I am procrastinating about this RIGHT NOW
April 27, 2011 4:08 PM   Subscribe

Do you cook alone? Do you enjoy it? I don't have the budget to go out whenever I am alone so I need to learn to make being in the kitchen solo a fun thing.

I love to cook but associate cooking (and eating) with social time - some of my best memories are of being in the kitchen with friends or family. I'm currently single and there are times when I can't go out nor stay in with friends and am on my own or dinner. The thing is, I hate cooking alone; it bugs me much more than even eating alone. And now I am on AskMe when I should be making tasty food. But I feel so "meh" about it.
Do you have tips so I can see this as an adventure?
posted by pointystick to Food & Drink (46 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
I love solo cooking. Even when we have friends over, I prefer to do the cooking while they talk with me. Then again, I'm a control freak.

When I'm truly alone, or just cooking for the family and don't feel like getting the kids involved, I'll put on music I like or listen to NPR or a podcast.

I also dream of a time when I only have to take one other person's preferences into account while cooking. My kids are great eaters, and not very picky, but it is sort of frustrating to have to know three other people's likes and dislikes, and tailor a meal around them. So when they aren't here (not often right now), I make stuff that my husband and I can't have otherwise (super spicy stuff or Mexican - neither one is a fan). So maybe use your solo cooking time as a chance to just try really cool sounding recipes.
posted by cooker girl at 4:14 PM on April 27, 2011

I use solo cooking/meals as a time for trashy food (helllllo, english muffin pizzas!), or a time to try new stuff that I don't yet want to inflict on others. Sometimes, I really look forward to the trashy food nights.
posted by kellyblah at 4:18 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I cook alone, I play music as loudly as I want, and I sing embarrassingly to the cats. Which is fun. I'm not sure if "cooking with the pets!" qualifies? Or make it a way to zen out on your own - relaxing, mise en place, etc.
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:19 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I actually like solo cooking too - it allows me to make stuff that would be too risky or complicated or expensive to make for a group, and i can make whatever i like and eat totally selfishly. If you get excited about eating good food you won't mind cooking for yourself.

But for someone who doesn't like to cook, my advice would be: buy good components that you can just assemble - like, a rottisserie chicken, a bag of frozen vegetables, and a potato you microwave is a pretty good solo dinner without a lot of work. Sandwich things, 'appetizers for dinner' and thing that are good as leftovers (like soups or stews or pasta) are useful for eating well without putting a ton of energy into cooking.
posted by Kololo at 4:19 PM on April 27, 2011

I tend to like solo cooking as a way to try new things that I haven't worked out yet. When I cook for others, I tend to rely on the things I do well. But when I cook alone, I can take risks, because if it fails, I'm not foisting the results on anyone else. And if it's a success, I can add it to my repertoire confidently. Think of it as experimentation time, perhaps? Cooking as adventure, not as a social activity?
posted by .kobayashi. at 4:21 PM on April 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

I echo Medieval Maven: music. I love to dance and physically play in the kitchen when I cook. It's fun!

Also, it allows me to make weird food combinations, taste liberally from the pot, season exactly to my taste, explore flavors that I'm curious about trying. I'm at my most exploratory as a cook when I'm cooking just for myself.

That said, I don't always want to do a full meal for myself when I'm alone. So when I'm motivated to cook, I'll often cook a big batch of something so I have ready and tasty leftovers (especially things that freeze well like lasagna or stews).

I also like to cook things that I can eat as I cook. I don't know why this is so appealing when I'm cooking alone, but things like crepes where I can eat one while I cook the next are super satisfying.
posted by rosa at 4:23 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Do you have tips so I can see this as an adventure?

I'm another one who loves solo cooking. God, the joy of making and eating whatever you want!

I think a big part might be starting with 'what do you want to be eating'? Because then, whatever that thing is, you can make it. You can drink wine, listen to whatever you want, and eat dinner while reading magazines and drinking yet more wine.

So what do you want to eat? And I guess the first thing is -- do you like cooking? Chopping stuff? Frying a steak and eating it while watching reality TV? Because I think it starts with imagining what you'd want.

Cooking and eating solo is a pretty precious moment in time, actually.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:26 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

What are you looking for? If it's just easy meals, salad and pasta+butter+parmesan+capers or any variation on that theme, and you're good to go. Or do you want to change your attitude about cooking alone? Good advice for that upstream.
posted by cyndigo at 4:27 PM on April 27, 2011

I agree with singing in the kitchen. I also use it as a time to catch up on tv shows- I stream them on my laptop. I tend to spend a lot of time in the kitchen on the day I go grocery shopping. I'll pre-brown the meat, chop veggies, make rice for the week, etc. so that when I come home on other days, I pretty much have everything precooked and just have to combine them together, it makes being in the kitchen alone not so painful. It's even better if you can have a friend come over for a few hours once a week and prep with you.
posted by kro at 4:34 PM on April 27, 2011

cydigo, my attitude is what I want to change (and great ideas so far) but I also like ideas like crepes (love them, love to make them) because I think of them as "special" or "company" food when really they are simple, versatile & make great snackage.
posted by pointystick at 4:35 PM on April 27, 2011

I like it, but it takes me a while to get into the groove (I recently spent 10 weeks out here on the west coast before my S.O. joined me, so I've done a bunch of solo cooking recently). The shopping part is hardest, I find. But there's no other person's requirements, hunger level, or preferences to take into account - so cool! My husband really hates repeat meals, so I can somewhat ashamedly report that I sauteed greens, topped them with eggs and sriracha, and dug in at least 4 nights in a row some weeks, because he wasn't there to complain that it was boring. So fast and delicious. Mmm.
posted by deludingmyself at 4:35 PM on April 27, 2011

Pretend you are the host of a cooking show. :)
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 4:39 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

OK, cool. The cooking show is a great idea ... you could actually do a Cooking For One video on youtube if you're so inclined.

Omelets are special, fancy and super easy ... but making them perfect and beautiful takes practice. So maybe an omelet, a salad and a glass of wine? Vary the fillings of course. Also, souffles!
posted by cyndigo at 4:42 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

How about some podcasts? I like hour-long, detailed podcasts that I might otherwise not have time to listen to during the day, and cooking is a perfect level of activity for them - you're doing something but it's not so all consuming that you can't pay attention to what you're learning. I particularly like radiolab and this american life for cooking time.

Also, how about buying a few nice glossy-picture cookbooks to get you inspired? Sometimes just leafing through a really great cookbook is enough can get you excited to get in the kitchen. Or watching a bit of Alton Brown's Good Eats, where he talks about a very specific ingredient or technique, and then trying to perfect that technique or dish yourself.
posted by vodkaboots at 4:57 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I most enjoy cooking when I'm doing it for someone else and I'm less willing to put in a lot of effort for something I eat alone, but solo cooking can be fun.

- nthing the music/NPR and singing suggestions
- refer to Mark Bittman's 100 recipes list on the NY Times website. Easy and some of them at least are a bit unusual and fun to try.
- Pick up a strange ingredient at the grocery on your way home, and roll with it

Sometimes, when I'm having a crappy day, I promise myself a good meal when I get home, and I daydream about it a little. Then I go home and open a bottle of wine and cook. It's nice.
posted by bunderful at 5:03 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cooking alone is how I learned to cook over the past 10 years or so. I can make mistakes, be embarrasingly neurotic about details nobody else will ever give a shit about, and ruin the meal before going to In-N-Out anyway. Basically it has to do with the bad parts for me, I guess. I like cooking for other people, but only when I know it'll turn out decent.
posted by rhizome at 5:04 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to cook with my boyfriend a lot, but we have a galley-style kitchen now (lots of counter space but really narrow) and since I cook most of our dinners I'm usually in there by myself, and I really like it. I like putting on my headphones and listening to a podcast or something (lately I've been downloading a bunch of fascinating courses from various schools on iTunesU), or just lots of loud music. Sometimes I'll set up my laptop so I can watch something on Hulu .

I've grown really fond of my pseudo-alone time, to the point where sometimes I'll get a little territorial when my boyfriend comes in to bake some bread or do the dishes.
posted by foulowl at 5:07 PM on April 27, 2011

Cooking alone is my default setting. In fact, I find it so enjoyable that I have to stop myself from starting some sort of feast at 10PM. I love trying new dishes as well as baking fun desserts, which I can not only eat myself but also bring in to share with coworkers.

I think it would help to know what it is that you don't like about cooking alone, if you can pinpoint it. Is it that you don't know what to make? If so, try taking a cookbook out from the library that has interesting things in it. Is it a lack of other things going on around you? If so, try the suggestions of other people by putting on loud fun music or TV in the background. Is it a general lonely feeling that accompanies you when you do other things alone? Maybe try doing other things alone also and see that they aren't so bad either.

Is there a type of food you've always wanted to learn to cook but would be too shy to try it with company? I would recommend to try some daring new things and see how they go, and take it from there.
posted by wondermouse at 5:15 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm with everyone above - cooking solo means that you can cook what you want, experiment as you like, and dance around the kitchen while doing so! If you make stuff that you can freeze / take to work the next day, then so much the better.

I really love baking, but live alone. So I've got into the habit of baking cakes or cookies for meetings / work colleagues' birthdays etc - I get to bake, other people get to eat the results - everyone's happy!
posted by finding.perdita at 5:20 PM on April 27, 2011

I have my old dorm room TV in the corner of the kitchen (built-in VCR!!), so if I have a lot of chopping to do or something, I will put in a video of some British sitcoms to make it less tedious.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 5:37 PM on April 27, 2011

I open wine, and often assemble myself a little plate of olives, cheese and crackers so I can snack on it while I cook. I also spend a lot of time trying to keep the cat off the stove, so mileage may vary on that one.
posted by sweetkid at 5:38 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

What you need is a copy of Judith Jones' cookbook The Pleasures Of Cooking For One. Jones was Julia Childs' editor, and the book is all about solo cooking and dining -- covering every hurdle that could be in your path from "what materials should I need" to "how do I halve a recipe that calls for only one egg" (really!) to "how do I make myself feel like it's worth it" to "how can I shop effectively."

It's great -- especially the "how do I shop effectively" bit. The first chapter or so is organized so certain recipes are in groups -- where you buy one cut of meat, cook part of it for dinner one night, and then she gives you a recipe to cook the rest of it the next night. Or, cook one thing one night, and then use the leftovers for something else the next night.

I'm actually using it tonight to make myself a baby quiche-for-one.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:52 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

A bottle of wine and netflix instant watch does it for me.
posted by raccoon409 at 5:55 PM on April 27, 2011

Do you have a Nintendo DS? I've been going through America's Test Kitchen: Let's Get Cooking. It's not so much a game as an interactive cookbook. All the recipes have been really good. And it keeps track of how many recipes you've made, and it makes your chef's hat taller every time you level up. It's dorky, but knowing I'm only a few recipes away from the next level helps keep me cooking when it's just me.
posted by Caravantea at 6:02 PM on April 27, 2011

As for books, another suggestion is Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, a collection of essays.

Reading about the way that people incorporate food and its creation into their lives has made me a lot more thoughtful in the kitchen, whether I'm cooking for myself or a crowd. Food can be social, yes, but there's a lot of self-actualizing power and introspective fodder in cooking. Delving into the perspectives of others might help you reframe your attitudes.
posted by thisjax at 6:03 PM on April 27, 2011

I find solo cooking really meditative, in the same way that doing a really intensive art project might be. Prepping all the ingredients, trying new techniques keeping an eye on the time, and a beautiful result feel very much like arts and crafts from when I was younger.

Also a good part about cooking alone: you can try new things you wouldn't want to if, say, a dinner party were hanging in the balance. If it's inedible, no one knows but you.
posted by np312 at 6:17 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I love cooking alone. I love everything about it (except cleaning up, of course — but there's less to clean up when there's just one of you).

You really should try out dishes on your own before serving them to someone else, so I don't see a bright-line distinction between "cooking alone" and "cooking for two" or "cooking for a group." It's all one big ongoing project.

I don't play music or listen to podcasts while cooking. I wish I did this, since it'd be more efficient, but I get so absorbed with cooking that I don't want the distractions.

I enjoy the whole process, from picking out food at the grocery store, to sitting around at work fantasizing about the dinner I'm going to cook for myself when I get home, to preparing the ingredients, to the actual cooking, to eating it at the end. It becomes a larger, richer experience than just "Here's some food that instantly appeared in front of me and now I'm going to eat it." You get to be more creative and more conscious of what you're eating and why.
posted by John Cohen at 6:17 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've found the answers other posters have given to be pretty interesting, going to favorite the whole thread for later. I cook solo maybe 300 nights a year, have been doing so for last 15 years or so. Here are some thoughts on what motivates me to get into the kitchen, or streamlines the process for those nights when I don't want to cook.

Solo cooking can't always be an adventure. Sometimes you get home late, or have a cold, or are feeling run down. I think it is important to have a couple of "go-to" meals for those situations so that you can still eat healthy. I've got a couple of one-dish meals that take minimal time to prepare. I also sometimes cook things in big batches (like chili) that can be stored indefinitely and reheated.

Nice tools. I know you are on a budget, this may not be advice you can act on now, but I've stocked my kitchen with really nice tools that are fun/pleasurable to use. I *want* to chop that onion, if only to use a really sharp knife and super-solid cutting board.

Planning ahead, but not too far ahead. I used to do the once a week grocery run without a really clear shopping list and bought a lot of things that came in cardboard boxes. I've moved on to the point where I usually plan three days of meals at a time and just shop for those meals. I find I am using more fresh ingredients (use them or lose them) and generally shooting for one "fancy" dinner and two "basic" dinners. This may be a style thing -- too much planning for some, not enough for others.

Cooking blogs. I follow a couple of recipe/cooking blogs and get inspired by what I read to try new recipes.

One dish meals. I've tried making some elaborate four or five course meals for myself and it just didn't do it for me. When I throw dinner parties, I am happy to do that much cooking, but it just doesn't work for me solo. I figure 20 or 30 minutes in the kitchen every night is plenty, so in the last couple of years I've focused more on one or two course meals. It is much easier to overcome any procrastination problems if you know the task will be short.

Keep a food journal. I keep a notebook of things I've tried and notes on what worked well and what didn't. Looking back at things you've tried that worked well, or maybe not so well, can be inspiring when you are trying to figure out what to shop for or cook.

Good luck with the solo cooking!
posted by kovacs at 6:20 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Think of it as auditioning recipes for guests. Try lots of new recipes and keep notes. Build your repertoire (and keep your flops a secret). Choose recipes scaled for 4 - 6 servings and enjoy leftovers that free up several evenings.
posted by Quietgal at 6:57 PM on April 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I really miss cooking only for myself and only taking my own preferences and whims in account. Try to think if it as a time when you can totally focus on yourself and indulge yourself. Maybe try to find a cookbook you like and make it a project to work through all the recipes.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 6:59 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cooking for/with others is great when everyone loves the result.

Spend a bit of time cooking for an overly critical whiner for whom everything is too spicy/bland, salty/not enough salt, boring/exotic, and generally just doesn't like what you cook.

After a bit of that, cooking for/by yourself will be bliss.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:01 PM on April 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

One secret I have is a well stocked freezer. When a recipe calls for a tablespoon of tomato paste, I pull out my flattened ziplock baggie of same and break off a chunk. Same for a chili en adobo or chilis in green sauce. this way, I'm not always opening a can of something I only need one of. Even though I'm cooking for two these days, he works late a lot and his big meal is lunch, so dinner is usually on my own.

Also in the freezer is a convenient stash of convenience. Foods I've made in bulk (and labeled with a strip of masking tape that has date and dish name on it, so I never have to guess what might be in there, or how old it is), or frozen grocery items like pre-breaded fish fillets. Not glamorous, but with some veggies it gets me filled up without the atrocious sauces of frozen dinners.

Other things indo to enjoy real cooking are:

have the best knives we can afford, because hacking through a green pepper is miserable.

Think about what's in season produce or seafood-wise, then make a pairing.

Satisfy a craving.

Focus on dessert - slap a hot dog into production so that I can enjoy a batch of muffins or brownies or whatever.

Give myself permission to make crap. There's always cereal in the cupboard if things go really pear shaped.
posted by bilabial at 7:06 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Music, wine, and cook several meals at once for the freezer.
posted by raisingsand at 8:15 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The great thing about cooking alone is... you really don't have to if you don't want to. You can have toast for dinner if you like, or waffles, or a Totinos Party Pizza, or microwave popcorn. I won't tell, I promise!

What I love about cooking just for myself is, I have this weird thing where I love to eat one giant serving of side dish. When you're fixing dinner for other people you're kind of obliged to provide salad, a side dish, bread, a main course that is probably some kind of meat dish, etc. When it's just me? I can eat whatever I like, in whatever portion I like.

For example, tonight's repast is a box of Rice-A-Roni. Just that; no sides.

Can you do that for company? I think not. ("Good to see you, have a seat! And here is your giant plate of Rice-A-Roni. Can I get you a soda or something?")

Cooking for yourself is your chance to fully indulge your personal food quirks without fear of judgment. Also, you get to keep all the leftovers for lunch the next day, which is pretty awesome.

The best way to get started may be to pick a dish that's a bit advanced for your skill level. You may well botch it, but if you cook it just for yourself, there's no risk. Then you can perfect it for when you cook it for other people.
posted by ErikaB at 8:46 PM on April 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and freedom of timing! If you want to come home from work and roast a pork shoulder, thus scheduling dinner for 9-10PM? You can do that!

Conversely, hungry for dinner at 3PM on a Saturday afternoon? 3PM it is!
posted by ErikaB at 8:57 PM on April 27, 2011

I've done it, found it works well to cook something real basic (quick and easy), but play around with the sauce, see what I can come up with. Some have been far from outstanding, but a lot were at least decent and it's a fun, simple way to cook for myself without the cooking being real complex or the food being real boring.
posted by ambient2 at 10:11 PM on April 27, 2011

If I'm cooking on my own and it isn't something that demands a lot of attention, I'll often put on a podcast, or sometimes put my computer on something out of the way and put on an episode of a TV show. Subtitles are helpful when things are sometimes noisy.
posted by JiBB at 10:22 PM on April 27, 2011

Open can, dump in bowl, microwave.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:12 PM on April 27, 2011

Can you get some props that make the scene more special, like go to a thrift store, get a cool tablecloth or placemats, some cloth napkins, wine glasses, candle holders? That might be another way to make the whole setting more positive and inviting.

Bilabial's advice about leaning on the freezer to keep interesting ingredients around while cooking for one is good.

Frozen shrimp is great because you can defrost a handful at once.

I haven't made crepes, but they seem really versatile and like you could do a hundred things with them, so crepes and a salad and a glass of wine sounds like a lovely go-to.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:02 AM on April 28, 2011

I live alone and hate cooking single serve meals everyday, so when I decide to cook, I tend to make a day of it on the weekend. I put on some music and prepare enough to cook 2-3 meals that serve 4 people and are suitable to freeze. Then I don't need to cook again for the rest of the week and have all my lunches and dinners sorted. Tends to work best with stews and soups. Preparing food alone also means you can sing at the top of your lungs or dance around the kitchen with no one judging you too!
posted by Kris10_b at 3:15 AM on April 28, 2011

I use solo cooking as an opportunity to indulge in ingredients that I'm not sure my partner or friends would like or enjoy as much as I would. This usually means either really spicy food or really stinky food (or both, like kimchee).
posted by like_neon at 4:28 AM on April 28, 2011

I found that having an ongoing project - testing different pomodoro sauce recipes was the biggest success, and reading about flavour interactions led to a few other thngs - makes me excited about cooking and eating alone. The end result is a good staple for cooking for others, which is a bonus, but I've also had tasty food and mildly nerdy fun while alone.

At the moment, my home cooking is soups and salads and sandwiches, thanks to school - being able to make healthy quick things and not having to apologise if you want an omelette five nights in a row is the winning part of cooking for one.
posted by carbide at 5:33 AM on April 28, 2011

I adore solo cooking, and in fact kind of prefer it because I am such a control freak in the kitchen. Many things have already been covered, so I'll just list a few of my favorite things and one suggestion:

-put awesome music on
-watch tv (I watch Bones when I cook, but this is not recommended because of high potential puke factor)
-drink wine, or make a tasty home-infused cocktail
-clean out the fridge into your meal (no one will know!)

One of the best things about solo cooking is that because you are only cooking for one, you can indulge a bit more in lovely ingredients. I once cooked grits and roasted mushrooms for a partner who didn't like mushrooms. I took this as an opportunity to purchase just one of each fancy (forty dollars a pound!) mushroom that they had at the store. Cost about six bucks, tasted fabulous, and I got to try stuff that I otherwise would have never been able to afford.

-I forgot the best part of cooking alone, or doing anything alone, which is the opportunity to chatter to yourself the whole time about everything and nothing
posted by Polyhymnia at 11:57 AM on April 28, 2011

Comedy podcasts are my go-to thing to do while cooking. I also enjoy talkin' smack to the cats. If you have any pets, try engaging them thusly:
"Damn, son, you so snuggly, (consequence of pet being so snuggly)."
posted by Greg Nog at 1:07 PM on April 28, 2011

These are great ideas; thanks to everyone! I luckily have good knives & equipment but I will rearrange my kitchen a bit esp. so I can have a wee tv or at least a spot for ipod & speakers or laptop for entertainment. Thanks for the suggestions and helping me reframe - I'm strongly extroverted and I need to work on enjoying more things alone.
Pointycat likes to "help" me cook - maybe I will try to arrange a cozy spot that he prefers more than the counter!
posted by pointystick at 1:16 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Some things I enjoy doing while cooking alone:
  • Making food that's a pain to make for lots of people, because servings need to be cooked individually (crepes as mentioned above, omelettes, etc) or are very expensive (peculiar meat, in particular)
  • Pretending that I have a cooking show, and narrating the process
  • Pretending that I am a ninja in training, and opening high-up cupboards with my feet, throwing things into the pan (or onto the floor, more often) from far away, etc
  • Pretending that I am in a musical about food
  • Licking ingredients
  • Drinking wine while cooking (again as mentioned by others above; when my housemates are home, a bottle of wine just about does bit-of-wine-in-food plus glasses to accompany a meal; when I'm on my own I can use up more during cooking)
  • Seeing how many things I can make simultaneously: I know there's a fifteen-minute gap in the soup where I could make some cake batter and pop it in the oven, but can I also get some ice-cream mixture made and into the freezer, or is that pushing it too far?
  • Getting bored halfway through cooking, and eating things in their semi-cooked state
  • Separating eggs with my hands rather than the eggshells, then throwing the yolk from hand to hand and seeing if it breaks

posted by severalbees at 4:14 PM on April 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

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