Cooking for One: It’s Easier (and More Rewarding ) Than You Think

by | Nov 20, 2013

Photo by massdistraction

I was a bit surprised the first time someone told me she didn’t like cooking for just herself. I hadn’t learned to use a stove until I studied abroad in Italy (2000-2001), but from then until I met my husband 10 years later I had cooked for myself (alone) almost exclusively. It never seemed weird or lonely to me, it was just my life as a student.

It wasn’t until I launched Summer Tomato and started publicly writing about the importance of cooking Real Food at home that I started to get complaints from single people that they didn’t have the motivation to cook for themselves. They could see the value of cooking for a significant other or a family, but it seemed like too much hassle to dirty pans and plates for a solo dinner.

It made sense when I thought about it, but I couldn’t really relate to the problem since at the time I was still a student and virtually all of the advice on this site was based on my experiences cooking for myself. If anything I expected busy parents to complain, not single people.

Now that I’ve lived with my husband for over three years, I can certainly see the pleasure that comes from cooking for and nurturing another person you care about. My dinner experiences are far richer now that they are “our” dinner experiences, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

But I won’t lie, I do not prefer cooking for two over cooking for one. Not by a long shot.

I’m not talking about eating alone versus eating with someone. I do prefer company and conversation over Twitter and TED talks (these were my default dinner companions while single). I’m talking about the amount of time and energy it takes to prep, cook and clean up a one pot meal versus a multi-component meal. I’m talking about all the extra shopping and planning that is necessary to get more than double the number of calories on the table each night.

By now I’ve got my home cooking habit down pretty good. I get most of my meats and veggies for the week at the farmers market, then supplement a few days a week with shopping trips to my local Whole Foods on my commute home from the gym. Kevin is very appreciative and helpful, and usually volunteers to man the grill and/or do the dishes to take some of the load off of me.

But it was a huge adjustment for me to get used to having to buy and process so much more food than before. I realized pretty early that my normal pile of lentils (or eggs) and greens wasn’t enough food for someone with 50% more body mass than I have. I needed to learn to incorporate more animal protein and other calorie sources into our meals just to be sure he wouldn’t go out for a slice of pizza after dinner.

Cooking for two is so much more of a production than cooking for one that I also had to get used to going out for dinner slightly more often than I would prefer. Even though we can usually get dinner on the table in 30-60 minutes, lack of time, energy or the state of our kitchen are occasionally enough for us to opt out and visit one of our local, healthy restaurants instead. (I just realized while writing this that working on my pot, pan and cutting board cleaning habits would probably be a good idea).

As you can imagine, I’ve had to make several adjustments in my own healthstyle for these new demands to not have a negative impact on my health. Kevin and I have been able to make it work, but it took some trial and error and I have no illusions about how much more work dinner is now compared to when I lived and cooked alone.

Just last night I was reminded of how easy and delicious a 5-minute plate of cabbage and eggs can be on a rainy winter night when my husband is out for a work event. And I was able to cook, eat and clean so efficiently I had time to write an entire blog post before 8pm.

The secret to making cooking alone worth it is having a handful of simple, tasty, one-pot home court recipes that you can always rely on. Ideally they’ll only dirty one knife and cutting board, one pan, one pair of tongs, one plate and one fork. If you rinse them immediately after cooking, your kitchen should stay spotless. Easy peasy.

If loneliness is an issue while you eat, don’t feel the need to relegate yourself to radio silence for the sake of mindful eating. Yes, removing distractions can help you focus on your food, enjoy it more and eat less, but there’s no need to torture yourself. (I do try to get at least one technology-free meal in a day, but it’s rarely dinner). Whatever your preferred dinner activity make sure it’s something you really enjoy that doesn’t require active responses from you (like email). And don’t forget to chew.

These days I relish my dinners alone and use them as an opportunity to indulge in some leisure education like TED talks, CreativeLive or audiobooks. I use my (abundant!) extra free time after dinner to catch up with work or friends.

Although I don’t have as many alone nights now as I used to, I definitely view them as more of a relaxing break than a jail sentence.

What don’t you like to cook for yourself?

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26 Responses to “Cooking for One: It’s Easier (and More Rewarding ) Than You Think”

  1. Kimberrleigh says:

    I hate cooking for myself/by myself because I’m never actually hungry or craving something. On occasion I want Taco Tuesday or whatever, and I’m sure that’s a bigger medical issue. But when I go grocery shopping I can’t ever figure out what I want to eat that day, let alone the rest of the week. And my recipe book is lacking some really good one pot meals (sure I have Crock Pot cookbooks, but they’re even just meh).

    The other issue is I rarely, if ever, eat leftovers. I usually eat one bowl/plate the next day and forget about it until it gets funky and I have to throw it out (this goes for home cooked meals and restaurant take out).

    I guess the biggest issue for me is the opposite of what you wrote about – I hate having to figure out how to cut a recipe in half or more than half to serve just me. There just aren’t many resources/recipes out there that are tailored to the single person that aren’t crock pot meals.

    carelesly graceful

    • Darya Rose says:

      Interesting, thanks for the insight. From my perspective, crock pots and leftovers are a great sign you’re actually cooking for two or more, and just feeding one. I can see why that would be frustrating, it’s the worst of both worlds!

      My single dish meals tend to be centered around one or a few veggies (e.g. a bunch of kale or spinach), with some kind of protein rich food to supplement (beans, lentils, eggs, a piece of fish, tempeh, etc.). I don’t measure anything, I just cook the food in a pan with some olive oil, garlic, salt and herbs, put it on a plate and eat it.

      Maybe try some stir fries or salads, only use recipes for inspiration, not measurements, and cook as much as you need for one meal? I imagine you’ll figure out portion sizes pretty quickly (like less than a week).

      The only time I do cook bigger batches is for the protein (e.g. roast chicken, or beans). Because those take longer to cook, I prefer to do it only once or twice a week. I don’t think of it as leftovers, but as pre-prepped ingredients for future meals. Does that make sense? I talk about this in more detail in Foodist.

      • Sabrina says:

        Darya, what you just described is basically how I cook – some “prepped things” and vegetables with spices cooked together in one pan right before I eat it. I often make more for lunch the next day, though. I find it very rewarding to wake up and have prepacked lunch ready, care of my previous-day self.

      • Jessica says:

        Right, I think one trick is to get at least 4 different veggies for the week–then you can use two the first night, the other two the next night, and switch up the combinations so you don’t get bored. it feels tough to use up all those veggies over the course of the week, because it’s so many, but the motivation to use all that I bought so I’m not wasting money means I end up eating more veggies, and I feel healthier too.

  2. Cactus Wren says:

    I heartily recommend Peg Bracken’s sadly out-of-print “Appendix to the I Hate to Cook Book” — not the original IHTCB, but the “Appendix”, easily available from Amazon or ABEbooks. Both books are entertaining (in a 1960s “mix-two-canned-soups-and-add-half-a-cup-of-sherry” style), but the second book has a wonderful chapter called “Alone, Cooking If; or, Eating With Your Shoes Off”, dating from well before the days of the microwavable single-serve entrée! She gives a lot of possible variants for the basic solo-meal options: the English muffin with something on it, the baked potato with something over it, the soup with something beside it, the milkshake with something in it.

  3. Ghazaleh says:

    I love this post! I love cooking for myself. I like to use real ingredients and know what I’m eating. I have ingredients that I consider staples (lentils, kale, quinoa, sweet potatoes), and prepare them in all sorts of ways with additional ingredients depending on my mood. It actually becomes a bit fun to see all the different ways I can prepare them.

  4. Kevin says:

    I’d love to see more of your home court recipes. I make your cabbage and eggs a lot and love how good it tastes while requiring very little cleanup (I actually clean up while it cooks so at the end I just have a plate to clean).

  5. Cristina says:

    Once thing I’ve found is that I’m not able to just cook a small meal… if I’m taking the time to cook, I end up cooking waaaayyy toooo much for one person, or I end up completely bored with the dish since I eat if for a week in a row. I’ve found that making something big and then freezing it then makes me happy later on because there will be a week where I don’t have to cook….

    • Darya Rose says:

      Same problems as Kimberrleigh above, you’re actually cooking for two or more! Figuring out how to use smaller portions is much easier. I love the freezing idea though, if you don’t mind the work.

  6. Lyn says:

    I love stir frys, I’ll cut up some baked chicken in pieces, add fresh chopped onions, red bell pepper, a tsp or two of basil pesto, gluten free angel spagetti, chopped carrots, some fresh mint, parsley and stir fry in olive oil. Sometimes I add a sqeeze of fresh lemon… Yum

  7. Kari says:

    Part of what I love about this website is all the nodding in agreement I get to do. I live alone, and TED talks are a godsend. I usually have a quiet breakfast, lunch among friends, but at the end of the day, relaxing and listening to something is nice. If anything, I seem to eat slower when I’ve got something new to think about.

    Anyway, cooking for me; I do like making large batches and freezing them in small containers. I try to have a few choices in there. otherwise, I like salads, scrambles, and roast veggies. If I’m not sure about the portions and it won’t keep well, I make a small amount and round out the dinner with fruits and cheeses if need be.

    But every now and then I want to make a lasagna or something. There is no way I’m eating all that myself. In fact I usually make two because it doesn’t double the work. In that case, its time to find some friends and when you’re foisting off home cooking, they sure come out of the woodwork. 😉

  8. Genevieve says:

    Am I the only single person who loves batch cooking? Some things (Texas chili, mmmmm) are even better the next day! Or making a double serving of vegetable hash, so you only need to reheat, then fry an egg in the same pan the next day?

    I’ll admit, however, that spending time in the kitchen chopping, sauteeing, etc. is therapeutic for me. I’m not often trying to get in and out as quickly and efficiently as possible.

  9. I can never understand when people say it’s harder to cook for one. No one to fight you for the leftovers people!

  10. Cindy says:

    Any suggestions for someone that works on their feet 7 hrs & 45 mins. It’s much easier to eat out on weeknights.

    • Ris says:

      Cindy, yes, this can be challenging. The last thing you want to do is be on your feet some more when you get home, so I understand. Sometimes homemade freezer meals can save the day. Often on weekends, I will make a big batch of homemade soup or a casserole, or something else easily freezable like a quiche, and freeze it in individual portions using plastic containers. If you cook a few things in one weekend, you can make enough of each to eat during the week for a couple of weeks, alternating those re-heatable meals with a few quick, easy fresh recipes. As for fresh recipes, stir-frying can be pretty quick to prep, and so can roasting veggies in the oven under high heat. The clean-up for roasting is great if you just cover a pan in heavy duty foil to catch the olive oil. Then you can just throw that away when it’s cool. While the veggies are roasting (shouldn’t take more than 15-20 min or so, depending on the vegetable and how small it’s chopped), you can sautee a chicken breast or something similar. I hope this helps!

      • Cindy says:

        Thank you Ris! I’m cooking, then freezing tomorrow morning. Sounds like a wonderful, new habit!

  11. Ris says:

    If you don’t like eating leftovers too often, the key to cooking solo sounds like it might be buying/using a smaller amount of ingredients. I can understand how that might not always be possible because of the way meats are packaged (I don’t think I’ve ever seen less than a pound of ground beef available) or personal appetite preferences (i.e., not wanting to eat an entire butternut squash by yourself). However, I think it’s possible to find proteins that are packaged individually (take those vacuum-sealed individual chicken breasts, for example) or veggies that might be a more appropriate size for single-serve use (e.g., an acorn squash). Once you figure out a few quick recipes with those types of ingredients, I think it will get easier and it will save money. Another alternative would be to buy the larger-portion ingredient, prepare the part of it you need for dinner that night, and freeze or save the rest for use in another meal. You can buy a whole chicken, for instance– break it down and use a leg for one night, and freeze the other parts individually; or, you can roast the whole thing and eat what you want, then save the rest of the meat for chicken salad lunches, chicken soup (which can be frozen), etc. It involves a little bit of creativity, but once you figure out some options you like, it can save you time and money.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I never purchase pre-packaged meat, except at the farmers market (usually a whole chicken, roast or rack). At the butcher they give me whatever I ask for. If I want .38 lbs of ground beef they’ll weigh it for me, wrap it in paper and hand it over. Talking to the butcher is also a great habit 🙂

  12. Ciska says:

    My first challenge with cooking for one came when I split with my boy friend and went back to living on my own. He was a great cook and had done most of the cooking. Still hurting from the break up I made myself vow not to go for microwave lasagne of frozen pizza every night. I vowed to cook. My motivation might come off as a bit strange, but I really do hold this true: if you do not care for yourself then where is the insentive for others to do so? Mustering the inner strength to cook something quick & healthy for yourself 9 times out of 10 (yes cutting yourself some slack is caring too 😉 ) shows a strong sense of love for oneself. To me those plasic lasagne microwave containers signal something much sadder than a solo meal with a TED talk.

  13. CB says:

    I live alone and usually get home from work around 8. My go-to are oven-roasted vegetables. While the oven heats up for 10 min, I chop up a medley of vegetables (usually something like carrots, brussel sprouts, and red peppers). Dump ’em on a foil-covered baking sheet, spritz a little evoo and salt & pepper, stick in the oven for 20-25 minutes at 425. While they cook, I take the dog out, change clothes, etc. Throw in a little pre-cooked protein and dinner’s ready. Pro tip: double the portions and you can make lunch for the next day.

  14. Jaime says:

    I loved reading this post! I was always the crazy one in college when I was the only roommate of 5 girls who actually used the stove pretty much every day. They couldn’t really understand what it was to cook a meal rather than just heat up food.

    Since then, my meals have gotten a bit more complicated and typically involve some sort of leftovers. It could be another whole serving of the same meal or maybe just rice that I get to be creative with reusing. Either way, it saves me a lot of work for the next meal.

    I, like you, find it so much easier to just cook for myself. It’s not as much the quantity and planning that I struggle with, but the worry about people liking what I cook for them. I like to experiment and I’m pretty easy to please. If I don’t like it too much, I’ll still probably eat it. I just don’t want to disappoint other people though!

    Luckily it usually turns out okay, but I’m always that person, “Do you like it? Are you sure? Should I have added more of ____?” Haha I try not to be, but it’s difficult.

    Anyway, loved this post! I’m new to your blog and definitely plan to explore it a bit more. 🙂

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