A Guide to Cooking for One
How to treat yourself right when dining on your own
Everyone eats alone sometimes. Whether your usual companion is out of town for a few days or you live by yourself and often dine on your own, there's no need to resort to wolfing down a bowl of cereal over the kitchen sink when you could be eating in style. This month we offer tips and techniques for making single servings work, from planning to shopping to the final product.
While it may seem at first like a lot of trouble to prepare a complete meal for one, the results are well worth it. Homemade dishes are usually more nutritious and economical than restaurant meals. Cooking well for yourself can also be an important way to make your own health and happiness a priority. In other words: You're worth it.
It may also be helpful to think of preparing dinner less as a chore than as a way to relax and de-stress. You can try out different recipes at your leisure without the pressure of others' approval. And you get to choose your favorite foods, since you are the only one you have to please.
Begin the process by setting the mood. Make an effort to establish a dividing line between the day's activities and dinnertime. Set a place at the table with your favorite linen. Turn off the television, turn on the music, light a candle or two, maybe have a glass of wine—and enjoy taking care of yourself.
Planning makes a huge difference when it comes to healthy eating. That's certainly true for big families, but it may be even more so for individuals and couples. Set a goal to plan menus for a week at a time. Don't like the idea of leftovers? Think of them as "planned overs" instead: A small roast prepared on a Sunday, for example, could serve as an open-face sandwich on Monday and a vegetable stir-fry with small amounts of beef on Tuesday. Those are three radically different meals. Or, for another approach, you can add chopped veggies such as onions, mushrooms, and peppers to your favorite healthy store-bought pasta sauce. Serve it over whole-grain pasta. Then, the next day, add beans and chili seasoning to the sauce for a different meal, with or without the pasta.
1. Shop Smart
There's nothing as annoying as buying ingredients you know will go to waste. While precut fruits and vegetables are usually more expensive than buying whole items, they may come in more convenient amounts when you're cooking for one. You'll want to use them quickly, within one to two days.
Another option: the supermarket salad bar, which is great not just for salads but for small portions of a variety of ingredients that you can take home and cook with. For the freshest food, choose a salad bar that has good turnover. A busy and popular store is a good sign.
In general, when shopping, compare unit prices of foods. But sometimes the item with the lower unit price isn't actually the best deal if you aren't going to use the entire package. You may even want to bring a calculator (or use one on a smart phone) to compare prices.
Finally, if you have the storage room, consider buying in bulk and repackaging certain items
2. Manage Your Stock
If you learn a bit of improvisation, you can use what you have before it goes bad. Is that fresh spinach starting to wilt in the crisper? No problem: You can use it for our Spinach and Mushroom Frittata recipe. Monitor what you have on hand, and you won't find yourself dumping a lot of unused food at the end of the week.
Other meals, like our Mexican Pizza, use predominantly shelf-stable ingredients that you can keep in stock for ultimate flexibility. Check out last month's "Off the Shelf: The Perfect Pantry System" for a full list of items to keep in the house.
Halving a Recipe
|A great recipe can be modified to your needs, and it just takes a little bit of math.|
|When a recipe calls for:||Use:|
|1/4 cup||2 tablespoons|
|1/3 cup||2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons|
|1/2 cup||1/4 cup|
|2/3 cup||1/3 cup|
|3/4 cup||6 tablespoons|
|1 tablespoon||1 1/2 teaspoons|
|1 teaspoon||1/2 teaspoon|
|1/2 teaspoon||1/4 teaspoon|
3. Bend the Rules
There's no need to scrap favorite meals just because the recipes happen to produce large quantities. The chart at right shows how to halve some of the most common ingredient sizes. If you're preparing a halved recipe, be sure to check on the item five to 10 minutes earlier than the cooking time of the original recipe. And note that seasonings do not always halve exactly, so you should add them gradually, to taste.
4. Switch Around
Look at your schedule and identify the days you have the most time to cook and prepare a big batch of stew or a whole roast or chicken. Make a planned-over meal for those foods or freeze them for later use. On a busier night when you have limited prep time, you can either reheat that dish or try a single-serving recipe such as Cod in Parchment.
5. Master the Mainstays
Some types of dishes are particularly well suited to cooking or dividing into single servings, and it's worth takingthe time to get familiar with preparing them. They include:
Soups: Can be made in bulk and frozen in individual portion sizes.
Lean chicken: Some manufacturers even sell individually wrapped chickens. But if cost is a consideration, buy in bulk and invest in a vacuum sealer (below).
Fish: One fish fillet can be easily bought and cooked. You can also purchase small amounts of shrimp or scallops, whatever you need for a single serving.
Eggs: The original single-serving containers! Make an omelette, frittata, or veggie-laden scrambled eggs for an easy dinner.
Sandwiches: Leftover meats can become interesting dinner sandwiches. Try different mustards, vary your choice of hearty whole-grain breads, and top with precut veggies such as shredded carrots and sliced bell peppers.
There's no need to rid yourself of larger pots and pans you may already have, since some of your cooking will be bulk cooking. But there are a few pieces of equipment that are terrific for handling smaller quantities.
|Handheld Immersion Blender: Takes up a lot less room than a blender or food processor for pureeing soups.||Microplane: This handheld grater is great no matter how many you're cooking for. Use it to add last-minute flavor (Parmesan, say, or lemon zest) to single portions of food.||Mini Loaf Pans: For smaller servings of baked dishes like meatloaf.||Parchment Paper: For preparing foods in steam pouches. Great for making individual meals with no clean-up mess: Just toss the used parchment.|
|Small Skillet (7-inch): Tops for searing a piece of meat, chicken, or fish, preparing egg dishes, or sautéing single servings of vegetables.||Small Wok: For proper stir-frying; can also be used as a serving vessel.||Toaster Oven: A terrific tool for cooking small, and an energy saver to boot when compared with heating a whole conventional oven.||Vacuum Sealer: If you're serious about freezing, this is a lifesaver for protecting foods from freezer burn.|