Questions for cooks: Single-serving cooking

Reader Alice submitted the following to Questions for cooks:

I’m single and not very brave or experienced in the kitchen. My staples are takeout food and frozen dinners. I’d like to eat at home a little more often, but I could use some tips on how to make that work for my situation.

One challenge I face in particular is if I cook a meal designed for four, then I end up with wasted food or having to eat the same meal four times in a row. I’d appreciate suggestions for things I can cook and then freeze in individual portions, and the best methods for storing/reheating (mini plastic containers? Ziplocs?).

My first recommendation is to avoid strict recipes for awhile and just start experimenting in your kitchen with single portions of proteins and vegetables. Walk through the produce area of your grocery store and only buy as much of a vegetable that you would eat in a single meal. Get one small zucchini or a handful of fresh green beans or one Russet potato. Then, head to the fish and meat counters and get just one steak or one pork chop or one fish fillet.

If don’t already own one, also get an instant read thermometer. When you cook the meat, you’ll want the thermometer to help you figure out when the food is done. Consult the Safe Minimum Internal Temperatures list if you are unfamiliar with these temperatures.

The next step is to pull out a skillet and give cooking a try. Wash the vegetables and skin them or cut them up, if necessary. A dollop of canola oil in the bottom of a medium-heated pan and a little bit of salt over the vegetables is usually all you need for cooking them. The exception to this would be a potato, which you might prefer to bake.

Once the vegetables are done to your liking, put them on your plate, give the pan a quick wiping, add another dollop of canola oil, warm the pan back up to a medium heat, and put your protein in the pan. When the meat is finished, put it on your plate and enjoy your meal.

After a few weeks of the single protein and vegetable method, you’ll likely become bored and want to move on to more interesting meals. With your new-found confidence, though, you can branch out to more exciting things. I’ve just started reading the book Ratio, and I think it would be a good match for you, too. The book gives you the tools to adapt recipes so you can make just the amount you need. You can look at a recipe for 10 people and figure out how to make it work for one or two.

As far as storing and reheating are concerned, the best method is the one you will use. In the first few months of exploring your kitchen, it might be easiest for you to store food in zip-top bags (don’t reheat in a zip-top bag, though, just put the food on a plate or in a pan). The more comfortable you become, the more interested you might be in buying something like the Rubbermaid Easy Find Lid storage set (which is BPA-free) or a glass storage set like the Anchor Hocking TrueSeal containers. Label all the containers (you can use a reusable label or a piece of masking tape) with what is inside the container and the date you put it into the freezer. Freezing is a perfect idea for things like casseroles and other items that are difficult to reduce to a single serving size.

Thank you, Alice, for submitting your question for our Questions for cooks column. Be sure to check out the comments for even more helpful advice from our readers.

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14 comments posted

  1. Posted by Natalie - 04/08/2011

    The Canadian Living website has a calculator on quite a few of it’s recipes where you can change the number of portions.

    It’s very helpful for those people who are more comfortable following recipes.

  2. Posted by Matt Fetissoff - 04/08/2011

    I think Alice would benefit greatly by watching some Food Network. The shows I love on that channel have given me great inspiration and confidence to keep trying new things. Sure it’s scary to try new things, but persistence and patience with yourself will go far.

    Good luck Alice!

  3. Posted by Joke - 04/08/2011

    Dear Alice,

    As a student I lived both alone and with my sister, so I have some experience in serving 1/2 people. During my first year at university I did exactly what Erin describes: I got as much of the vegetable I wanted, I got a serving of protein (I still ate meat back then, but I also liked veggie burgers) and added some rice or potatoes (those are easy to store in your pantry). After a while I would experiment making vegetable sauce for my pasta or making chicken curries.
    Later, I got into making one-pan dishes with a bunch of different vegetables and tofu.
    Yes, I did end up with leftovers, but I could eat those the next day for lunch. My biggest issue was however, that some vegetables were just too big for me! (Cucumber, bell pepper…)
    So I would just try to figure out different recipes that would use the same ingredients AND different ones, so that I wouldn’t get bored. Other ways to use up veggies is by making salads (without lettuce though, lettuce is too big to buy for one person, even for two I find!) or omelettes!
    Also, if you have a freezer, you can totally make a vegetable sauce / quiche or really any dish and just store it for later, so that you don’t have to eat the same every day. (I love making quiches! Just choose some vegetables, put in some protein, cut everything up and put it on the pastry, pour egg/milk mixture over it, bake it and you’re set! It’s such a festive looking dish but so easy to make, you can make it different every time).

    Another way to solve the lack of variety / too big of a portion problem is to invite someone over! Or to share groceries with someone else / cook the same dish together.

  4. Posted by Katie - 04/08/2011

    You could also check out the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking for Two” book which has recipes that make smaller quantities of food. You can either save the leftovers for lunch/dinner the next day or two, or freeze the other portion. Definitely a lot more manageable than having a recipe for 4 or 6.

  5. Posted by Erin Doland - 04/08/2011

    Oh Alice, I forgot to mention that when you freeze items, freeze them in single serving portions. This way, you don’t thaw and refreeze something like a large casserole numerous times.

  6. Posted by jbeany - 04/08/2011

    Soup and chili are quick and easy, and they freeze really well. And yes, single servings for the freezer. Then you just pull them out as you need them.
    I like to do one night when I cook 5 or 6 things, then freeze it all. If I cook 4 pounds of burger, then some of it goes into taco meat, some into chili, some into a casserole, and some left plain to toss into a pasta dish later on. At the same time, I cook a big pot of potatoes, bake off some biscuits, some plain, some filled with meat and cheese, some filled with jam for desserts or breakfast. Half the potatoes get left in the pot and made into a big batch of soup, the other half gets chilled for potato salad. Those all (except the potato salad!) freeze in small containers, too. It’s faster than cooking one meal every day or so, since you cut 4 onions at once, grate the whole block of cheese at once, etc. Then I just have to go to the store for salad fixings and fruit for the next 3 weeks or so, and I’ve got hot homemade meals every night.

  7. Posted by infmom - 04/08/2011

    You don’t have to eat the same thing four times in a row. There are several options. Freeze the extra servings to eat sometime later (advantage, you’ve got dinner already made). Take the current meal and make it into something else the next time you serve it (for example, I made sesame-coated chicken on Tuesday, and tonight I’m turning the leftover chicken into a sweet-and-sour stir fry). Offer to swap meals with a friend who’s also cooking for one (you might end up with some really fabulous meals that way). The main thing is to use each meal as the starting point, not the end of the line.

  8. Posted by Stefan - 04/08/2011

    I work from home and had the same issue, and I found a few cookbooks for varying levels of ability/experience which are specifically for single meals. Amazon has them all!

    Also, a FoodSaver is a life saver. Cook the 4 portions, vacuum seal the other 3 portions and freeze. When you want to eat that again, place the frozen bag in a pot of simmering water for 15 and voila! A nice meal, in a poor man’s sous-vide style.

  9. Posted by Alice F. - 04/08/2011

    Thanks so much to Erin & all the commenters for your suggestions! I really appreciate it. :)

  10. Posted by Carol - 04/09/2011

    I cook for 2 so we always have leftovers. I freeze them in single serve portions in plastic containers. Once they are frozen I take them out of the containers. I use my FoodSaver to vacuum pack and seal them into bags. Leftovers last a lot longer when the air is vacuumed out.
    Also, I don’t have to have alot of plastic containers on hand.

  11. Posted by Inadequate Wife - 04/11/2011

    Another suggestion is to divide your raw ingredients too…. freezer bag individual raw chicken breasts, pork chops, etc so that you don’t have to cook a whole package at once. Take one bag out of the freezer each morning, put it in the fridge to thaw. Then you’re not committed to cooking three or four portions at once.

    Also, prepare the meat for different purposes…. it’s easy to roast a whole chicken. Night one, serve with mashed potatoes and gravy. Remove the meat from the bones, and you end up with more than enough chicken for different leftovers…. stir fry, chicken caesar salad, chicken salad sandwich/wrap, etc.

    Boil the bones, get a nice broth, and toss in extra veggies, some cubed chicken, and make a soup… add beans, tomatoes, whatever you have on hand. You can easily get 6 meals from a standard size roasting chicken. If you don’t want to eat chicken six times over three days (lunch and dinner), freeze the cooked chicken into individual portions for later.

  12. Posted by Gillian - 04/13/2011

    When I freeze things, I use zippered bags and lay them flat. It’s easier to stack them in the freezer and faster to thaw. If the portion turns out to be too large, it is easier to break a flat bag up with only a minimal amount of thawing, so I can return the bag to the freezer. I also recommend freezing partial tins of legumes (kidney beans etc) in the same flat way. Very practical.

  13. Posted by Susan - 04/14/2011

    Lots of good tips here. I’ll add that while it’s helpful to check out a cookbook specifically for one or two people, you can also take most recipes (soups, stews, etc.) and just cut the ingredients in half or in quarters so you’ll wind up with half or a quarter as many servings. But be careful; once I was making a recipe that served 4, and I wanted to quarter the ingredients to end up with one serving. I quartered all of the ingredients – except the salt! =)

    Yes, the freezer is the single cook’s best friend. Most things freeze well but there are a few exceptions. You can do a google search to find out what foods you shouldn’t freeze.

  14. Posted by RebeccaL - 04/20/2011

    Martha Stewart has 30 “solo” recipes on her web site- search “for one.”

    The tilapia’s one of my favorites:

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