I often hear people talking about cooking for one – how hard it is, how expensive it is, how much food they waste, how much it sucks that recipes are always written for at least 4 servings, et cetera, et cetera. This frustrates me. I know that not everyone is as good a shopper as I am or as good of a cook as I am, but I don’t find cooking for one person to be all that hard. It isn’t hard because cooking for one doesn’t start when you pull out a pan or turn on the oven. Cooking for one begins with grocery shopping for one.
Grocery shopping for one, like cooking for one, isn’t hard if you plan. Planning saves you time, stress, and money. I typically spend between $35-$50 a week at the grocery store (including toiletries and household products). I do coupon, but I know plenty of people who don’t and still don’t spend a lot of money. Planning ahead does take a few minutes up front, but it saves you time and stress later, when you could be freaking out over what to eat after work which inevitably leads to expensive grocery store trips or takeout.
So word of the day: PLAN
In order to help you shop for one so you can cook for one, I’ve crafted a little outline. This follows the method that I use to plan, shop, and cook for myself (and occasionally The Carpenter).
- Evaluate (again)
Step 1: Evaluate
Before you start making a menu plan or a grocery list, the first thing you should do is evaluate. Look in your pantry, your refrigerator, and your freezer. What’s there? What isn’t? What’s about to go bad? Are you about to run of an ingredient you like to have on hand? Make a note (mental or on paper). Next, evaluate the grocery store circulars (conveniently available online!) and your coupons, if you use them. What’s on sale? Do you have a coupon to match? What essential items that you often buy are on sale? Should you buy some now to stock up? What meats and produce are on sale? What coupons are about to expire? Do you really need that item? Again, make a note of this.
Step 2 and 3: Plan and List
If you’re a menu planner, now is the time to make that menu. (You can read how I menu plan here.) Think about what you have on hand – what can you make using those ingredients? Consider what’s on sale and come up with (or locate) recipe ideas that use sale items. Write down everything you need to buy to make that dish on your grocery list. Double check it to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.
If you’re not a menu planner (which is fine, not everyone is!), this is your opportunity to make a list of the things that you need on hand to make the meals you like. Non-menu planners benefit greatly by paying attention to sales and cooking with what’s on sale each week.
Don’t forget about breakfasts, lunches, and snacks! Think about what else you’d like to make during the week and what else you need and add it to the list. If you buy toiletries, cleaning products, etc at the grocery store, write down those needed items too. I like to put a star by the items I have coupons for so I don’t forget to use them.
Review your menu and list one more time before you go to the store. Double check on anything; you don’t want to get home and realize you forgot key ingredients!
Step 4: Shop
The only important thing about shopping is to stick to your list. Do everything you can to resist impulse buys. If it’s not on your list, don’t put it in your basket! Don’t forget to double check your list and what’s in your cart before you hit the checkout lane. And use your coupons! You know, if you use coupons.
Step 5: Evaluate (again)
Throughout the week, keep an eye out on anything that might be going bad faster than expected, how much leftovers you have, things like that. If you run out of something or notice something getting low, put it on your list. It will make step one go that much faster next week.
Okay, you’re probably thinking that this really doesn’t have anything to do with shopping for one person versus shopping for 6. And you’re right. If I had a big family, I would use this exact method. So the lesson here is that shopping for one isn’t that different than shopping for a family. It’s only hard because we think it should be hard.
That said, while you can plan to shop for one like you would a family, buying is a different story. Here are my tips and tricks for keeping the bill down and not wasting food.
- Don’t buy in bulk. It may seem cheaper, but if it’s going to go bad, you’re just throwing money away. This goes for produce too. You don’t need that bag of potatoes; one or two is fine. All those carrots will probably rot before you can use them; it’s okay to buy the pre-cut stuff. It’s slightly more expensive up front, but you’ll save money in the long run.
- However, if something can be frozen and/or doesn’t go bad, buying in bulk isn’t a bad idea.
- Portion meat out into individual servings and freeze it all in separate plastic bags. I know I can’t eat more than one chicken breast at a time, so when I buy multiples, I freeze them individually.
- Cut down your recipes. There’s no reason to make 4 servings of something; you’ll get tired of it before you eat it all. Cut recipes in half, or even quarters. The math gets easier the more you do it.
- Plan leftovers. I make sure I make enough dinner for at least one lunch. I also usually include a leftover night in my menu plan so I can make sure nothing goes bad. And that’s one less meal to shop and cook!
- Remember that meals don’t have to be fancy. Canned soup and grilled cheese, rice and beans, breakfast for dinner – all of those are good, filling meals that don’t take much time or effort to make. You don’t have to cook out of a cookbook every night. Sure it’s nice to try new things, but don’t forget about your staples and go-to meals!
- Takeout is still your friend. It’s just not the friend you call every night. Cooking for one can be tiring. No reason to stop eating out all together. Just don’t depend on it every day.
Do you shop and cook for one? What are your tips and tricks?