eating Habits
Knowing--as in really feeling secure in--who you are and what you typically like to eat is probably the most important part of conquering cooking for one. I grew up watching and loving Carrie Bradshaw for all her single-in-the-city, fashionable exploits. But I can’t walk in her shoes, nor can I follow her strict diet regimen of cosmos and wilted greens. I’m just not that girl. And as much as I would love to be the woman who gets up early, throws some healthy stuff in a blender, and dashes off to work with smoothie in tow, that's just not my jam. I know this, I accept it, and I am empowered by it.
This is the part of the planning phase where I’d suggest taking a really hard look at yourself and determining just how much you actually enjoy leftovers. This isn't a matter of what you wish were true--this is a matter of can you legitimately stomach the same bowl of stew three days in a row, or do you need something different each night? Because for someone living alone, whatever you end up cooking--you need to be okay with eating that big batch of whatever for days to come or make sure you're only cooking large batches of foods that are freezable (a great tactic) or easily transformed for meals to come. For example, if you make a large batch of mashed potatoes, the leftovers can be transformed into a creamy potato soup, crisp potato cakes, a topping for a shepherd's pie, etc. Come to understand and accept how you feel towards leftovers, and choose your meals accordingly. When you think on it, you may come to find that you're cool with eating leftovers of certain foods, but not others.
Also consider your dining out tendencies and preferences. Are you the type of person who eats out a lot, and if so, does your eating out revolve around socializing or do you like eating out alone? Even as a single person with limited cooking skills, I can tell you that I’ve mastered eating at home alone far better than I have at restaurants. I prefer a judgment-free zone where I can eat with my fingers, forgo table manners (I mean elbows in the lap...who has time for that?), and take whatever size bites I deem appropriate. It’s worth taking the time to estimate how often you’ll eat at home vs. dining out during the week before you start planning your grocery shopping. Once you have a clear vision of what you want to eat and how often, it’s much easier to move on to the next step, which is making a list.
Develop a Plan
Before I make my grocery list and go shopping, I take inventory of what I already have in my fridge and pantry--snap a photo on your phone if that helps. Also, I go ahead and throw out expired items or things I know I’ll never eat again before bringing in new goods. I know this sort of shopping prep is necessary for me, because I have witnessed the way my mom shops...she is one of those people who just goes into the grocery store all willy-nilly without a plan or a list. As a result, the last time I visited home there were three jars of pickle relish, two squeeze bottles of mayo, and various other duplicates in the fridge. As a lady shopping for one, I know how long it takes me to use up a single bottle of anything before the expiration date... Lists, people. They matter.
Having a plan of attack prior to hitting your local grocery or big-box store keeps you accountable and focused. By jotting down what staple items you need to buy for the week and any ingredients you need for recipes you’d like to try--along with how much you spent after the trip--it’s easier to keep track of things and and avoid being needlessly wasteful (i.e. ending up with too many jars of relish). I know I'm old school rocking my paper list, but for the app-obsessed, Evernote, Paprika, and Wunderlist are great tools for meal planning and making lists.
OK, so I'd say we're ready to shop.
Shop Smarter, Not Harder
A general rule of thumb: Avoid pre-packaged items. I know you don't mean it to be this way, but inevitably, some of that meat and cheese will go to waste. Instead, head over to your deli counter and order an amount of deli meat you'll feasibly eat this week, same goes for cheese--sliced to your specifications. Instead of buying a package of eight chicken breasts, hit the meat and seafood counters to pick out individual cuts of whatever animal proteins you want. If you're shopping in a grocery store that doesn't have a butcher's or fishmonger's case, check with the meat manager at the store. They're often happy re-package that tray of eight for a smaller, more manageable amount of chicken, seafood, or pork chops.
I typically make one trip to the grocery store per week, but if you’re someone who likes to make more frequent trips, you can still benefit from the pointers below regarding staple items. In fact, much of the advice in this section may actually be a little easier for you to manage--because if you end up underbuying, it's no biggie. You can always pick up a little more later in the week. Here's how I suggest looking at the major food categories as you shop for your weekly staples (meaning, I'm not addressing specialty items to serve a specific recipe or preferences here). Doing so typically supplies me with just enough food to last through a week’s worth of meals and snacks.
- Dairy -Dairy is obviously one of the food groups that's more prone to speedy spoilage, so don't go overboard. For me, one (1/2-gallon) carton of milk is sufficient. Unless you are planning to use a fair amount for a specific recipe (or you are just seriously into milk), I wouldn't suggest buying more than this. Otherwise, you may end up pouring it down the drain before you have a chance to use it all. If you are buying a small hunk of specialty cheese for snacking on with crackers or crumbled feta for salads, maybe skip sliced deli cheese this week. Keeping a hunk of fresh Parmesan cheese on hand is always a good call as it has a long shelf life when properly stored (wrapped tightly in plastic wrap) in the fridge and is an extremely versatile ingredient. If you eat yogurt on a daily basis or you are that chick that rocks a morning smoothie, go ahead and grab a big tub of it (it's a better buy than the individual cups).*Note: If dairy isn't your thing, just ignore all of the above. Soy and nut milks have a significantly longer shelf life than dairy milk, so you have a little more wiggle room.
- Eggs - A dozen of eggs is a godsend for singles. Not only are they full of vitamins and protein, but they are inexpensive and have a fairly long shelf life. And it’s so easy to whip up an omelet, cheesy scramble, or just a couple of over-easy eggs for one.
- Fruit - Generally aim to stick with the two or three types of fruit you know you’ll definitely eat during the week. Quick-serve options include bananas, berries, and grapes. That said, citrus fruits and apples will hold up the longest. Thus, grapefruits and Granny Smith apples are my fruit basket mainstays.
- Meat/Poultry/Fish - Again, depending on the types of dishes you like to prepare, I would stick with just one or two animal proteins for the week (beyond sliced deli meat, if you like to keep that on hand). For example, you could purchase one or two salmon fillets to provide for a couple of meals, as well as a pound of ground beef that you can use to either make one big batch of something (like pasta sauce), or ration into a couple different purposes (like burgers one night and tacos another). I often like to select just one type of meat as it challenges me find interesting ways to repurpose it for various meals throughout the week--which in turn, has helped me to expand my recipe repertoire. If you can see early on in the week that you're not going to use all of the animal protein you've purchased, seal a portion of it up and stash it in the freezer. Oh, and speaking of--a bag of frozen shrimp is a great item to keep stocked. They thaw fast for quick and satisfying pastas, stir-frys, and more.
- Vegetables - For fresh produce, pick a few must-have vegetables for the week--things like salad greens, a green veggie (asparagus, green beans, broccoli, etc.), and whatever others you feel are necessary for your kitchen (onions, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, etc.). You can also buy yourself some flexibility by keeping frozen veggies around.
- Bread - Only buy bread if you know you will use it during the week. You can freeze half of your loaf as soon as you get home if you suspect you will not use it all before it gets stale, or worse, molds. If your bread turns moldy, you're kind of SOL, but stale bread can easily be transformed into croutons, homemade bread crumbs, or French toast for a special weekend breakfast for one.
- Treat Yo Self - Whatever your indulgence, be it wine, chocolate, ice cream, or chips--get yourself something you'll enjoy. But try to stick to only one treat per shopping excursion.
Again, I’m not the world's greatest cook, but one of the most frustrating things about cooking for myself (other than my limited skills) is that I end up preparing more food than I could possibly ever eat. Halving or scaling down recipes involves math, and numbers aren’t exactly my forte. Not to mention, my go-to appliances, like the slow cooker and rice cooker, are all calibrated for more than one portion.
As much as I would love a stack of pancakes on a Saturday morning, I can’t convince myself it’s worth the hassle (or waste). Meals in bowls and soups in jars are proven single-person safe bets. If you’re not into those recipes, think about foods or meals you won’t get get tired of and that can be repurposed throughout the week. Obviously, roasted chicken is a good play because you can easily add it to your salads, wraps, quesadillas, pasta, and sandwiches. Once you’ve eaten it down to the bone, use those bones to make stock. Boiling a big pot of whole grains, like farro or bulgur, sets you up for a variety of meal possibilities throughout the week. Another way to poise yourself for success is to roast a large sheet pan of veggies and/or potatoes to eat on for various meals.
OK, so you’ve made your list, shopped for essentials, and cooked some foundations for the week. Now, let's take a sec to talk about storage.
Embrace Your Freezer
Take it from me, you’ll want to make friends with your freezer if you’re cooking for one.
For large batches and leftovers, separate single-serving portions in individual containers or zip-top plastic freezer bags to store in the freezer for later. When you’re ready for another serving, you can simply thaw and reheat one.
Keep in mind that leftovers, in many cases, should be eaten within a matter of days. According to this chart from the USDA, cooked meats, poultry, and pizza can last three to four days in the refrigerator, while lunch meat, eggs, tuna, or macaroni salads can last anywhere from three to five days. That life is extended up to 6 months for cooked meat and poultry, and up to 2 months for pizza and lunch meat, when stored in the freezer. Mayo-based salads don't fare well in the freezer, so if you can't eat them within the week, you'll just want to toss 'em.
As far as containers go, it’s best to store food in shallow glass containers with tight fitting lids because you can easily see what’s in them, and some are even microwavable or oven-safe. Plastic BPA-free containers are also good options. One handy habit to get into for freezing is labeling the lid of each dish with the contents and date of preparation to keep track of exactly how long the food has been living in your freezer. Note: You don’t have to limit your freezer to just main dishes. Desserts, baked goods, nuts, Parmesan cheese, and bread can be frozen as well.
Now, even if you’re not a solitude extremist like me, cooking for just you can provide some much-needed alone time. And most of us could use a little more of that every now and again. Do you have any pro-tips on food prep for one? Please share in the comments below.