Cooking for one (or two)

Food companies, cookbook publishers and grocery stores all seem to operate on the principle that people eat together. However, a busy schedule or change in personal circumstances means this isn’t always possible, and sometimes it can be tricky to scale down ingrained habits. Here’s how to prevent waste and save time and money when cooking for one or two:

Think ahead

If you’re used to cooking for a crowd, it’s time to fine-tune your meal planning skills and aim to get more mileage out of meals. After all, it isn’t much more effort to cook two chicken breasts instead of one, or twice as much rice and vegetables. You’ll save energy not turning the oven on every time, and leftovers are a healthy meal to grab on the run. Before you decide how much to make, think about your overall meal plan for the week so you won’t end up with more leftovers than you can reasonably consume.

Also, look for creative ways to use up individual foods. For instance, leftover meat can be used in wraps or sandwiches, as a pizza topping or for a protein boost in meal-sized salads. Extra vegetables can compliment any meal or snack. A  package of pita bread can yield pita sandwiches one day and pita pizzas the next (just use the pita in place of a pizza crust). A bottle of oil-based dressing can be used on salads (both leafy-greens and pasta varieties), to flavour stir fries and asa marinade for meat or vegetables.

If you’re not used to planning ahead for a week, try a visual aid. A list, chart or calendar can help you plan your meals according to your schedule and create a grocery list. If you stick to the list, you’ll be less likely to buy impulse items or end up pitching spoiled food.

Develop a marking system

You could be headed for food poisoning if you can’t remember when you opened that jar of mayo or what night you made that casserole. Some foods look and smell okay, but could be harbouring harmful bacteria and mould — even if they haven’t reached their expiration date. While “when in doubt, throw it out” is a smart strategy to avoid getting sick. A couple of markers and a few seconds of your time can prevent waste.

Take a few seconds to write the date on the container so you can tell at a glance whether the product is questionable or safe. A wet- or dry-erase marker is handy for reusable storage containers and bags because it can be wiped off when you’re through. A permanent marker works well for recyclable containers or items that get handled a lot and are stored in a moist environment (the date won’t rub off). This method is particularly helpful for products which may not show up on your weekly grocery list like salad dressings, sauces, spreads and condiments. You can also avoid discovering the dreaded “mystery meat” or unknown dish by labeling items.


Know the limits

Working within the shelf-life of fresh ingredients is an important part of meal planning. How much you buy and when you buy it should be dictated by how long the food will stay fresh and how soon you plan to use it. For example, carrots, celery and parsnips will last twice as long in the fridge as cauliflower, peppers, cucumber and beans. Similarly, apples will endure a whole month and citrus fruits can last two weeks, but berries and cherries may only several days. If you’re  buying all these foods in one trip you’ll need to adapt your food preparation plan to use up certain ingredients first.

For flexibility keep some dried, canned or frozen foods on hand. These products will last for long periods of time and can be used in a variety of recipes. For example, frozen peas and beans can be added to soup, chili and salad for extra vegetables. Dried legumes such as lentils, split peas and beans can be used as a meat substitute. If you don’t use much milk, skim milk powder is a handy alternative for cooking. Canned chicken, tuna or salmon are also staple items to keep stored.

In fact, advice from the Manitoba government recommends having something from each of the four food groups in your freezer or pantry, both for quick, balanced meals and emergency preparedness.

Take advantage of your freezer

Almost everything can go in your freezer, allowing you to make the most of your resources. Here’s what works well:

Fruit and vegetables: Batches of fruit can be stored in airtight containers or freezer bags. You may want to try individually freezing fruit pieces for dessert toppings, smoothies and cool summer snacks. Berries and grapes can be frozen whole, and you can slice up larger fruits like nectarines, peaches, pineapple and melon. Spread the fruit out on a cookie sheet covered with plastic wrap, foil or waxed paper and lay flat in the freezer. Once the food is solid it can be packaged up for storage.

If you’re freezing vegetables, you may need to cook or blanch them first. Cooking website O Chef has more information on How and Why to Blanch Vegetables for Freezing. Most fruits and vegetables will last eight to 12 months in the freezer, so it is possible to preserve seasonal favourites for the winter months.

Raw meats: Single serving foods like pre-frozen chicken or fish are convenient when you only want one or two of something, but they often have extra water and salt added. Make your own by buying packages of fresh meat and fish and freezing them using the same cookie sheet method.

To prevent cross contamination, you may want to keep aside a separate sheet for meat only. Meat loaf recipes can be made into hamburger patties for smaller servings. Most raw meats can be stored for 3 – 4 months.

Cooked meats: Cut up cooked meats into strips and freeze in single portions. They’re a great addition to soups, casseroles and stir fries.

Sauces and soups: Nothing beats a pot of chicken soup or homemade tomato sauce. Rather than scaling down your recipe, make the normal amount and freeze in small portions.

Baked goods: Breads freeze well, but so do pitas, wraps, muffins and bagels.

Casseroles and other dishes: Cabbage rolls, stews, perogies, tomato-based pastas and curries freeze particularly well and can be stored up to three months.

What you shouldn’t freeze: Eggs, canned foods and prepared salads. Some foods such as cream sauces, mayonnaise, cottage cheese and lettuce can be frozen safely, but chances are you won’t like the texture and quality later.

If you’re concerned about how a dish will fare in the freezer, try freezing and thawing a small portion as a test. For more information on how long certain foods can be stored in the fridge or freeze, take a look at the Safe Food Storage Times and Temperatures site from the Arizona Department of Health Services — there are handy tables at the bottom. The Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education has printable Cooking and Storage Charts to post on your fridge for future reference.

Remember, the sooner you freeze a food, the fresher it will be.

Invest in some small appliances

Is it worth it to turn on the oven for a single piece of chicken or fish? A few small kitchen appliances can help you cut down your energy bills when cooking a small meal, such as:

– A slow cooker. In addition to soups and stews, you can cook a whole chicken, vegetables and potatoes in one pot — meaning less energy used and less clean up than the alternative.

– A toaster oven or convection toaster oven. If you allow for a little extra cooking time, you can bake meats, fish and potatoes or heat single-portion dinners without using the microwave. You can also use them for quickbreads and muffins too.

– An indoor grill. Models such as the popular George Foreman line of grills are a low-fat alternative to frying, and they cook meat quickly. They’re also great for grilled cheese and other hot sandwiches.

Small and medium sized pans are also a good investment. Pyrex baking dishes with lids can also double as storage containers.

Find some new advice

While many favourite recipes can be halved or scaled down, there are a number of cookbooks on preparing food for one or two people. In addition to right-sized recipes for everything from quick meals to gourmet dishes, the books contain cooking techniques and shopping advice as well as tips for freezing, storing and using up extra up food. Browse your local bookstore or try the library for ideas.

Websites are also getting in on the action. Try:

The Mayo Clinic’s Recipes that serve 2’s Cooking for 1 or 2

The Food Network’s Table for One.

The British Columbia Ministry of Health Services has a free downloadable guide (in PDF form) called The Senior Chef: Cooking for One or Two.

When in doubt, a stir fry, salad, mixed vegetable dish or soup recipe is good for “cleaning out” the fridge.

Whatever the circumstances, more and more people are now cooking for just one and retailers are beginning to cater to this trend. Keep your eyes open for special products, books and advice on cooking for small numbers.

Additional References:
Act Now BC: Cooking for One or Two
Manitoba Government: Cooking for One or Two (PDF)

Photo © Digital Paws Inc.

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