Friday Food Post: 10 Tips on Cooking for One

It's not as fun as feeding a group. But it can be a lot less work.

Pro tip: Share your leftovers.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You thought about cooking. You had frozen fish filets in the freezer and a rather nice-looking head of broccoli sitting right there in the produce drawer. But then, somehow, it was 8:10, and it all seemed like too much trouble, so instead you grabbed a bowl of Tostitos, a jar of salsa, and three slices of pepper jack, and you ate it in front of "Chopped."

Or at least, that's the explanation that an NPD analyst gave Marketwatch for America's snacking habits.

“It’s hard to shop and cook for one.” That’s one reason why people are buying more snack foods, she says. “They are individually packaged and often have a very long shelf life. That, and an awful lot of people do not have cooking skills.”

Those whitefish filets were probably going to be overcooked anyway. Tostitos, on the other hand, are always done to a turn.

I have some sympathy. When the Official Blog Spouse travels, sometimes I make things he doesn't like, such as tofu stir-fry. And sometimes, I surrender to the siren call of Trader Joe's Mac and Cheese Balls, which require no effort and are every bit as good to eat as they are bad for my waistline. 

There are any number of articles and books that promise to tell you how to solve this problem. The best are merely adequate; the worst emit the quiet despair of an unmarked grave. I'll concede that cooking for small numbers simply isn't as much fun as cooking for a bigger group. Part of the joy of cooking is sharing the results. The labor-to-output ratio is lower for one or two, and you have to spend a lot of time fiddling with small amounts. Some things simply can't be done efficiently for one or two people, which is why I save the rib roast for dinner parties. Other things shouldn't be done for one or two people, which is why I am trying not to give in to the urge to make a layer cake this weekend. 

There are actually two good things about cooking for one or two: The first is that you have fewer tastes to satisfy, and the second is that you don't have to do it so much, if you make big batches of stuff ahead and store them. But this is not going to be the column where I tell you to get with the program because cooking for one is really fun! This is the column where I outline the various strategies to attack what will always remain a vexing problem.

  1. Go big and store. If you have room for a little chest or upright freezer, I really cannot recommend one highly enough. If you have room to freeze, you can make big batches of delicious things like chili, pasta sauce, and stew, and freeze them in individual portions. But even a regular refrigerator freezer will hold one chili, one soup or stew, and one pasta sauce, which is enough to provide some variety in your regime with minimal effort.
  2. Crockpot. It's dispiriting to realize at the end of a long day that you still have 45 minutes of food prep ahead of you before you can eat something. Unless when you walk in, the food is hot and waiting. Today's crockpots tend to be giant monsters capable of feeding a midsize penal institution, which presents a daunting hurdle for singles and couples. If you don't have a freezer, I recommend buying an older crockpot (they're available on eBay, and as a bonus, they actually give you a lower and slower cook). I know what you're going to say: But my recipe calls for a five-quart crockpot! That's where our next tip comes in.
  3. It's OK to throw stuff out. The five-quart recipe calls for a whole 15-oz. can of tomatoes, and you can't find the ones you like in a smaller container? Make a three-quart version by using a little over half of the specified ingredients. If you have room, and something to use it for, store the rest of the can in a Tupperware in the fridge. But if you don't? Then bravely, bravely walk over to the sink, dump the unused tomatoes down the garbage disposal, and recycle the can. Obviously, I do not recommend doing this with a pricey ingredient like meat or epoisses. But a lot of the stuff you're throwing out is going to come to 20 or 30 cents per serving. I've been so broke that this actually mattered. But most people are not that broke, most of the time.
  4. Eschew the roast. Unless you are blessed with a husband who will happily plow through a pound or so of meat in a sitting (sorry, ladies, he's taken), making even a small roast usually ends one of two ways: the other half moldering away in your fridge, or your spirit slowly dying as you pop your fourth roast beef sandwich of the week into your Sachi lunch tote.
  5. Embrace the egg. The egg is nature's perfect food for single people. It keeps for a long time, and comes neatly packaged in single-serving containers. It is quick to prepare, and incredibly versatile. It will take on any number of other flavors. With this one item, you have in reach: Omelets. Gaslight eggs. Souffles. Eggs Goldenrod. Shakshuka. Individual-sized strata (just take your favorite recipe and cut the ingredients down to fit a smaller container). Salads. I've had a delicious flatbread with hard-boiled eggs, arugula and aioli.
  6. Forget about the meal planning. Every article on the subject perkily advises going to the store with your week's menus all laid out in advance. This is daft. You know the one perk of eating alone? You can eat whatever the heck you feel like. When you go to the grocery store, have one or two recipes you definitely want to make. Also staples that whip up into your favorite meals. I always buy arugula and eggs, and always have pancetta on hand, so that I am never more than 10 minutes away from my favorite salad. And have a stable of stuff that you can turn to when you don't feel like doing anything more strenuous than turning on the toaster oven, like cheese and tortillas and frozen baguettes.
  7. Don't overbuy produce. Everyone has this issue, but no one worse than people who are cooking for one. Allow yourself one impulse purchase. (OK, three if it's summer and everything is in season.) Other than that, you should buy only for two reasons: it's a staple that you always go through, or you have a recipe that you are planning to use it for in the next two days.
  8. Go ahead and eat in front of the television. Yes, I too have read all the articles about how you should make dinner an event, setting the table, getting out a cloth napkin, putting everything in serving dishes. And if this makes you feel pampered and elegant, go ahead and do just that. On the other hand, a lovingly prepared duck terrine will also be delicious in front of your favorite show. Do stop to enjoy what you made, of course, because otherwise what's the point? But there's no reason you can't enjoy it while also enjoying the sight of Jon Snow stabbing a white walker.
  9. Share with people. Your single friends are beset by the same problem you have. If you want to make a recipe that's going to produce a great deal of food, brace a few of them to take leftovers. Do this in advance, however, lest you discover that this is the week everyone decided to make beef bourguignon.
  10. Have a small emergency stash of stuff that keeps forever and requires no effort at all. A jar of pasta sauce and a box of spaghetti. Or, I dunno, Trader Joe's Mac and Cheese Bites. Sometimes you just don't feel like cooking, and you can give in to that feeling. But keep the stash small, lest every night become what-did-I-just-eat-for-four-hours-I-don't-remember.

There is life beyond Tostitos, my friend. It's waiting right there in your kitchen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.