Our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.

Dear the post calvin,

What are your best tips for cooking for one? I live alone and have decent cooking skills, but I struggle to make things that work well for one person. I end up with TONS of food and sometimes toss the last leftovers because I’m sick of eating the same thing four days in a row.  I know I could halve recipes, but then I usually end up with extra of the raw materials (what does one do with half a can of coconut milk?). Got any suggestions for easy, flexible meals? Or tips for things that freeze and reheat well? Or just good things that keep for a long time?

Sincerely,
Table for One

Dear Table for One,

Yay you—you’re doing something difficult. Almost countercultural, in fact.

From to the Thanksgiving table to school cafeteria to the dinner date, eating is a social act. Every person on earth needs to eat, and every culture on earth has its own eating rites and rituals. Acting them out alone feels ridiculous, almost nonsensical. When you cook for one, there’s no one else to set the table. You’re the chef, the sous chef, the waiter, the eater—and the dishwasher. No wonder takeout and frozen meals dominate the “eating alone” landscape: why spend so much effort on yourself?

But, in the grand tradition of wide roads and five-minute workouts, the easy way is unsatisfying—and unhealthy. Yay you, Table for One. You’re cooking for one, something rare and wonderful and… hard.

Cooking occupies an odd place between hobby and necessity: you can do it for fun, but you have to do it for survival. I love to try new recipes, but some days I’m too tired to be elaborate. When grocery shopping, I have to plan for both moods. Everyone has to do this, whether you live alone or not, but doing it yourself means that all the decisions rest on you. Your energy determines the menu—not your roommate’s, not your spouse’s. Yours.

Encouragement aside, here are three tips for cooking for one. One tip is very long, one is very short, and one is actually a recipe.  

Know your basics, then multitask your ingredients.

Always have the ingredients in your pantry for a few basic meals. For me, that’s:

  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Rice/Quinoa
  • Sautee/roastable vegetables (peppers! carrots! onions! frozen broccoli!)
  • Frozen chicken breast
  • Hummus
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Snack fruits (strawberries! bananas! clementines! peaches!)
  • A variety of spices and condiments

I like those ingredients; I think they taste good in almost any application, and they don’t tend to expire after just one week in the fridge.

From those ingredients, I can make:

  • Pasta with sauteed veggies (add chicken if feeling nibbly)
  • Roasted chicken, sweet potatoes, and onions (try w/ balsamic & Dijon; lemon & rosemary; cumin & lime for flavor variety)
  • Spinach salad with balsamic chicken and strawberries; veggies and hummus on side if feeling snacky
  • Stir-fry chicken with quinoa and Asian vegetables

Your ingredients might be different than mine, but if you pay attention to what you eat week after week, you can save yourself from picking up takeout on the way home. When you have a regular cast of ingredients, you start to see ways that ingredients connect to one another. I realized recently that—with the help of a store-bought Tikka Masala sauce—all my Chinese stir-fry ingredients could easily be translated into curry.

And your list will also depend on your lifestyle. When I worked a retail job, I hardly ever bought chicken breast. I couldn’t find the right amount of time to thaw it, and I was rarely home at “dinnertime,” when I actually wanted to eat chicken. Instead, I bought a lot of avocados, granola, and Greek yogurt. I embraced my true millennial nature and ate absurd amounts of avocado toast.

Cook for your future self.

Many of the meals I mentioned above are actually best if you’ve done some of your prep yesterday. On Monday, when you’re slicing peppers to saute with your pasta, set aside a few to nibble with hummus with your Wednesday lunch. Chop up half an onion to roast with that chicken, and mince other half into the base for butternut squash soup. I’m a big fan of cooking big batches of balsamic chicken breast (balsamic vinegar, Italian seasoning, olive oil, and mustard), and then using it as protein in spinach salad, pasta dishes, and even soup.

One-stop meals (protein, vegetables, and flavor all in one single dish) tend to freeze and reheat/thaw well: soups, stews, quinoa salads, and the like. If you cook one more elaborate meal once a week, you’ll start to build a backlog of homemade freezer meals. And there is one major benefit to living alone: no one will fight you for freezer space.

Living alone doesn’t have to mean eating alone.

I love to cook for myself, but I adore cooking for other people. Tell your friends you’ll make them minestrone soup (with leftovers) if they contribute their company. Surprise a tired friend with dinner. Plan a cooking night, and make your meals for the week together.

Will you ever find the magic secret to cooking for one? No. You’ll still be Googling ideas, and you’ll still have days when you wind up with too little or too much food. But you won’t starve, and (hopefully) you won’t be bored.

P.S. What to do with that half a can of coconut milk? Stir it into overnight oats. Throw it into a smoothie (with some of your extra snack fruit). Make a basic sauce for your chicken. You might fail, and you might also try something that could become your specialty.

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