Alone in the kitchen with indecision
March 19, 2012 10:28 AM   Subscribe

What are your meal-planning-for-one tips, tricks and best practices?

I've recently committed to making more of my own food for health and budget reasons, but one thing that's holding me back is that, at the end of a long work day, cooking often seems like drudgery. Batch cooking on the weekends seems like the best way to solve that problem, but unless I love what I made on Sunday, I'm sick of it by Wednesday. (I have started freezing extra portions for later, which helps, but my freezer is pretty small, so that's not a great long-term solution)

I realized the sticking point for me was not so much the cooking (which I enjoy), but the planning. I'm more mentally than physically drained at the end of the day, so deciding what I want, thinking about whether or not I have the ingredients, etc. etc. is not a lot of fun. So it seems like meal-planning is the way to go, but I've never been able to find a routine for meal planning that I could stick with. And most of the meal-planning advice I've found online is for families and/or people who enjoy spending an hour in the kitchen every day.

I would love it if I could find a simple way to figure out what I want to eat for the week and then do as much work as possible on, say, Sunday to make that easy and brainless for the rest of the week.

So for you mefites who cook for just yourself (or maybe yourself and one other person) and have found a meal-planning routine you like, what do you do? Do you mind walking me through your routine?

You may be thinking, "this is simple, I just do xyz!" I have ADHD and planning has always been tough for me, so seriously, your solution is probably not too simple!
posted by lunasol to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 149 users marked this as a favorite
Batch cooking on the weekends seems like the best way to solve that problem, but unless I love what I made on Sunday, I'm sick of it by Wednesday.

The best practices here are basically... suck it up. It isn't really economical to cook only two servings of most things. That would be true whether you're cooking from scratch or not: even buying just enough fresh items to cook what you need for a day or two necessitates extra trips to the store. In Europe, this may not be that big of a deal, but in the US, which doesn't have the same kind of small grocer ecology, it's just not viable. So you wind up cooking four to six servings of something.

My strategy here is generally to cook two somethings and then set them aside in single-serving containers. I bring a container of one thing to work and eat the other thing for dinner. By Sunday night, all the dishes are done, and I've got a dozen or so meals ready to be nuked. Throw in fixings for sandwiches and I've got three choices for any given day, meaning while my variety is small, I can take a day off of something.
posted by valkyryn at 10:44 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You actually may want to check out Judith Jones' book The Pleasures of Cooking For One. The first few chapters are all kind of meal-planning-done-for-you-by-giving-you-linked-recipes. For instance:

* She tells you to get a one-pound pork tenderloin. That tenderloin, though, is for THREE meals: first some quick pork scallopini the first night, then a roast pork tenderloin the second night, and stir-fry pork the third night.

* To do this, she tells you how to cut it up the first night (cut two or three scallopini off it, then whack a bit off the other end for the stir-fry; put the stirfry bit and the roasting bit back in the fridge) and THEN gets into the recipes.

* Then, she gives you a couple different recipes for scallopini, a couple different recipes for glazed pork loin, and then a couple different stir-fry things. So you've only shopped the once, and gotten three totally different meals out of it; and you can mix and match next time you want to do that ("Okay, I had the LEMON scallopini last time, lemme try the ginger one...but I really liked the mustard roast pork, so I'll do that again tomorrow").

The last few chapters are a catch-all for "things you can make that use up leftovers and weird random bits-o-crap to make them something totally new". (She's got a whole section devoted to leftover rice.) Those can be good for when you know you've got to eat something, but haven't gone shopping in a while, so you can poke your head in your fridge and explore: "Okay, hmm, I've got some rice left over from last night...and a teeny bit of the spinach, and one zucchini I've gotta use up -- hey, I know, there's that baked-rice-and-vegetable thing. Okay, we're good to go!"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:48 AM on March 19, 2012 [19 favorites]

If your brain likes working this way, think about the ingredients the recipes have in common, or how you can use leftovers from one recipe to make another. For example, you could cook some leeks and ham, and use half for pasta one day and half for a quiche the next. Or you could make some black beans for a side one day and put them in a burrito the next. Then you could use the same cheese you put in the burrito to make a grilled cheese with tomato soup the next day. And the next day, you could make fried rice with the leftover rice from the burrito. And so on. This is a good way to plan if you're cooking for one, because you'll almost always cook too much rice, or beans, or whatever, for one meal.

Are you a creative cook or do you like following recipes? Coming up with meals to cook will get much easier with practice. I used to stress about recipes and meal planning, but now that I've cooked thousands of meals, I can basically throw something together out of just about any set of ingredients. The biggest help for me is trying to keep the pantry stocked with ingredients that are versatile and in a lot of dishes I enjoy. For example, black beans, canned diced tomatoes, pasta.

If you want somewhere to start, plan one elaborate / interesting meal per week, one really easy meal (pasta with tomato sauce), and then think how the ingredients / leftovers from those two meals could be used in other meals. Also note what is often leftover and think of creative ways to use it. I can't tell you how many times I've googled "what to do with leftover ----."
posted by beyond_pink at 10:48 AM on March 19, 2012

My wife and I had the same problem with decision fatigue. So, we made a school cafeteria-style meal plan for the whole month. For each night, it says exactly what we make for dinner. At least half the time, we deviate, but it is understood that we don't have to pick something if we don't want to, and so there's a lot less hand-wringing. If something else comes to mind that's appealing, we go for it. But if nothing comes to mind, we just go with what's on the schedule.

unless I love what I made on Sunday, I'm sick of it by Wednesday.

Here, I do what valkyryn does. I used to try to bulk cook on Sunday, but that became intimidating, and I would be tired of chicken salad or whatever by Wednesday and for quite a while afterward.
posted by ignignokt at 10:49 AM on March 19, 2012

Best answer: I am not a meal-planner, but I do like to cook and usually am just cooking for myself and for me what works is thinking VAGUELY about what I might like to cook over the course of the week when I do my shopping -- so, not like Monday: Lasagne, Tuesday: Pot roast, but more like, "I feel like I might want pork chops this week," -- and making sure I have a really well stocked pantry back at home. If you have a well-stocked pantry/freezer, you can throw together all kinds of stuff and it takes much MUCH less energy than realizing, "well, I can't make that because I don't have X." So, make sure you have the basics on hand all the time, depending on what you like to eat. For me, this is: pasta, milk, butter, eggs, lemons, tomatoes, chickpeas, spinach or kale, feta cheese, chicken, and then a variety of whatever looks good to me at the market. With that, I can toss together anything from a chicken salad to a pasta dish to an omelet... Basically, the more you DO cook, the easier it is to do this on the fly.

Another thing that has helped me is signing up for a CSA -- veggies come once a week and I feel obligated to eat them, which has led to me actually getting a lot more interesting fruit and veg, PLUS I never run out. I do have to go to the actual market twice a week, usually, though.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 10:52 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

What about batch cooking once a month for things that can be stored in the freezer long term? It leaves you with options without the hassle of preparing or putting much thought into it. Things that freeze well include sauces, stews, soups, pot pies, biscuits/muffins/bread, lasagna. I'm sure there are lots of other options- and it's great to pack them in single servings sizes- for lasagna you can buy those disposable single serving tin pans that come with a lid. Liquids freeze flat in ziploc bags or reusable bowl containers.

I feel like this sounds too obvious, but you only mention batch cooking for the fridge for the week, so I thought it may be helpful.
posted by sunshinesky at 10:56 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Just a trick that has made me, a former I-hate-cooking-for-just-myself! woman, do a complete 180 in the last year: a well-stocked pantry.

When I was first building up my pantry, every week that I went to the grocery store I'd pick up two or three items that I didn't need for anything specific at the time but wanted to just have on hand. Once I built up a well-stocked pantry I've found it so much easier to create recipes. I'm not exaggerating when I say that almost every basic ingredient in recipes I look at nowadays I already have on hand.

You can search google for "well stocked pantry list" or something similar and come up with a list of stuff you should just always have on hand. I have on hand now spices, flour, sugar, chicken broth, canned tomatoes, beans, pastas, rice, yeast, onions, potatoes, frozen veggies, chicken, beef, vinegars, oils, milk, butter, bread, cheese, sour cream, mayo, ketchup, mustard, sauce (soy, teriyaki, worcestershire, etc.). Every time I use up one of these items I jot it down to replace it on my next trip. It's been an amazing change in how I eat. I now cook a lot more and always have basic ingredients on hand to make a variety of different recipes. And if I don't have it on hand it only costs a few bucks to get the items I don't have, rather than $50 all at once to make one recipe.
posted by Falwless at 10:57 AM on March 19, 2012 [8 favorites]

I've had the same problem, and the best ways I've found to solve it are batch cook on weekends:
- then also buy easy things like hummus and salad ingredients to give myself no-cook options to mix it up in the middle of the week.
- and pull something from the freezer for the midweek lull (I don't have tons of freezer space, either, but you just need a few frozen portions from other weekends to mix it up.
- go out with a friend midweek and make sure that I take home a portion to have the next night, too.
- eat the weekend thing one night during the week, Then after I've eaten cook something else easy for the next few nights, something that I already have the ingredients for.
posted by ldthomps at 11:01 AM on March 19, 2012

Best answer: I feel for you -- I don't like eating leftovers too often, but since it's just me and my boyfriend eating, there often are a lot of leftovers. I've developed a few strategies to cope. I'll note that I eat low carb, so many of my tips are slanted in that direction, but you might still find some things of use even if you don't eat that way. There are some standard things that I cook, which I then can use the leftovers of in different ways.
1) Roast chicken -- Buy a whole chicken and roast it. I use this dead simple Thomas Keller recipe -- no fuss, no muss. Then first nice take off all the nice crispy bits from the chicken and devour with mustard as he suggests -- I usually eat the wings and legs. Now you have a lot of chicken meat left over. Remove as much of the meat as possible from the carcass and put into one ziplock bag. Use another bag for the carcass and freeze it.

The chicken meat can be used in a number of ways that won't take very long: i) my favorite chicken salad recipe ii) as a topping for omelettes / filling for frittatas iii) In a soup e.g. this tortilla soup iv) in pasta with a creamy sauce / added to macaroni and cheese etc. The possibilities are more or less infinite.

When you've roasted a couple of chickens this way it's time to make chicken stock -- I use my pressure cooker for this, but it's dead easy in a regular pot too, it just takes more time. But it's all simmering time, so you just set it on the stove and forget about it for a few hours. The thing to remember is that you don't have to be a perfectionist about this -- you just want to extract as much chickeny flavor from those bones as you can, and it doesn't really matter if you use celery or carrot or onion or whatever. This chicken stock can be cooked down and it will then jell -- this is now liquid gold that you can use in any vegetables you cook -- it really adds a depth of flavor.

2) Roast vegetables -- most vegetables taste good if you toss them in salt, pepper and olive oil and throw them in a hot even for 45 minutes or so. My favorites are root vegetables (try carrots, parsnips, turnips, kohlrabi), broccoli and cauliflower, eggplant, tomatoes and zucchini. You need to experiment a bit with times to figure out how much time each vegetable needs. You could roast a whole bunch at a time while you've got the oven on and then you'll have side dishes for a number of meals.

3) Sausages -- When I don't feel like cooking sausages are my friend (before I started low-carbing, it was probably pasta). I take a whole package of sausages, put them on a broiler pan and broil them at high heat until done, turning once. With a vegetable side dish, I often call this dinner. If you get the right brand of sausages, leftovers reheat pretty well. I often add leftover sausages to a pot of soup as well.
posted by peacheater at 11:20 AM on March 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

Just make skillets. A skillet is 2 vegetables, a protein, and some fat, cooked up in a pan.

These tend to scale very well, particularly if you use frozen veggies.
posted by downing street memo at 11:24 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I really like and agree with Falwless' advice; I used Rachael Ray's pantry list in her Express Lane Meals when I put together my pantry. I've since tweaked it quite a bit, but it's a good starting point. It made a huge difference in being able to plan meals on the fly.

I usually cook a lot of soups/stews and then freeze them flat in Ziplocs, which takes up less freezer space if that's a concern. They are quick to thaw and can be 'freshened up' with the addition of cilantro + sour cream + lime juice, or parmesan + pesto + olive oil, or even bread and a salad. I'm also a really big fan of having egg dishes for dinner--they cook so fast and the variations are endless. Lately I'm sauteing some kale with olive oil and garlic, put it on a piece of whole wheat toast, and then stick an over-easy egg on top, but you could also do egg burritos, scrambled eggs, frittatas, etc. Clean up is pretty easy too, which I think is involved in some of my own worknight cooking hesitation.

We also have a store here that sells pre-made pizza dough which freezes well; that's another good vehicle for odds and ends in the fridge. Last week I made one with red onions, goat cheese, bits of roast chicken I had in the freezer, and diced tomatoes from the pantry. Good, (at least relatively) healthy, and fast.
posted by stellaluna at 11:38 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love the old 1950s technique of foil packets of food - a bit of meat (chicken, pork, fish, whatever), some veg, maybe a small potato. Season, maybe a drizzle of olive oil, and seal tightly. Bung in oven at 350F, and cook until done (you can tell when it's done because you can suddenly smell food cooking).

The beauty of this is, the prep on the weekends is just prepping veg; cut some broccoli into florets, cut some peppers into strips, some carrots into sticks, top and tail some green beans, etc. Anything you'd eat as a crudite can do in a foil packet. When you buy meat, cut it into individual portions and freeze in little sandwich bags.

When feeling uninspired, just assemble the foil packet with a bit of meat, a handful of veg, whatever, and away you go!
posted by LN at 11:39 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I eat pretty much the same thing from week to week (but not day to day!), which helps a lot. I make as many interchangeable meal components as I can, so I just take a protein, a vegetable, and something else and it’s a meal. Two rounds of cooking a month usually takes care of most meals, if I can protect my refrigerator from being invaded by my SO. Having a fallback helps for the days when you really can’t be fussed; mine are oatmeal with pesto or brown rice topped with whatever frozen vegetable I have on hand, a poached egg, and gochujang. Anyway, on my batch cooking day, I…

1. Marinate some tofu (in a mixture of soy sauce, fish sauce, and garlic) and some skinless chicken thighs (miso, chile oil, ginger, and garlic.)
2. Chop and cook a ton of vegetables, typically:
- a bunch of peppers, lightly stirfried
- cooked and blanched spinach
- roasted sweet potatoes
- shredded carrots (leave them raw, in water, in the refrigerator)
- roasted broccoli and cauliflower.
- caramelize a bunch of onions
(What I do for this step is chop everything up, then throw the roasting things into the oven while I cook the peppers and spinach and shred the carrots. Don’t use much seasoning here, if any at all. About half of this can go into the freezer, except for the carrots; put the rest in your reusable container of choice in the refrigerator. I also wash and spin some lettuce-y type greens, and store them in a salad spinner in the refrigerator.)
3. Hardboil a dozen eggs. These usually go into lunches. These go in a big bowl in a fridge.
4. Make five or so servings of brown rice. I divide these up in Tupperware, for the fridge, and little balls wrapped in plastic wrap, for the freezer.
5. Cook up two cans of beans (usually black or kidney) with tons of garlic and cumin. Half goes in the freezer, one quarter gets mixed with some of the beans, and the last quarter stays in its own container.
6. Make a tray of oatmeal bars. I eat these for breakfast every day. Message me for the recipe; I don’t have it on me. I freeze half of those, in handy individual packages.
7. I usually bake the tofu and the chicken thighs at this point; they go into the oven with the oatmeal bars.
8. Make a batch of bread – usually all tiny little loaves. (Oops – in reality, I start this first. You don’t need to make your own bread, though. I just like to.) Half of these get frozen.
9. Make some meatballs. I rotate through chicken and turkey. They go into the oven when the tofu, chicken, and oatmeal are done.
10. Make something new – this week it was braised spinach with chickpeas; next week it will be some sort of curry, I think.
11. Things on hand: pesto, some crumbled cheese, maybe some fresh vegetables to have during the week, frozen vegetables, a cabbage, eggs, nuts, and dressing and sauces of various types. I like gochujang, a miso-tahini combination, and a peanut-garlic-coconut milk sauce.

I know I’m forgetting some things there. So now, what do I eat during the week? Let’s just assume I have a oatmeal bar and some nuts for breakfast every day, and a hardboiled egg and maybe some fruit with lunch.

Monday: braised spinach with one of the sweet potatoes for lunch; shredded cabbage with baked tofu, caramelized onions, slivered nuts, shredded carrots, and my favorite dressing for dinner. Dinner prep time is however long it takes me to shred the cabbage.
Tuesday: Meatball sandwich (meatballs, caramelized onions, crumbled cheese, bread); beans and rice for dinner. Dinner prep time is how long it takes to microwave the beans and rice.
Wednesday: same lunch as Monday; the broccoli, cauliflower, and peppers with crumbled cheese and a poached egg for dinner.
Thursday: Roasted sweet potato with beans; tofu sandwich with the spinach and shredded carrots, with the miso-tahini sauce.
Friday: same lunch as Monday; chicken thighs with shredded cabbage + whatever veg is left and dressing.
Saturday: scrambled eggs with some frozen vegetables and some cheese for breakfast; brown rice with beans and cubed sweet potato for lunch; dinner out, or some complicated homemade thing.
Sunday: Breakfast sandwich of hard-boiled egg slices and probably some bacon; lunch and dinner are usually eaten out or are, again, complicated homemade things. Or cereal. I get selectively lazy on Sunday.

I just realized how much I’ve written. I’m sorry. Anyway, on Sunday I take the second round of things out of the freezer, and pretty much repeat everything. The key is 1. make it as easy as possible to reach into your refrigerator with your eyes closed, pull out three items, and be able to combine them into something edible and 2. starting with things you like anyway. If my pre-made meal were a salad, or soup, I’d probably get takeout every night, because I don’t like those things.

Again, apologies for the length, and message me if you want any of the recipes.
posted by punchtothehead at 11:39 AM on March 19, 2012 [22 favorites]

I don't like to repeat the same meal more than twice. I usually do an one or two smallish involved meals on the weekends that I don't have the energy to do on weekdays--I do my experimenting then, and then I'll get some easier meals for weeknights--pastas, a simple meat/roasted veggie meal, etc. I make chili a lot on weekends and I'll use that during the week: as a standalone meal or put it on a quesadilla or something. I've reduced my chili recipes down to 4 servings--enough for my partner and I to have 2ish servings each. If a recipe makes a lot of food, I usually don't make it.

I like to eat lots of "niblet" meals during the week. I always have favorites on hand: olives, some kind of meat (fancy tuna, sardines, prosciutto), some kind of pickled thing (cherry peppers, pepperocini, gherkins), a nice cheese or two, nice crackers or bread, hardboiled eggs. You could do chips and salsas or various dips and spreads (artichoke dip, goat cheese, olive tapenade), and add a fruit. These meals are so easy to throw together and delicious. And the ingredients keep fairly well and you can switch it all up. I also get some random veggies/meats to throw together for sandwiches and salads.

It's kinda like a capsule wardrobe. Buy a bunch of easy stuff you can mix and match.
posted by hotelechozulu at 11:47 AM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, these answers are awesome and extremely helpful so far. Punchtothehead, Peacheater and EmpressCallipygos - those are exactly the kinds of answers I was hoping for, although all of this is really handy. I also love the pantry list suggestions from Countess Sandwich and Falwless.

Are you a creative cook or do you like following recipes?

Definitely more on the creative side, unless it's a cuisine where the specific mix of spices is important, like Thai or Indian.
posted by lunasol at 12:17 PM on March 19, 2012

I have things going on every weeknight after work, so I do not cook on weekdays very often unless it is something very simple like scrambled eggs or pan-seared fish. Sometimes I will have yogurt with fruit for dinner if I'm not very hungry.

I typically hit my cookbooks on Saturday morning to see what sounds good to me for lunch and dinner during the week. I try to make something to take with me to work for lunch 3 days a week and something for dinner to last me the week. I also subscribe to epicurious and Gourmet's email newsletters and if I see something that looks good, I'll keep it in mind for the weekend. Chowhound, allrecipes, and similar sites have yielded some good finds.

I go to one grocery store, max two, on Saturdays to get what I need if I do not already have it. This is when I get fresh/frozen veggies and fruit, fresh dairy, and meats.

Dried pulses, lentils, beans, rice, etc. are your friends, as is a well-stocked spice pantry. I can make a chickpea dish that will last me at least 3 work lunches, served with a big dollop of yogurt for protein. (Can't do vegan, although I wish I could.) These foods are staples in many cuisines, so you should be able to find some recipes to suit your tastes.

A few good crockpot recipes are very helpful. Books like Madhur Jaffrey's "Quick Indian Cooking" have saved my bacon, so to speak, many times.

If something makes a big-ass portion (crockpot recipes generally do), I freeze half in double ziplock bags. That way if I don't feel like cooking two big pans of stuff over the weekend, I can pull something out of the freezer. Also keeps me from getting sick of eating the same thing for more than 3 dinners or so in a row.
posted by Currer Belfry at 12:23 PM on March 19, 2012

Seconding the roast chicken. If you play your cards right, you can get at least three meals out of it. The drippings make excellent gravy, too. :)

Homemade chicken broth is delicious. I usually make mine in a crock pot and let it simmer for a day. :)
posted by luckynerd at 12:26 PM on March 19, 2012

eMeals wasn't for me, but it might be right up your alley. You could select the meal plan for two and just choose 3 out of the 5 meals for the week.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 12:34 PM on March 19, 2012

If you make a full or double recipe, and then set some aside (for freezing) before you serve yourself, then it's not actually left-overs. Taa-daaa!

(We are a family of six and often embiggen recipes just to be able to freeze a portion or whole meal's worth for future enjoyment and time-saving.)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:27 PM on March 19, 2012

it sounds like you're thinking of batch cooking as making a pot of X on Sunday then eat it, make a batch of Y on Wednesday when you have an evening free, eat until it's gone and it's Sunday again... Try making 2-3 things every weekend, and then you'll have things to alternate.
Also, small variations go a long way: chickpea curry on rice. chickpea curry on quinoa. mashed chickpeas and salad greens wrapped up for a lunch sandwich. And you've been alternating with a roast chicken thing, until you get to the final batch of curry on rice, with chopped chicken added in.

Then, just have the instant recipes, for when you come home, open the fridge, and say "no way!".
- Trader Joe's mandarin chicken with frozen broccoli all tossed in the sauce (the sauce comes in 2 packets so you can make just half a bag!)
- TJ's masala burger patties (can be heated in skillet or toaster oven or microwave)
- Frozen cheese ravioli with jarred pasta sauce and frozen spinach.
- Those 50c cans of tomato sauce that let me turn anything breadlike into pizza.
- Shelf-stable gnocchi + chopped chicken sausage + various frozen vegetables all in a skillet.
posted by aimedwander at 2:09 PM on March 19, 2012

Yes to hotelechozulu's "niblet" meals. I call mine "hodgepodge." Sardines or smoked oysters, cheese(s), fruit, maybe a boiled egg, olives or pickles, a tiny salad, crudites, crackers, tortilla chips, salsa, guacamole. Any combination of this stuff. It's especially good in the summer when it's hot, and I don't get tired of it quickly because it's always a little different.
posted by fiercecupcake at 3:53 PM on March 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm in the habit of baking myself a loaf of bread every Sunday. I use Jim Lahey's no-knead bread, which is unfussy and impossible to screw up.

Basically, I mix together the ingredients Saturday afternoon or evening, punch down the dough Sunday morning, let it sit, then sometime Sunday afternoon bake it in a stock pot. It takes me 10 minutes of hands-on work with about $.60 of ingredients to make a great crusty loaf of bread. Then, toast for breakfast every day of the week! Super easy.
posted by Turkey Glue at 8:46 AM on March 20, 2012

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