Strategies for small cooking


#1

This single dad sent his son off to college some months ago, and the evidence is pilling up that I’m cooking too much food, like on auto-pilot. My fridge is, well, you don’t want to know.

I end up throwing things out, because I’m such a variety hog that I can’t eat the same thing for days. So next day or so , I think, “Hey, why not Thai food?” Soon my fridge has aisles. “Mexican? Over here.”

I like to eat fresh, but my favored Asian, Indian and Mexican grocers (such as they are in Indiana) are not close to me and totally out of my way.

So I know, I know: I need to be planful (maybe even straightaway throw half of a new loaf of bread in the freezer). But I’m hopeful there are further approaches out there! Planful is not my strong suit…


#2

Cooking for one (in my experience, hopefully others can help more) is a trade off among planning, shopping, and costs.

Shopping and costs are two big ones, I find cooking for one to be more expensive, per serving, because of what you mentioned - throwing things out, things in fridge going to waste, forgetting to freeze things, etc, etc.

Shopping for produce from the salad bar can prevent you from overbuying - but it is more expensive (tradeoff). Using the salad bar for “ingredients” saves time and waste. You don’t have to buy whole peppers, large cucumbers, whole head of lettuce etc/etc when you only need 1/4 of each.

The freezer is a necessity in my opinion. Like you said, freezing bread, chicken breasts, etc allow you to have things on hand for long periods of time without waste. Once your freezer starts stocking up (like your fridge seems to be doing now) you’ll find that you only have to shop for veggies because you will have other things quickly accessible from the freezer.

I lived in Ohio for decades (not Indiana but not that different I would guess when it comes to ethnic groceries) and I found that I could get most “fresh” things to make those dishes in the grocery and only needed to stock up on “speciality” items at the ethnic stores (often these things were/are more shelf stable or last longer in the fridge).

Sorry I don’t have some magic bullet for you. Let us know what strategies you come up with - cooking for two can also make you head down the same path . . . I have to clean out the fridge every few months to find those things that made their way to the back or have just “lived their life” before I could get to them.


(John Hartley) #3

We’re a twosome but some of the same issues apply. The solution is generally the freezer. And the tactic is batch cooking. So, for example, we’'ll cook a stew intending to eat one portion and freeze one. Or, say, something that starts off as minced beef, cooked with onions and tomato, is split with one portion being finished with herbs, etc as a sauce for pasta. The other half is frozen in an “unfinished” state ready to be turned into something completely unlike a pasta sauce in due course.

Veg past their prime usually end up as soup - the stock coming from simple bouillon powder. Other than that, leftovers get repurposed - our current favourite is any leftover lamb from a roast is cut into slivers and frozen to be used as sharwama - dusted in spices and fried to heat through.


#4

Household of two and I find menu planning essential for not wasting food. I generally plan for Sun-Thu cooking, Fri is clean out fridge night and Sat is pizza. Probably not spontaneous enough for you so that is where your freezer come in. Freeze leftover portions for another night BUT keep a spreadsheet so you know what you have on hand. Then say you want Asian one night…voila, “Hey, I have cooked rice in the freezer”, etc. Also take leftovers for lunch if you can heat something at work.


(Dan) #5

BadaB, shop less often, shop smaller. Adjusting your meal plan thinking takes a bit of willpower but eventually a new habit takes over.

If you have the luxury of time, only shop for a weeks worth at most. If luxury is precious, read recipes that have similar main ingredients but can be translated into diff meals. If $ is no object, do semi homemade or takeaway inbetween.

The advice given so far affirms, pre planning, organizing your shopping and adjusting your habits.

I rely on my freezer, storage ware and have the freedom to shop all over town now that Im retired. Even cooking for two, we eat differently and I put together a main that can be tweaked based on our preferences. Breakfast and lunch we fix our own things, dinner we plan according to what we have on hand. Right now I do most of the food shopping. But I have def benefitted by eating more meals at home, smaller portions and more flex time to shop.

Here’s hoping you see the perks in your new strategies.


#6

This is very useful.

I don’t know, we are 2. shopping is once a week. I eat at home for lunch too. I still cook normally like for 4 or 6 people, big pot of stew or soup, sometimes that will last for days (reheating each time, and it gets better.) Stews can also turns into pasta, noodle meal or adding some vegetables ingredients and become another dish or soup. I freeze breads instantly after they were bought. But I am not a big freezer lover (maybe because my freezer is small). We do our shopping at weekend, so the first few days, we eat more fragile food, like fish, fresh salad…towards the end of the week, more things like cheese, marinated meat, bacon, sausage. When I feel certain food will be going bad soon, I will try to cook them even not intending to eat them that night.

I think if you are variety hog, freezer is your best friend. Hope yours is big enough.

Another way is to cook the food is a basic way, for example roast a whole chicken simply (a bit undercooked), and then shape it for mexican or asian for next few meals.

Planning is essential, when making the list what to buy each week, I have made up my mind roughly what to cook for the week.


#7

The salad bar is an interesting that hadn’t occurred to me. Thanks! You could even get things is separate containers, but that’s a lot of plastic…


#8

I never thought of freezing cooked rice. That could be a godsend if it’s suitable for fried rice when thawed. Probably should be vacuum packed.


#9

I have a tiny rice cooker, my solo lunch are usually rice.


#10

We are only two, but have the mother-in-law living in our home, but in a completely separate apartment with her husband. Although we have someone who cares for them daily, including cooking one meal 6 days a week, we keep an independent schedule. Thus we have come down to planning for 3 to 4 nights a week. Since we are semi-retired, we do have a lot of time if we are short of something. Additionally we also more closely control our staples of root veggies, grains, spice, oils, sauces, etc.
As noted above, if we have nothing planned, we go to the fridge, for there is always a red sauce for pasta or homemade pizza, chicken,or beef stock, chicken thighs and legs, and chicken breast. So any given night we want to diverge from our schedule, we have the basics ready to put together a meal.
The veggies, generally are consumed almost every week. For instance, if we have a bunch of mushrooms that we did not use, we make a mushroom and barley soup, and use the frozen thighs as a basis , (some mushrooms, potato, maybe some barley, stock from the freezer and about 45 minutes later we have found a meal).
We do eat out at least twice a week. Oh, BTW usually we take mom and pop with us one night out or in our kitchen. It all works and over the past 3 years we have learned to downsize and plan our meals much more carefully.


#11

Maybe invite friends or neighbours over when you have too much food!


(Dan) #12

Do you have a shopping buddy? If I bulk buy or see a worthwhile deal, I am sharing the goods and cost with a sibling or neighbor. Win-win.

I see a better return buying less food to start with. I still have leftovers and a freezer of meals and prep foods to work from. Just not for an army😉.


#13

I agree with others that have already recommended to cook a batch of something more basic- ie roast a big tray of veggies and one night they’re a side as is, another night add then chopped into a pasta dish, and the rest become part of a quiche or hash or soup.
Even some very vague planning will be very helpful- for example:
Mon- fresh produce that needs to be eaten
Tues- freezer dive
Wed- whatever looks good at the store (fish?) and salad

So it’s not really much of a plan at all, but you do create a strategy to avoid food waste and still have a lot of variety.
Shopping isn’t easy, smaller quantities are often much more expensive so freezing extras can be very useful as long as you’re equally diligent about eating from the freezer


#14

Defrosted frozen rice is perfect for fried rice! Vacuum sealing would be ideal


#15

Solo cooking is a challenge, especially if you like a lot of variety.

I love it when I find a place with good bread that sells half loaves!
I now purchase greens which can be used several ways:
spinach can be raw in a salad or cooked
cabbage raw in a slaw or cooked
I use my food saver and freezer a lot. And I keep a written inventory and “map” for the frozen assets.

Sounds like you were cooking for two - probably 2.5 with the amount a high school male usually has! Pay close attention to what you might be purchasing on autopilot…Rethink what might be better to purchase in smaller amounts. I buy russet potatoes by the piece. Sometimes I buy onions by the piece if it doesn’t look like I’ll be cooking every night for the next week or so. It’s fine to break off the number of bananas you want from the larger bunch!

You might want to explore frozen vegetables. It allows for more variety, less waste and the quality can be excellent.

The shopping partner idea is a good one! I used to have one. It was great to be able to split Costco purchases. We each could easily consume half a rotisserie chicken, bag of greens, etc.

I don’t use the salad bar idea as often as I should. At this point I purchase produce that keeps and supplement that with small amounts of produce with a shorter life. You can extend the fridge time with proper handling. Ex: remove mushrooms from the plastic covered tray and store in a clean paper bag in the fridge. They will last twice as long. Trim ends of herbs and cull bad spots, place in a tumbler with a little water, loosely cover with a plastic produce bag. Parsley or cilantro can last weeks for me with frequent change of water.

Keep an idea list for items that you find hard to use up. If I purchase celery for a dinner recipe I plan on making tuna or salmon salad for lunch, have celery stuffed with cream cheese for a snack, braised celery for a side dish over the next 10 days. Iceberg lettuce may be used for taco salad, lettuce wraps, add-on for sandwich or burger in addition to use as a salad. It also can be cooked!

Utilize your meat counter. If they are staffed most grocery stores will split and repackage their prepacked meats. You don’t have to order by the pound! I purchased 1/3 lb. of grind the other day - just enough for two stuffed peppers!

My stuffed pepper recipe was 1/4 of my old recipe. Original recipe called for an egg. I beat the egg then spoon off 1/4 of it. The rest can be put in Tupperwear and added to another egg for scrambled eggs or an omelet the next day.

I do find I’m prone to a certain amount of apathy when cooking for just me. Cooking for others motivates me to plan and experiment due to their enjoyment and the fact that I can use up food faster. To combat this I try to plan special meals and find kitchen projects that work for a solo eater. Pickling and fermentation are good. You can explore, learn and the results last a good while.

I belong to a cooking Meet-up group. Get together potlucks are themed, usually ethnically. It’s an opportunity to try new recipes, eat a wide variety of dishes and enjoy good company. It’s a nice to chance to bake since it is hard to bake treats for just one. Not impossible, but tricky.

Keep notes and track what works and what doesn’t. It takes a while to find the system that works for you. When I’m in a slump the WFD (what’s for dinner) threads can be very inspiring. There are several solo cooks and many cooking for two - lots of ideas to spin from!


(Dan) #16

while small containers of prepared fresh foods can be a bit higher, be it pre cut veggies or full on mini meals, buying produce by the lb is completely affordable per person and the tendency to over buy the habit. Even bananas at .19 can be over purchased if you don’t bake or use them up in a few days. I paid .99 for 2# of organic carrots and made plenty of soup for two.
You can purchase variety and still buy smaller quantities.
One large onion can cover several meals as an ingredient, 4 onions came be stuffed with lamb and roasted. Homemade onion soup uses half a bag. Rethinking how you use produce is half the battle.

As mentioned, rice, pasta, grains, potatoes can all be portioned and frozen for later use. But so can hot cereal, pancakes, waffles, etc. Blanch and freeze frozen vegetables in portions. I made appetizer out of leftover bits and froze for the next party.

Its a trade off; you go from a frig full of leftovers to a freezer full of portioned, ready to go starter meals and prep’d ingredients.

The WFD thread has opened my eyes to what busy family’s, busy people are doing to put food on their tables everyday no matter how large or small. Just reading WFD threads dauly becomes a recipe file.


(saregama) #17

I can imagine that the adjustment is hard, especially if your son was a big eater!

There are some things that have become matter of course for me cooking mostly for one, and I also like variety - I can’t cook a big pot of something and eat it all week.

Try to cook no more than 2 portions of anything - one to eat, one for a second meal a few days later, or the freezer.

Portion, marinate, and freeze meat/fish as soon as it comes home - this one has been especially key for me. If I buy chicken pieces (or other meat), I’ll split them up and add different marinade ingredients to each portion - asian, mexican, indian, etc. - before freezing. Ground meat can be divided and flattened inside sandwich bags - pull out 1/4lb at a time when you want it. Or brown the whole package with aromatics and then freeze in portions for ready use later. Quick proteins are handy - individually packaged salmon fillets at Costco & cod at TJ, shrimp, etc.

Make half or quarter recipes - use a smaller pan and smaller baking dishes. I don’t want 8 or 16 portions of anything in my freezer. Whether it’s shepherds pie or thai curry or bread, I’m really good at dividing recipe ingredients. If a recipe has eggs, choose one with an even number.

Vegetables are tricky. The markets you describe often don’t cater to small parties. My favorite asian market has pre-packaged greens for a family of… a lot. I buy very few things in large quantity - only those I can’t find loose or are unique. The rest, I pick up from the markets closer to me - better to buy 1 or 2 fresh veg rather than buy lots and have them sit in your fridge getting old. I keep fresh vegetables wrapped in paper in produce bags - it’s amazing how long they keep when properly stored. Someone told me to keep potatoes and onions in the fridge too - they spoil less quickly. And freezer vegetables are a great resource.

Label! Some things will get made in larger quantity than you expected. Other things (pastes, curries, pasta sauce, etc) you’ll want to make in the full quantity and freeze (flat) in portions. Keep thin sandwich bags and permanent markers close. (Thin bags should go in a larger freezer bag). It’s a bear to play the freezer guessing game with unlabeled bags…

List! I try to keep a fridge/freezer list updated on my phone - what’s cooked, prepped, raw. It’s funny how easy it is to forget… and my utilization and wastage are better when the list stays current… though I slip up often enough. Also good for grocery shopping.


(Dan) #18

A list helps me too. I store shopping lists, discount codes and grocer market apps on my phone that keep everything in one place. I also use a code reader app that puts the ingredient list on the screen. and the flashlight app helps me read easier in dark wine shops. :grin: I don’t fool around, ha!


#19

There are two of us and I focus on repurposing and making condiments. Salsas/sauces/pickles tend to last for a few weeks in the fridge and are an easy way to mix up leftovers. Having a constantly changing mix of flavorful punches keeps leftovers from feeling drab.


(ChristinaM) #20

Cooking for two adults and a toddler and not having time for or interest in frequent shopping trips, this is my strategy as well. We also love ethnic foods and tire a bit of leftovers except for fast lunches, so OP’s bursting fridge is familiar!

I also agree with Rooster - be strategic about leftovers and recipe selections. Freeze one portion immediately and set aside another for lunch. For leftover ingredients or finished components, try to incorporate them into another meal - some cuisines (like Mexican and Korean) have complementary/shared ingredients - starches, herbs, spices, or proteins. Think bulgogi and rice with kimchi one night and Korean fusion tacos the next. Mapo tofu one night, tofu scramble for breakfast. Carnitas or David Chang’s “Bo ssam” with lettuce wraps, then pulled-pork quesadillas, enchiladas, or Cuban bowls (e.g., pulled pork over white rice cooked with olive oil and salt, some avocado, cucumber, Cuban black beans, etc.). Grain bowls may be your answer for using up little bits of this and that and small portions of leftovers. Eggs are your friend and so flexible.

Many traditions have entire dishes built on leftovers - frittata with leftover pasta, fried rice, etc. Maybe thumb through cookbooks to get an idea of how one recipe builds on something made previously?