Food is an important part of a balanced diet
July 22, 2012 5:31 AM   Subscribe

Cooking for one (non-foodie edition)

Resources for creating menu and shopping list: overweight non-foodie edition.

So here's what I want to be able to do:
Shop to cook a simple meal for dinner for one every night that's quick, easy, and healthy and doesn't require special tools. This rules out any "4 ingredients" cookbook, because the 4th ingredient is invariably a can of cream of something multiplied by sodium can of soup.

Part of the problem I'm having is if I buy (for example) a cabbage, I have to eat cabbage every night for a week or it goes off. Yes I do have a freezer, but it's relatively small, so making 17 litres of soup and freezing it will mean I can't freeze meat.

Please note there is some slight hyperbole above.

One other issue is that I tend to travel for work irregularly, and unexpectedly, so if I buy x, y and z hoping for fresh food for the week, it might turn out that I only have time to eat x. Then, when I get back, the only thing left to eat is squillions of pasta, and a couple of tins of tomatoes, and the black slimy things in the fridge.

Oh, and I don't have a car - buying food means catching a bus to the shops and back - which is not a huge task, but time that could be more profitably spent (for example, on metafilter), so popping into the corner shop and back in 10 minutes just can't happen. I have to spend an hour round trip, so would rather not buy food every day.

Bonus points for easily transportable lunch that is not sandwhiches. Soup for example or other gooey food may get dislodged (opened) while travelling in my backpack. Okay, I could use a thermos for soup, but maybe not so much for a chunkier wet meal.

Added difficulty level: I am Australian so I like to use kilojoules instead of calories, and cup measures etc are metric which are different to US measures - so a US recipe site will be problematic.

In short, how to manage buying and making healthy food for one that will give a balanced, varied diet (and not go off, or be prohibitively expensive)?
posted by b33j to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think I was the very last to know about this, but just in case I wasn't: Have you seen these salad in a jar things? It solves the problem of taking a healthy non-sandwich for lunch, and if you eat one every day it might solve the problem of produce going bad before you can eat it (I have this problem, too).

It doesn't require a mason jar, but a tall jar of similar shape. It solves the problem of a soggy salad that has been wilting in dressing for hours. The idea is you put the dressing in first (bottom of the jar), then the crunchiest/hardiest things, and the lettuce and other delicate things on the top. This keeps the lettuce away from the dressing until you are ready to eat. It also slightly marinates the crunchy vegetables.
posted by Houstonian at 5:42 AM on July 22, 2012 [25 favorites]

Forgot to say, when you are ready to eat you shake the jar to toss the salad. Or pour it out into a plate.
posted by Houstonian at 5:42 AM on July 22, 2012

Here's what I'm carrying for lunch these days: a two-serving container of plain Greek yogurt out of which one serving has been removed, the rest of the container being filled with fruits or vegetables. I keep jars of ajvar and vegetable compotes in case I have run out of fresh fruits or vegetables, and other things like raita mix, to flavor the yogurt. You could do the same thing with feta or labneh or basically any dairy product.

Dinner is harder and I don't know what the shops are like where you live. Here in the US, I often get lazy (and wasteful of packaging) and take home a few two-serving packages of things like beets and fava beans that are already prepared. Or hummus or lentil dip. For protein with those I eat probably too many fake meat or (again) dairy products. You could also get cans of tuna. I sometimes get frozen pieces of fish and then poach them right out of the freezer.

I haven't really figured out a way around the whole dilemma of overbuying/preparing vegetables; it may just be the cost of having fresh food.
posted by BibiRose at 6:14 AM on July 22, 2012

Best answer: Do you actually need recipes? Or are general ideas enough?

Jarred salsa is pretty central in my meal prep - it adds flavor and some veg in one go, and will keep forever in the fridge. I get the big half-gallon containers. Frozen veg are also a good way to ensure you will always have veggies on hand.

If cabbage is going off in a week, check your fridge temp. It lasts a lot longer for me. Carrots and onions should also last for weeks.

Fridge pickles/slaw are also a good way to deal with unused fresh produce. You can also just prepare things simply and freeze them if you have enough lead time on travelling. Freezing in flattened plastic bags is most space-efficient.

For keeping lunch secure, I wrap my plasticware in a plastic grocery bag. The bag helps keep the lid from coming off and catches any mess.

I usually take brown rice + protein + veg type meals (rice and beans, rice and dal, rice and stir fry). A tahini or caesar salad dressing is also a good flavorant for ricebeanveg. Eggy casseroles tend to have enough structure for easy portability, too.
posted by momus_window at 6:15 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Guide to storing and using fresh produce to minimize waste.

Cabbage is actually a good example. It lasts practically forever in a crisper drawer. So if you want cabbage soup buy the smallest cabbage you can find, use half for soup and store the other half in the crisper. Next week or the week after that, use it to make coleslaw or cabbage rolls or fried cabbage, or add it to vegetable soup.

Frozen veggies are just as nutritious as fresh (sometimes more so as they are frozen at the peak of freshness whereas trucked-in "fresh" veggies from the market can be worse for the wear by the time you buy them.) I've even recently seen single-serving bags of frozen veggies so if you can pick up a few of those you can have more variety than if you had to stick to one or two big bags due to lack of freezer space.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:17 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You mentioned having a small freezer, but I've found that keeping a couple of packets of frozen veggies in the freezer - spinach, mixed veggies, green beans, peas - avoids the slimy black things lurking in the fridge and lets me add something green to my dinner.

These veggies steamed with a bit of soy sauce, hot pepper sauce and toasted sesame oil are quick and easy.
posted by sciencegeek at 6:19 AM on July 22, 2012

Best answer: Is there a supermarket near you with a salad bar? A friend of mine who's a chef, and single, turned me on to this -- you can go to the salad bar and buy 1 cup of cauliflower florets, say, instead of a whole HEAD of cauliflower, that you won't eat before it goes bad. Especially when you're shopping for one, it allows a lot more variety by letting you buy smaller portions (and not sticking you with a whole week of cabbage!). It's a little bit more expensive than buying whole veggies, but if you're losing half your cauliflower head to spoilage, you're saving money by buying smaller quantities.

When I make a menu, I pick several meals I'm going to make this week, and then prioritize them by freshness of ingredients. For example, I shopped yesterday, and I know I'm going to make pasta twice this week. I made the pasta primavera last night because the squash and zucchini don't keep terribly well; I'll save the pesto pasta for near the end of the week because it's a store-bought pesto that keeps in the fridge for a couple weeks. I know I'll do a chicken caesar salad tonight or tomorrow because the lettuce will start getting icky after that. And so on.

Sometimes I'm more specific with it, like I'll do a roast chicken on Sunday so I can make a chicken stir fry Monday and eat cold leftovers Tuesday because it's going to be too hot to cook Tuesday, but I've found that just listing the meals on my whiteboard and making what I feel like, keeping in mind I should do the ones with the freshest ingredients first, works best most of the time.

I'm also a big fan of certain labor-saving prepared foods -- frozen chopped onions are god's gift to busy people. Jarred minced garlic. Pre-cooked diced chicken breasts (for salads). I mostly use these in recipes that don't feature the flavor prominently (like, garlic & onions are just part of the base) because the fresh versions are more flavorful, but they're fantastic as ingredients and let you focus your prep time on the important part of the recipe or the veggies that must be fresh or whatever. (My supermarket also has this great "frozen vegetable soup mix" of vegetables, which is a sack of assorted frozen veggies perfect for a vegetable soup or a pot pie or similar, so I can make a vegetable soup without having to chop veggies for half an hour, and it's a good quantity for three or four servings of soup, instead of 17 jillion. They also have frozen veggie stir fry mixes, etc.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:21 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Oh, and here's a trick for keeping celery fresh... wrap it in aluminum foil before putting in the fridge. Not sure why it works but I've tried it and my celery keeps for a much longer time now.

And how to store fresh herbs so they don't turn to slime. I always had a problem keeping cilantro until I tried this. It works like a charm.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:22 AM on July 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Especially if you live alone and are an infrequent chef (due to travel or whatever) I believe you have to have a reasonably well stocked store cupboard. Range of spices, rice, pasta, a few tins of pulses, tomatoes, tuna etc that give you a base for a quick, easy meal and that you only have to add a few fresh things to.

You say your freezer is small but you could probably fit a couple of bags of frozen veg in there and then at least you'd have something to liven up the pasta. Not sure what is available where you live but when I lived in the UK I could get chopped onions, peppers and other goodness frozen ready to add to the pan. I can't get that kind of thing now but I can still get frozen peas, broccoli and mixed vegetables.....

Egg based meals - carton of eggs keeps a long time in the fridge.

Feta cheese - the unopened packets keep for ever...I have found myself gazing at the near empty fridge and found that it was going to be pasta and feta cheese or plain pasta. Turns out you can add feta to lots of stuff and it's nice.

Buy a family pack of meat of your choice and freeze individual portions. Again, buy one and you have meat for several meals and your freezer should be able to cope with a small number of 3-5oz portions of meat. The same is true for sausage and such.

Nice condiments and things like sun dried tomatoes - whatever takes your fancy - can make the more boring store cupboard ingredients a bit more interesting and tend to keep well for a long time.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:29 AM on July 22, 2012

Best answer: Shopping for 1 requires a different mindset to shopping for a family. Those Salad in a Bag things you ignored because they are an awful waste of money are actually a very good deal when you want to make sure there is 5 days of fresh salad in your fridge and no more.

Two, I find cooking for one really dull, but heating for one is okay. So, frozen fishcakes you heat in the oven plus salad sounds like a great dinner to me. But out of preference, I very often don't cook at all for dinner: tomato and mozerella salad, or olives and cheese and bread, or fava beans and fresh artichoke hearts, or milano salami and whatever, or pate on sliced apple, or whatever.

Three, cupboard staples can be a lot more exotic and interesting than when you're trying to produce dinner for 5 on a budget. Tinned artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, tinned aubergines - these can all go into salads but also into a last-minute pasta, making a massive culinary improvement over "spaghetti and sauce from a jar." I think it is a good idea to keep a couple of cans of soup in the cupboard, too - I buy the best canned soup I can get so that when I am too tired to must up anything else, at least the alternative that is there is appealing. (making soup is easy but it is the freezer space that's an issue, as you know.)

If you have a Tupperwear container for your lunch, you could also do things like heat or make a quiche for dinner, and take the other half in for lunch the next day. That works really well. I think this salad in a jar thing is weird - put the salad in the Tupperwear dish, take the salad dressing in a small container like the empty travel size shampoo things they sell at the chemist? People have been doing this for years. Plus, Mason jars weigh a ton.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:29 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: How about a bento box for lunch? Or couscous salad?

I noticed your cheap tag and here is a blog I like: budget bytes - she cooks for herself and breaks down the price per portion.

For the freezer problem: maybe there is something that can go in many different dishes as a base where you only have to add different spices and possibly other fresh ingredients to spice it up? Depending on your taste this could be some sort of veg combo/stock/stew.

You know there are also small cabbages? :-) But seriously, try roasting if you haven't yet. It makes veggies just uber tasty and it is easy to eat even a whole cabbage... with some yoghurt dip, yum!
posted by travelwithcats at 6:56 AM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is possible to buy a separate chest freezer; they are typically not prohibitively expensive to buy or run (I have one).

I think what you want to look in to more is stuff which is entirely shelf-stable. Move beyond just having "a couple tins of tomatoes", and make sure you have a couple tins of 5 or 6 different kinds of vegetables or fish or whatever. If you're not sure what to get, the next few times you're at the store just get 5 random things that don't look horrible. Then eat them, and see what you like.

For the alternatives-to-sandwiches aspect: Basically your options here are get a really good thermos and clean it real hard every day, or eat sandwiches or sandwich-like foods. Burritos travel well, as do frozen calzones (that's sandwich-like).
posted by contrarian at 7:31 AM on July 22, 2012

Best answer: I feel like I've pimped this book several times on here already, but Lorna Sass' Short Cut Vegan is an ideal resource for folks who live in small households and want to prepare healthy, tasty food with a minimum of time, mess, and planning. She is very explicit about pantry items to keep on hand, builds meals around long-lasting produce (cabbage, potatoes, etc.). Nothing takes longer than 10 minutes, you won't dirty more than a knife and a single pot, and you will have utterly tasty food like spinach chickpea curry, lentil ragout, maple mustard cabbage, spicy rice and beans, pasta fagioli, etc. All are legitimately healthy (ie, cups of vegetables per serving, whole grain), and very delicious.

Please don't worry if you are not a vegan -- this is a book that just happens to not contain meat, eggs or dairy. There is absolutely ZERO proselytizing or even mention of veganism in the text, and no meat analogues. There are a couple of tofu recipes. I cooked from this book for years (under its previous title, Short Cut Vegetarian) and had no idea it was vegan.
posted by apparently at 7:45 AM on July 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

One recipe which is great (if not healthy enough to eat every day) is as follows. The only fresh ingredient is a fresh tomato (or as you'd say, tomahto ;), fresh herbs if you want them, and garlic, which I don't really consider a "fresh" ingredient since it lasts forever :

1 14-oz can artichoke hearts, quartered
1/4c butter, olive oil or combination of two
Frozen or fresh ravioli or other filled pasta (the big frozen bags of pasta work great, or you can buy a fresh refrigerated container and freeze it if you don't want to use it right away)
Optional: Fresh dill or other herb (enhances but really isn't necessary)

Simple: Sautee the garlic in the olive oil/butter for about 5 mins over medium heat (you know, like you do), and then add the quartered artichokes and the fresh herbs if using them, and heat gently until the artichoke is heated through.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to directions, and dice up your tomato. Serve this delicious dish with the sauce over the pasta and the tomato over the sauce. It's completely lovely, and in my experience makes dinner one night and lunch the next day (TOTALLY transportable).
posted by supercoollady at 7:51 AM on July 22, 2012

Best answer: Also (very healthy) a couple links to a couple of my favorites. In most cases I use about 5x the recommended amount of garlic, but that's just me:

This one makes a really reasonable amount of food and travels well.

Serve this over rice or whatever grain makes you happy. For that one, I use frozen collard greens (I'm sure any REALLY TOUGH green would work, don't try with spinach, you'll end up with puree), put in enough bullion for 3 cups of broth but only 1 cup of water, and use a 14.5 oz tin of diced tomatoes instead of the fresh ones. So only fresh ingredients here are onions and garlic. This one makes a lot, so if you don't want to eat it all week you may want to half the recipe.

I'm a big fan of casserole- or big pot-sized meals that you can eat for a couple days. I can't be bothered with elaborate meals so most of the things I make are quite simple, and most only include one or two fresh ingredients.

We tend to keep on hand chick peas, black beans, black-eyed peas (all canned, so no need for pesky soaking) and DEFINITELY feta in the fridge.

posted by supercoollady at 8:00 AM on July 22, 2012

Best answer: Wonderful question, and something I've been thinking about, too.

Bittman's Summer Express fits your quick, easy and healthy wishes; it's a list of very simple and delicious recipes that I return to again and again. Bonus -- there are some easy and yummy ways to prepare eggs, and some of the meals will travel well for lunch.

As much as I like freshfreshfresh, I try to keep a fair number of shelf-,freezer- and fridge-stable items on hand. Pasta, rice, tabbouleh and couscous as well as canned beans and tomatoes, sardines and good quality canned tuna in olive oil and copious herbs and spices. Onions, potatoes or even better, sweet potatoes, shallots, lemons and garlic keep a good long time. The freezer is mostly for frozen veggies (and some meat, mostly for my dogs, but I always have bacon frozen to add to anything from pasta to spinach and eggs). In the fridge are several good dry cheeses, prepared guacamole, eggs, butter, milk (I buy Lactaid if I know I'm not going to get to the store for a while, since its life is much longer than straight milk) and yogurt, which I use in place of sour cream, as well as other condiments like chili paste, coarse mustard, soy and fish sauce.

I also have my deck garden; cherry tomatoes, pole beans, zucchini and the herbs I use most often -- you didn't ask about gardening, but I find having fresh-from-the-deck produce rounds things out when I can't get to the store. Lunch today will be sauteed sliced zukes in garlic and butter with a couple of eggs over, topped with asagio cheese. Simple, easy, very inexpensive, and something I could easily carry to work IF there were leftovers. For lunch tomorrow, it's Caprese salad, and I only had to buy the mozz and make the dressing.
posted by vers at 9:55 AM on July 22, 2012

giggles at "the mozz", it's so similar to how Italians say "la mozza" for short :)

I had this problem too then I got a small extra freezer and it turned out to be so very practical - at least in terms of shopping for vegetables that would be cooked, you can buy at least a whole cabbage or any other vegetable that would be too much to eat in one go, cook it and freeze it in single portions and voilĂ , no more being forced to eat cabbage for a week, or let it go bad because you're unexpectedly and irregularly away from home.

One way to cook veggies that's extra practical to this end is steam them, add salt herbs spices etc. maybe some olive oil and then blend them and freeze in ice cube trays or small containers, then you can reheat and reuse them for soups, sauces, dips, spreads, etc. Zucchini, aubergines (you can do aubergine caviar - no steaming though, just slice aubergines in half, put them on aluminum foil and on an oven tray with the cut side down and bake for half an hour, then scoop out the flesh, add salt and olive oil and maybe basil and blend - yummy!), fennel all blend very nicely into multipurpose "dips" - anything that can be steamed decently. I got this idea after buying those delicious dips at Turkish markets here - you can then add some fresh cottage cheese and they're even more delicious. And, even if you don't have space in the freezer, as long as you dont' add the cheese immediately, the "dips" keep in the fridge for a few days.
posted by bitteschoen at 12:45 PM on July 22, 2012

Best answer: My strategy is to always stock all the ingredients for a couple of dishes that i know are easy & tasty. That way, I always have a few backups.

My favorite cookbook for this solution is Australian: Donna Hay's Off the Shelf, Cooking from the Pantry.

Mark Bittman also has a book called Kitchen Express that you might find useful.

Whatever book or website you choose, plan you meals for the week and pin yourself a little reminder list.

Finally, as others have said there are veggies like cabbage, carrots, green onions which all keep a good long while in the crisper.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 8:41 PM on July 22, 2012

Response by poster: Fantastic! thanks very much.

I personally don't want to acquire any more white goods / furniture, though I could, which is why I'm ruling out the extra freezer thing. I don't actually buy cabbage, which was a bad example, lettuce is better. I would have a vege / herb patch, except the sun doesn't not reach any part of my yard. However, I have a plan for moving in about 6 months which will fix this. When I travel, I don't take food with me, but nice thought, and ziplock bags seem to work okay for rebagging stuff and marinating (as if I would!!!) I know frozen veges are good and healthy and I should probably make more use of them, but after a 20 year marriage when the spouse would only eat frozen vege (and a particularly limited variety) I kinda got over them. I will try them again.
posted by b33j at 8:55 PM on July 22, 2012

You've got some great leads, but I just want to point out that adding a cream of ____ soup can be very easily replaced with a (low sodium) bechemel sauce.

Add three tablespoons each of butter and flour-- cook over medium-low heat until the flour is cooked (5 minutes-- you can do this on higher heat when you have skillz, just but burning the butter is the danger). You have made a roux. Do not spatter the roux, it will burn you and is half-jokingly compared to napalm in some cuisines.

Once the roux is done, you have a magical substance that can thicken any liquid and today, you will thicken a dairy product, anything from milk to half and half (about 1 cup to start, but lots more is fine). Then add your flavor. Bring to a boil, then simmer 10 minutes. If you want to get some vegetables cooked hotter than boiling, add them to the roux before you add the dairy. (It can boil over-- beware.)

Mix in cheese, and pour over pasta, you've got a mac-n-cheese. (well, pasta-n-cheese)
Herbs and mushrooms (and salt and pepper) you've got your cream of mushroom soup. This takes 20 minutes, and you've got a fresh, preservative free
Add cooked chicken, plus some chicken stock to the liquid, and anything you'd use to flavor chicken, and bang, cream-of-chicken "soup." (Please, don't eat it as a soup-- it's a sauce and should be respected as sauce.)

Congratulations, you've learned one of the French "mother sauces," you've expanded your repertoire, and you've cut your sodium level so much, the dog is going to stop licking you.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:26 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

A few comments on some of the things you mentioned...

For carrying food to work, I use a Screwtop Decor container. I use it to carry soup and stews to work in my bag and have had no problems with leaking (I often walk and ride to work). For non-chunky soups, I have also used a screw top Nalgene wide neck drink bottle.

I generally just use Australian cup measures in place of US ones when cooking off American websites (except for baking, where you need to be more precise). Generally doesn't seem to cause any issues. I did also get a set of scales that does metric and imperial, dry and liquids, which is handy.

I don't have a huge freezer, but just occasionally throwing in a serving of soup (when you are tired of eating litres of it in a given week) is a lifesaver when you travel and get home tired. Don't need to stack it, just a few meals is enough to tide over those times.
posted by AnnaRat at 2:42 AM on July 23, 2012

My partner and I have varied tastes and completely different schedules, so I often cook for him separately to me. We also do not shop more than once a week and are often tired from work, so here's some of our super quick, super easy, just for 1 recipes that involve pantry items.

1. Chicken in foil
Single chicken breast, semi-thawed (we buy them in bulk and freeze in individual ziploc bags.) Make a sauce out of random things in pantry (usually bottled lemon juice, olive oil, tubed herbs or fresh if you have it, tubed garlic and ginger, salt, pepper, sesame oil), and pour over chicken. If you were really organised you would've marinated it all day but OH well! Make a double foil package and pop chicken and sauce into it. Pop in 180 degree oven for 20 minutes. In that time make carb of your choice (couscous is fab!) and steam some frozen veggies.

2. Fish in foil
Firm white fish fillets, exactly the same process as above. Sometimes I mess around with a sauce of sesame oil, soy sauce and some water to thin it down, and spring onions. Goes nice on soba noodles (which also keeps well in pantry!)

3. Creamy tuna pasta
Get your pasta boiling. Sautee some frozen onions and garlic from the tube (don't have any? don't worry about it). Chuck tin of tuna in pan. A minute later, add a tin of corn (drained). Any other veggies you want in it can go in now. If feeling fancy, herbs (tubed is fine). Add a tin of evaporated milk (a great substitute for cream!). When it has reduced and thickened a bit, add a handful of grated tasty cheese (can be frozen for longevity!). Pasta will have finished cooking by now. Drain, and add to creamy sauce. Top with parmesan (the pantry kind!).

4. Random Vegetable Pasta
I keep tinned salmon in the pantry. With leftover cooked pasta (or fresh!), you can toss whatever leftover vegetables you're trying to use up (cook first if necessary) and salmon with the pasta, some salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon juice if you want, and a small amount of olive oil. You can eat this hot or cold. Yesterday I made this with spinach that was looking a bit wilted, a tired looking tomato, and the tinned salmon.

5. Fritata
So many recipes for this online, but my basic method is to cook vegetables that need it, layer them all in a baking dish (sometimes with bacon if it lurks in my freezer), then cover with beaten egg (I splash a bit of milk in it, and season with salt and pepper). Herbs optional. Grated cheese all over. Oven for 20 minutes. This keeps well for next day lunch too.

These are some of the basics we have been rotating amongst proper food, and they're healthy, satisfying and involve mostly pantry and freezer items. None of them take more than 25 minutes start to finish. Generally the trends are:

Couscous + protein in foil + frozen veges
Pasta + protein in tins + wilting veges
Omelette type of meal

Of course on nights we really can't be bothered, we indulge in a roast chook from the supermarket, or vegemite on toast with cheese.

Your conundrum is totally normal!

Lastly, I wish I had known ages ago that spring onions grow in water. IN WATER. You buy a bunch from the supermarket, cut them down to the white bits, and use them. Stick the roots/stems into a glass of water. Refresh water as needed. They just keep growing. Thus, FRESH spring onions ALL the time!
posted by shazzam! at 6:17 AM on July 23, 2012

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