How to Cook For One

I think I’m becoming somewhat of a “for-one” guru. Another way to state this is “spinster guru” but for now, we’ll ignore that possibility. Either way, I’m your go-to source for successfully, timely, and economically living as a single serving portion. Currently, I live on less than $200/month for my food budget—not including delicious treats such as alcohol—, and I’ve been making it work consistently for about 4 months now.

First of all, cooking for one has its pros and cons. One pro is that you can bulk-cook so that you decrease the amount of time spent in the kitchen. The other side of that is the lack of variety you will have in your diet if you choose to bulk-cook. If you prefer variety, you can always go the one-pan route, but note that it is more time-consuming and can be more expensive if you don’t plan out how to use all of your ingredients in other meals.

How to cook for one

Cook twice during the week

There’s no reason to front-load all your cooking at the beginning of the week… especially if one of these items will perish quickly. Even more so if you enjoy and have a time planned out to cook. I usually cook one of the meals on a Monday and then the other on a Wednesday. This gives me enough time to finish off most of the first “special meal” and be able to enjoy a little variety in the middle of the week.

As you’re starting up, plan to cook just one new thing a week, especially if you’re not used to cooking. When I first started, two was really overwhelming in the number of ingredients I needed; I ended up burning out really quickly and then driving to the nearest fast food place for an easy food fix.

Taiwanese braised pork belly over rice

Plan for 3 serving sizes when bulk-cooking 

I came onto this number through trial and error. Originally, I had no idea what the perfect portion would be to last me through half a week and have it varied enough so that I wasn’t getting bored with my meals. Once I even drew up a weekly meal planner to see when and where I would eat these specialty meals, filling in the empty spaces with my staples meals. 3 serving sizes is the ideal amount because a) usually the recipes I find are 6 servings; 3 is simply halving the recipe b) 3 meals is a maximum of times I can eat it before getting sick of it.

Have a few staples on hand all the time

With that being said, I’m more of a bulk-cook for one to two fantastic meals spread throughout the week; two specialty dishes that I can reheat for lunch or dinner for as many meals as it takes to finish. One week, I was on a Creamy Spinach-Tomato Tortellini craving only because it popped up on my newsfeed. For any time that you’re not eating one of your two special meals, having a few staples on hand that you can throw together so that you’re not eating the same two things for the whole week.

Personally, I keep salad materials, chicken breast, tortillas, and rice on hand at all times. With those items, I could make a grilled chicken salad, chicken fajita tacos, or fried rice at a moment’s notice. One of these staples is healthy, but it’s what I default to when I’m not eating the tortellini or the braised balsamic chicken that I also planned for this week.

Braised Balsamic Chicken Recipe

When shopping for ingredients, try to stick with the same theme

If one of your recipes call for something really unique that you can’t really incorporate into either of your staple meals, like eggplant, make sure that your other ingredient also includes eggplant so you’re not wasting food! Same goes for canned goods. Recently, a lot of my recipes call for canned, diced tomatoes, usually using one full can per 6 servings; so I had a lot of half-full cans of diced tomatoes just lying around. In these cases, I would search recipes that also called for cans of diced tomatoes… or just decide to cook pasta that week, using the rest of that can.

Slow cookers can save your life

When I made the impulse buy of my slow cooker junior year of college just so I could cook some delicious chicken noodle soup, I expected to regret it when I realized that it was the only thing I could use it for. So far the only regrets I have from the purchase was that it was such a small slow cooker. These babies are known for those hearty, filling stews and the pulled BBQ whatevers that the slow cooker infuses with such flavor. But I like them because you can come home from work to a warm meal that had been cooking for the whole day. I also like these because the cooker itself, if you buy the ones with a removable ceramic bowl, becomes the storage container in your fridge. Usually, I cook one meal on the stove and one meal in the slow cooker; that way I’m not scrambling for enough Tupperware to put two slow cooked meals in.

I actually really enjoy this method of cooking for one person; it gives me just the right amount of time in the kitchen (the other times I like being able to avoid roommate interaction there) and just enough variety to satisfy my explorative tastes and to cure any cravings I have for that week. For example, if I’m really craving some pulled pork, I’d throw some in the Crockpot and eat it for as many meals it takes to finish for that week. The last time I craved pulled pork was that time 3 months ago and ever since, I’ve had my fix.

This schedule really allows you to expand your cooking repertoire while on a budget of time and money. I always look forward to the next week, where I get to figure out how to cook another recipe. Maybe I’ll go for a Shepherd’s Pie next week… or maybe I’ll decide to revisit that Beef & Broccoli Asian-inspired dish that I loved. Either way, we’ve got things all worked out.

Have additional tips? Please share, I’d love to know!

Happy cooking!

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  • Melanie Fontaine

    I’m in that weird place where I sometimes only cook for one and at other times for two – and that sometimes makes it hard to meal plan, especially since my boyfriend is also a vegetarian and I’m not. When I’m only cooking for myself, I usually try to cook two servings at a time or at least to have some leftover rice or Quinoa, so I can have the other serving the next day for lunch or dinner. I’ve also gotten pretty good at jazzing up leftovers, so that I’m never really eating the same thing twice in a row.
    And I’m sure you won’t end up as a spinster! ;)

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Haha that does sound difficult! Especially for the different type of diets! Agreed, leftovers are a lifesaver!! I would be shit out of luck without them for lunchtime—or at least very much poorer. I need to learn how to turn leftovers into something else… it’d probably help with the variety issue ;)
      Bahaha, thanks for your vote of confidence!

  • Kerri

    I’m a big fan of bulk cooking and freezing it afterwards. My bf and I bought ourselves a full sized freezer and it was one of the best decisions we’ve made. I also like to cook a basic dish (like Bolognese) which can then be used in different recipes, lasagne, Shepard’s pie and the like. I do get bored eating the same thing for too many days in a row, but you get used to it :)

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      I love love freezing… in theory. What I’m horrible at is remembering it’s there! Whoa, I need to try making Bolognese… I’m ALWAYS looking for recipes, so send some over whenever ;)

  • Lani

    I enjoy cooking and I look back fondly at those single days. I could eat my weird food like bacon, eggs and rice cravings and other odd dishes. If something didn’t turn out right, I didn’t have to worry about anyone else noticing. Not that I mind cooking for 2, but cooking for one is easy. I’d definitely recommend a shopping list. Planning meals is so important. It’s actually fun and easy with so many food websites. I used to subscribe to Rachel Ray’s mag (she only contributed to one section, so there were many people who shared their recipes) and got a lot of great ideas.

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Hahaha yeah I’m actually really enjoying it! So much freedom in whatever I want to eat (healthy or not ;) ). Also, I’ve always played with the idea of buying a legit cookbook, like Julie & Julia, but with all the resources online, it’s hard to justify buying one!

  • Arman @ thebigmansworld

    ooo I have a similar post on this coming up, but I actually follow a similsr concept with main meals- Breakfasts on the other hand are another story!

    • Michelle @ Mishfish13

      Haha, yeah for breakfasts I usually just grab a piece of fruit or two and go! Unless it’s a Sunday and then I go all out with an English Breakfast ;)

      Eager to see your take on it!