Last fall, Nick Slater wrote about how “cooking for one is not so bad,” and how the practice should be more freely celebrated. Given that this post is landing on February 1—the month where single people are roundly shamed via corporate pressures to couple by Valentine’s Day—I thought I’d revisit this theme with a loving gesture towards self-care, offering some pointers on healthier alternatives to the tub of Häagen-Dazs and/or can of Pringles that might serve as a meal for a single person eating their feelings.
Emotional eating can be tempting at a time like this, and many will use the excuse to tank their good intentions of last month, where we all promised ourselves, “this year, I’ll eat clean, healthy foods and I’ll run six miles a day!” (Right?)
Eating well can be a radical act of self-love. While it might seem fun to indulge, over time, you just feel… bad. But the struggle of cooking for one is real. Most recipes are made to serve six—sometimes more—so you wind up eating the same thing over and over again all week. That’s challenging enough when you make something delicious—when you make something less palatable, it can feel like punishment. As my one friend put it, “I get stuck eating my mistakes for four days in a row.” It can be enough to backslide into the oblivion of living off of bodega sandwiches for the rest of eternity (if you’re in NYC… burritos if you’re in LA—to speak for my former self.) So to kick off February, I thought I’d share a “top tips for cooking for one” guide to encourage my unpartnered friends out there to celebrate your single life with some nourishing solitary eating.
For help, I reached out to my friend Kayla Gerry, who is the queen of macro-friendly meal prep and a fellow School of Thot acolyte, so I’m including quite a few of her nutrient-dense tricks of the trade, in addition to my own.
Tip One: The Freezer is Your Friend
I’m starting this off with some controversy because New Thinking’s recovering chef-in-residence Ross Chandley vehemently rejects this advice. However, I think if you have space in your freezer, it can be your friend. (Ross insists that the water freezes out of the food you freeze and messes up the flavor. I recently asked if he’d frozen extra portions of soup he’d made, and he was aghast. To quote him directly, “I don’t make nice soup for it to be watered down.” So this advice does not apply to Ross.)
I do agree that the freezer can mess up some things: and freezer burn is all kinds of gross. But I also think it’s not bad to have ready-to-go meals that you know are healthy because you made them. So if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t mind a microwave dinner, you can make your own in a batch cook ahead of time.
Certain dishes (and items) freeze better than others: a rice or riced cauliflower dish with a saucy curry, chili, or stews work well. Anything that you can stir up once it’s thawed a touch is probably a good candidate. So if you’re trying out a new recipe and you know it’ll have leftovers, try and choose things strategically that can endure a freeze and thaw.
Additionally, befriending your freezer can help you avoid food waste. Have a hard time using up your groceries before they go bad? A lot of items can freeze decently—and you can do it in a way that makes it easy for single-use thawing. Like that tomato paste, you used ONE tablespoon of for that beef stew recipe? Freeze it in an ice cube tray: then you have it ready to go for future stews. This also works for broth (in bigger cubes) and lemon juice—but don’t make ice for drinking in the ones you’re using for food freezing. Blech.
Bread also freezes nicely: you can freeze pizza dough into individual servings and thaw it out the night before or keep already-cooked bread from going bad. English muffins, pita, and bagels actually freeze quite well—a bagel you froze promptly, then thawed and toasted, is MUCH better than a stale one.
Tip Two: Get Down With Gadgets
Okay, so this is a varsity-level and very “me” tip—I love kitchen wizardry—and a lot of you are going to want to tell me to fuck right off, because cooking solo probably means you’re single, which generally means you have less space and a tighter budget. However, if you are trying to up your cooking-for-one game, and you have a little real estate in your kitchen to play with and/or an upcoming birthday/bonus income you might cash in on, I’d recommend embracing modern technology and upgrading your culinary kit with some modern tools.
If you can get only one gadget, I would emphatically recommend an Instant Pot, which is a multi-function electric pressure cooker. The 3-Quart Instant Pot is ideal for single-serving meal prep, but you might want to go for the normal 6-Quart one for the extra features—this one appeals because you can upgrade it with an air fryer lid, which is a huge space saver compared to buying an entire second appliance. If you’re low on space, it’s nice to have your one splurge do multiple things.
For the purposes of this article, the 3-quart model is probably the way to go: it can saute, slow cook, steam, and pressure cook, and its smaller size means it’ll get to pressure faster, and you won’t be cooking more than you need. You can batch cook perfect hard boiled eggs in it, steam delectable veggies, prepare rice, slow cook during the work day, or cook meat from frozen (sorry, Ross!) in under an hour if you forget to plan ahead. One of my favorite batch cooks in the instant pot is making a whole bunch of shredded chicken breast, which I can use throughout the week on chicken tacos, sandwiches, and salads. (More on this in the meal prep tip!)
My splurge of a second gadget for single-serve eats is a vacuum sealer. Now this one hurts my soul, because I really, really hate single-use plastic. However, it’s really awesome to pre-seal individual servings of protein (say, a salmon filet or a steak) with some spices. If you have the larger instant pot, it has a sous vide feature, and you can get your meat cooked perfectly “au point” as the French say—basically by putting the vacuum-sealed meat into a hot water bath at a specific temperature for a set number of hours. It’s basically very, very fancy and specific slow cooking, but since you use vacuum sealing, it makes it ideal for portion control. If this is something you can do, do it. If not, I’ll quietly fuck off over here now.
Tip Three: Befriend Breakfast
When you’re single, defaulting to the morning cup of coffee and nothing else is often easy, but it then means you don’t eat until you’re ravenous. At this point, you’re so hungry you don’t know what to do with yourself, and will eat whatever you find. Eating breakfast is often associated with maintaining a healthy weight—and it’s a meal that’s extremely easy to 1) make healthy choices in and 2) cook for one. (Bananas and eggs are delivered in single servings already!)
Kayla recommends that you choose 1-3 consistent breakfast choices to rotate through to help simplify your meal planning. She offers, “for me, it’s either Greek yogurt with protein powder and berries, oatmeal with protein powder and berries, an egg white scramble, or English muffin breakfast sandwich with deli ham and egg whites.” This helps limit decision fatigue—and you’ll notice all her options have a hearty dose of protein, which means it’ll keep you full well into the lunch hour.
Another great single-serve option for breakfast are overnight oats: just measure out your single serving (45g of oats) into a mason jar, add half a cup of milk of choice, and a scoop of protein powder if you’re looking for sweet gains, and let it sit overnight. Kayla likes to also add in a teaspoon of chia seeds: this thickens the mix like pudding.
To up the ante, Kayla takes her overnight oats to flavor country, adding variety to the above base. Some of her favorite options are: berries and/or sugar free jam; powdered peanut butter, cocoa, and banana; shredded carrot, pumpkin pie spice, and 1 tablespoon of chopped pecans (for a real treat, you can make this into a healthy “carrot cake”—let the base set in the fridge for an hour, and then top with a mixture of 75g 0% plain Greek yogurt + 23g light cream cheese for a cream cheese icing effect.)
Of course, if you’re just not hungry in the morning, I don’t want to guilt anyone into eating breakfast.
Tip Four: Meal Prep!
This ties into all of the above, and is probably the best advice for literally any human being who cooks their own meals, but: make a weekly meal plan before you go grocery shopping each week and then prep your food. Making a plan will help you build variety into the week, but it will also help you to not over purchase at the store. This is huge—especially if you’re like me, and you get enticed by all the shiny things and then overbuy… and then wind up with a fridge of bad food. (I’ve been told this is part of the “ADHD tax.”)
Plan your meals like you’re running a restaurant. How many things does the average restaurant make with chicken? A sandwich, a salad, an entree, maybe a soup… they’re not buying completely different ingredients for each item on the menu, but remixing what they have. You can do the same on a smaller scale. Identify what your staples are going to be for the week—chicken, rice, beef, lentils, whatever’s clever—and then plan out different ways you can remix and jazz them up to keep you from feeling bored. As mentioned, I’m always making a heaping load of chicken at the top of the week, because I love a good quesadilla or taco lunch on the fly. Having a good salsa in my fridge, I can make plain shredded chicken delicious pretty quickly.
It’s helpful to invest in some good food storage containers that will allow you to organize and arrange your food prep: and it’s fun to see your fridge all Tetris-ed out.
Tip Five: Use the Internet!
This might seem incredibly obvious, but: the internet has a wild wealth of information just waiting for you to take advantage of it. There’s literally whole websites dedicated to recipes for one or two serving meals. That’s the beauty of our digital world—even when you’re single, you’re not alone: the internet connects you to multitudes of others out there, trying to make it work in their kitchen on the daily, too.
In the end, just because you’re cooking solo doesn’t mean you should cook with any less love, because in the immortal words of RuPaul, “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love someone else?” (Can I get an amen?)