In Defense of Cooking for One (Plus 6 tips for doing it cheaply)

Perhaps you feel the same way I do when you look at anything with the term “for one” – you immediately tag it as depressing.  I feel this way often, and it is still a big concern of mine with the title and purpose this blog.  The thought of shopping for yourself, coming home and preparing food alone, just to sit down with….yourself for dinner is far from enticing or appealing.

I would like to say that I feel lonely or sad when I eat alone, but I always derive pleasure out of it, and the fact is a lot of people find themselves eating for one at some point or another, for a number of reasons.  I live alone in New York City, and four of my closest friends do too.  A lot of other friends and acquaintances live with roommates, and find themselves needing to fly solo at last two or three days a week.  I have gotten quite a few emails as well from widows, married people who travel often, and bachelors with roommates who want to make healthy and simple meals.   And for any single cooks out there, you can use your newly acquired cooking skills to invite over another adorable person and seduce him/her with your amazing culinary skills!

So I write these posts not from a need to deprecate myself and throw every one into a state of depression at the thought of eating solo, but to remind you that making food for yourself is a fantastic indulgence and that it is also quite rewarding once you get the hang of it.  True, you don’t get the pleasure and satisfaction of making a meal for someone else (which is something I love to do), but there are some major advantages to cooking for yourself.  You can eat whatever you want, and even if it’s weird, strange-looking, or just plain gross, no one is there to judge you.  So dig in!

With that said, ideally solo dwellers will be making a healthy variety of dishes to keep you satiated and living economically.  Cooking for yourself can be much cheaper than eating out every night, as long as you’re smart (or shall I say practical? :) ) about it.  After browsing through Chowhound threads and reading up on some cooking for one literature, I wrote up a list of easy yet important tips for anyone who wants to get on the cooking bandwagon.  If you’re also not sure of what kitchen tools to have handy, I wrote up my list of top 10 kitchen essentials which might be worth a look. Here goes:

1.  Keep your favorite pantry staples on hand.  We are all unique and lovely, and I am almost positive that this list is going to vary enormously from person to person.  My friend Annette from Beijing says she likes to have eggs, tomatoes, and soy sauce on hand.  She also prefers to cook with pork because it’s easy and can be purchased in small portions.  Yaz (my sister) likes to have feta cheese, pureed tomatoes, and parmesan cheese at all times.  I like to have dried fruits and nuts, as well as feta.  What kind of dressings do you like?  Do you love to slather mustard on everything?  Make a quick brainstorming list and keep those items handy.  And if you like weird things, now is the time to embrace it.

2.  Eggs are your best friend.  They are the ultimate solo person food, packed with protein, and they are extremely inexpensive and versatile.  Keep a few hardboiled eggs in your fridge for a quick hunger fix, or simmer some tomato sauce in a small skillet, break two eggs into it, and cook in the oven for 10 minutes until eggs are just firmed up and serve with plenty of bread or couscous.  Or make the easiest dinner ever, fry up some eggs, sprinkle your favorite cheese on them, and eat on top of toast.  Like I said, eggs are a good friend to have around.

3.  Salad bars = quick dinner heaven.  Regardless of what you want to make, whether it’s a casserole, a quick stirfry, or sauteed chicken and veggies, you don’t want to be left with a handful of scallions here and a cup of chickpeas there.   Utilizing the salad bar at supermarkets provides the perfect solution to this problem.  If you want to make a quick stirfry with fried rice, pick up some pre-cut zucchini, broccoli, or corn from the salad bar and toss them in for a one-pot meal.

4.  Get to know your freezer.  Sometimes things come in pairs or even fours, and I’m thinking mainly of hamburger patties and chicken parts.  Thankfully if you have a freezer you don’t need to worry about wasting what’s leftover.  Wrap whatever you have left in plastic wrap or ziploc bags in individual servings and defrost for an hour before using it.  Hamburger patties are great to have on hand because you can mix them with so many different ingredients to get flavor variety.  The freezer is great for herbs as well – if you have some pretty sprigs of rosemary or a bunch of cilantro that you don’t want to toss out, put them in a plastic bag and use whenever you want.

5.  Store starches in your fridge.  It’s very easy to boil up a big batch of rice, lentils, pearl couscous, farro, or any other grain and store in your fridge for a really quick weeknight meal.  I love rice and farro especially because they’re so versatile – eat rice with a quickly sauteed fillet of fish, or throw it in a skillet with some olive oil, garlic, sauteed veggies and soy sauce for some quick fried rice.  Maybe cut up some chicken and bake the rice topped with your favorite cheese for a quick and easy rice casserole dish.  Starches and grains make any meal instantly heartier, and they store in your fridge for a long time, usually up to two weeks.

6.  Spices are, well, the spice of life. I have a boatload because I cook a lot, but you may just want to pick a handful of your favorites and keep them around to boost anything with flavor.  Some suggestions are cayenne pepper, garlic powder, cinnamon, cumin, paprika, red chili flakes, bay leaves, nutmeg, crushed red pepper, and oregano.  What are your faves?

So there’s my list of helpful cooking tips, made with love from me to you.  Do you find anything else helpful when trying to put a meal together?  I would love to hear more suggestions that you may have, and if there’s ever anything you want me to look into, let me know!

6 thoughts on “In Defense of Cooking for One (Plus 6 tips for doing it cheaply)

  1. I live alone now too and it can sometimes get lonely. But I’ve always loved cooking and the only thing I didn’t like about it after 20 or 30 years was having to think of something for dinner every night. And that brings me to one of the BIG advantages of single cooking. I cook in spurts and after 3 or 4 nights if I decide to have soup and a sandwich, that’s fine. If I decide to get something out, that’s fine too. In a very selfish way, cooking for one is easier than cooking for a family, cause by darn, they want dinner! :)

    It was a true learning process for me though. For quite a while I was throwing out a lot of food. Then, like you say, I got to know my freezer. I even freeze bacon strips and hotdogs wrapped up in layers that I can just remove one hotdog, two strips of bacon, etc. I love English muffins and freeze them in packs of two. I freeze the store-bought meat broths (which are so much better than they used to be) in ice cube trays and then pop them into baggies. And etc., etc.

    And, at some point, I got the brilliant idea to look for cookbooks for cooking for one. Found a bunch on ebay and abebooks.com and bought a bunch too. I’ve tried numerous recipes from them and they’ve been kind of an inspiration for me also.

    So lonely sometimes? Yes, but not really at dinner – I read a good book while I’m eating. Depressing cooking for one? Not at all.

    And I really enjoy your blog. :)

    • Mary Lynne, thanks for this amazing and well written comment, it is very inspiring to me! I have to agree that cooking for yourself is a very selfish pleasure, because you’re only catering to your own interests, tastes, and preferences. But for exactly that reason I think in many ways it can be more rewarding than cooking for others. And of course I agree with you, there are certainly times when I feel lonely, but it’s never when I’m cooking or eating! I need to start looking into cooking for one cookbooks, I know that Judith Jones wrote a great one, and apparently there is another called “I Hate to Cook” by Peg Bracken which has a helpful chapter dedicated to the subject. In any case, I really appreciate this feedback and your tip about freezing beef broth in ice trays is pure genius :) Thanks for the fantastic comment, I feel like I have a partner in crime!

  2. I agree with Mary. Cooking for one is not depressing at all. I feel good about myself when I take the time and prepare something delicious for myself. I have done my share of cooking for my family. I too enjoy your blog and the way you share your feelings and ideas.

  3. I’m a fellow bachelorette and cooking for one was really difficult at first, especially coming out of college being the one who always cooked for friends. But I’ve learned to cook less and I make two to four different dinners a week and eat leftovers. I’ve also started compiling a list of things that worked and that I liked and things that didn’t work out. I’m also living overseas so finding ingredients can sometimes be a challenge.

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