I haven’t always enjoyed cooking. I am embarrassed to admit that for about the first 2 years after moving out from home, I can probably count the number of times I cooked on one hand. I survived on a combination of take-away, eating out, toast and the occasional meal back at home or the home of my then boyfriend. On the rare occasions I did step inside a supermarket, I would buy pita bread and a container of hummus and call it a meal. Not very healthy. And also all very expensive – except for the $4 pizzas, they were great value.
The two main excuses I gave for my lack of cooking were that I wasn’t really much of a cook (aka I didn’t know how) and that there’s not much point if you’re just cooking for one person. I frequently hear these same excuses from other people, so today I’d like to debunk the myth that cooking for one is a waste of time. And this doesn’t just apply to all the single ladies (and gents)! Are you in a share house where the food is most definitely not shared? Do you just make yourself a piece of toast and a cup of tea when your significant other isn’t going to be home for dinner? Are you a student who thinks pre-packaged noodles with an ingredients list that reads more like a science experiment is all the cooking you can manage? It doesn’t have to be this way!
According to Foodwise, Aussies bin up to 20% of the food they purchase. Throwing away food is a huge waste, but cooking for one doesn’t mean you have to waste food! Supermarkets often package fresh food into so called value packs, but it’s often in much larger quantities than you need. Sometimes it’s possible to divide large quantities into smaller portions and freeze, but you can also try to just buy what you need. Shopping outside of supermarkets can give you so much more choice in this regard. Butchers can cut meats how you want, a deli can give you just the portion size you need, and you can get great advice at markets as to what’s actually in season so you can better avoid those out of season fruit and veg that taste so yuck you’ll want to bin them.
Do you get really excited about cooking a special recipe and buy lots of special ingredients, only to realise after the special meal has been made, that you don’t know what else to do with the remainder of the special ingredients? An omelette or a frittata is a great way to use up lots of these odds and ends, and a bit of meal planning doesn’t go astray so that you’re not left holding the baby (artichokes).
Use leftovers wisely
Cooking more than you need and eating the rest as leftovers is an obvious one – but be smart about it. Do you really need to cook so much that you’ll be eating nothing but the same pasta dish every lunch and dinner for the next 5 days? Probably not. Most recipes are designed for 4 people, so if I’m just cooking for myself I usually halve the quantities, make 2 serves and eat the other portion for my lunch or dinner the following day. Some meals make great leftovers and actually improve in flavour the following day (hello spaghetti bolognaise), but some things just weren’t meant to last forever. I find that stir-frys tend to get very soggy and not very appealing the following day. And try as you might, a soufflé is just not lunchbox appropriate.
When it comes to leftovers it is also important to consider food safety. The Food Safety Information Council recommends precooked food should not be stored in the refrigerator for more than 2 or 3 days. And get that food into the fridge in the first place – once the steam stops rising from your food, cover and refrigerate within 2 hours. Food left out for 2-4 hours? Eat immediately. Longer than 4 hours? Chuck it out.
The freezer is your friend
The freezer is great for storing leftovers you may want to eat a little further down the track. Stock up on storage containers so you’ve actually got a vessel for your leftovers. Things like lasagne, casseroles, stews and soups are hard to make in small quantities, however they freeze really well. Do a big cook up on a Sunday evening, divide into portions, freeze and you’ve just done future you a massive favour. Freeze just purchased food in freezer bags – but split up into single portions first so you’re just defrosting what you need when you need it.
Sometimes you’re better off alone
It’s not just all about leftovers – some meals will actually work better if you’re just preparing them for yourself. And I don’t mean soup for one and wine for two. Omelettes are great for cooking for just one as you can only cook one at a time anyway. Cook a steak for just you, just how you like it and toss together a salad of your favourite veggies. Make a single serve stir-fry – chop up enough veggies/meat/tofu/whatever for one portion and cook. Or alternatively, chop up enough veggies for 2 portions: cook half now and refrigerate the rest raw to use in the next couple of days. Again, future you will thank you for the pre-chopped veggies. I love making myself a big salad as it’s a great way to experiment with unusual and untested combinations of ingredients without having to listen to any input from backseat diners about whether those foods actually “go” together.
Now repeat after me: cooking for one is not difficult or depressing!