Real talk: Cooking for yourself can be tough. Especially when ordering takeout seems more appealing than tackling the slew of challenges associated with maintaining a kitchen for one. Make too much food and you’ll be forced to throw out icky tupperwares of leftovers. Buy too few groceries and you’ll be scrounging for snacks or prepackaged meal. Not to mention, a lack of dinner company might mean you’ll be chowing down in front of the TV, or scrolling through your Twitter feed instead of actually savoring your meal.
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But dining alone doesn’t have to mean slurping lo mein straight from the box — there are real benefits to rolling solo. You’ll be able to cook what you want, when you want, says Marci Clow, R.D., Senior Nutritionist at Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems. (Hello, pancakes for dinner!) And opting to whip up something at home instead of ordering in is good for your budget and your health goals. Luckily, you don’t need to be a top chef or a leftover lover to enjoy healthy and delicious meals seven days a week. These nine hacks will help you manage your kitchen and make the most of your single-serve eats.
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9 Tips for When You’re Cooking for One
1. Browse bulk bins at the store. Those transparent cases of nuts, seeds and rice aren’t just for granola-loving hippies. Clow recommends hitting up the bulk bins for staple products, which will be cheaper than packaged varieties. You can find rice, grains, dried fruits, flours and premade trail mixes. By using the food scale, you’ll be able to buy the exact amount of quinoa you’ll need for fiesta stuffed poblano peppers. No excess grains, no sweat!
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2. Set up a food swap. Not into leftovers? Find a group of friends or coworkers and have everyone exchange their surplus meals after making a large recipe, says Clow. Everyone cooks once and gets to enjoy something new for lunch or dinner instead of chowing down on the same mushroom risotto for a whole week.
3. Outsource willpower to your freezer. Healthy recipe creator and FitFoodieFinds blogger Lee Hersh makes a lot of food in her home, but she resists the temptation to inhale an entire tin of muffins by freezing any extra baked goods. “If they’re not on the counter, you won’t think about them,” she says. She also keeps healthy snacks like energy balls in the freezer so she doesn’t crave a bite every time she walks through her kitchen.
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4. Order in — the healthy way. Fueled with dread every time you have to decide what to throw in your grocery cart each week? Take decision-making out of the equation with subscription delivery services that ship ingredients for healthy dinners right to your doorstep. Choose from these seven tasty options if you desire extra convenience.
5. Portion meats before marinating. It can be tough to purchase meat in single-serving sizes. Hersh recommends putting a chicken breast or two (or your desired serving size) into Ziploc bags with your marinade of choice, write a label on the bag, then pop it in the freezer. “That way, you’re only defrosting what you need,” when you’re ready to start cooking, she says. You’ll have a flavorful single-serve dish ready when you need it.
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6. Keep your kitchen stocked with these staples. Being prepared for anything is the first step in your recipe for healthier eating. Enter: Foolproof meals you can whip up easily when you come home exhausted after a hard day’s work. Clow suggests stocking up on “quick fix” items that can be easily assembled, like eggs, baked potato (ready in minutes if cooked in the microwave), canned tuna and chili. See the graphic below for more ideas.
Cooking for One: Grocery List
7. Cook in bulk, and pencil in prep time. A little prep can go a long way. “On Sunday or Saturday, I lay out my recipe strategy,” says Hersh. She’ll dedicate a few hours to making a batch of grains and protein, and she’ll also cook recipes that create three or four servings. During the week, she’ll eat the extra portions and use the protein in large salads, where she can dump extra produce that’s close to going bad in her fridge.
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8. Look for visual cues before tossing produce. Got some spinach but not sure if it’s past its prime? If you see darkened leaves and bits of slime, remove those and only use the fresher-looking leaves, says Clow. You’ll minimize waste, which wills save you some money. Plus, you’ll be able to make more vegetable-packed entrees by adding spinach or kale to eggs, quesadillas or in foil fish packets.
9. Freeze ripe fruit. Don’t give up on that almost-too-ripe bag of peaches on your counter. If you see fruit getting a little too soft, cut it up and pop the slices in your freezer, says Hersh. They’ll add great texture — and nutrients — to your next protein smoothie. Keep in mind, frozen fruit should last over eight months in the freezer, but you’ll want to toss it if it’s becomes covered with ice and has a frostbitten look.
Originally posted July 2015. Updated February 2016.