How do you prevent so much grocery waste when buying for one?
May 8, 2021 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Curious how others use up all of their groceries while cooking for one. I have been trying to buy less but then I just end up eating out! Cooking was supposed to be a way for me to save money. How did you find a balance?

I usually end up buying groceries every week or so. I do get easily tired of recipes and I wouldn't really consider myself that great of a cook. Leftovers can be gross sometimes. I think I'm doing something wrong.
posted by sheepishchiffon to Food & Drink (35 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Only buy stuff that needs to be eaten soonish like meat or fresh vegetables if you have a plan for how and when to cook it and eat it. Look at recipes you’re interested in and shop based off what you’d specifically like to make. This might seem like really obvious advice but I find that things go bad in the fridge for me when I bought it with a vague idea to eat it at some point but no plan.

Like you, I only like to keep leftovers around for a couple days and I’m only cooking for two people, so the big weekly grocery shop doesn’t work for me. I see a lot of “make a pot of soup and eat it all week” advice on the green but I don’t want to eat soup that’s been sitting in the fridge for five days, so I get you. I honestly end up buying groceries around three or four times a week. I live in a city with stores in close walking distance so it isn’t too much of a pain. I HATE throwing out food and this way I rarely waste anything.
posted by cakelite at 8:04 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]

What kinds of food do you like to cook? What ingredients are you buying? A lot of things are freezable, and there are ways to extend shelf life for others.
posted by trig at 8:09 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]

Personally I've found that the quality of premade frozen meals has gone up a lot over the last few years, so don't exclude those based on how it used to be. Trader Joe's always has good quality frozen (and refrigerated) premade meals for cheap so I stop by there once a month or so to stock up (and usually get some of the microwaveable non-frozen indian food. I have found the vegetarian and high-protein frozen meals to be pretty decent at mainstream supermarkets, and the "bowl" type frozen meals usually have a good variety of ingredients so I get what's on sale, for around $4 a meal usually. I've lost significant weight since I started doing this vs eating out and the quality is about the same honestly

I only go shopping every 2 weeks and really dislike eating the same thing too often, so I'll mix frozen meals with fresh stuff. Some of my friends do "meal prep" and very precisely plan what to eat for the week which avoids the grocery waste, but I don't like eating the same thing twice in a row.
posted by JZig at 8:12 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]

Your freezer is your friend. Freeze those things you're not sure when you'll use. A surprising number of fresh veggies freeze with no problem, sure you can't make a salad out of them but they make great stir fries. tomatoes freeze great,when you want to use them run under hot water to remove the skin and they make great sauces. Greens, peppers, onions all freeze without fancy blanching. I freeze including milk cheese and butter all the time. Leftovers are great frozen insto single serves because now I have a quick meal when I need it. Shop your freezer not the grocery store.

If you have a tiny freezer then look at specialised storage containers for veggies I don't want to freeze. I can get weeks out of a tomatoes or berries in one. Or buy veggies that keep, cabbage and carrots keep for ages in the storage drawer.
posted by wwax at 8:17 AM on May 8 [18 favorites]

-Have a mix of fresh foods and non-perishable food
-If you’re low on fresh foods, eat more of the non-perishables. Alternatively you could try to go grocery shopping more often if you consistently find yourself running low on fresh food.
-Use an Instant Pot, slow cooker, or crockpot to simplify the cooking process. It’s convenient to load up an Instant Pot / slow cooker, leave the kitchen to do something else, and have food ready when you come back.
posted by mundo at 8:18 AM on May 8

Yeah, what kind of stuff are you buying/cooking/eating? I cook for one, and fortunately don't mind eating the same thing multiple days in a row so I usually shop for a specific recipe designed for 4, and eat it 4 evenings on the trot, shop twice a week. Most stuff I make tastes as good if not better the next day, so it'd be useful to hear what you're making and what's gross about it when you have it the next day?

I do a lot of one pan meals - loads of roast veg with some meat or fish on top, and though the veg sometimes shrinks down a bit overnight, it still tastes good heated up again the next day. There's a whole series of 'The Roasting Tin' books by Rukmini Iyer with some really delicious recipes in.

Things with sauces are almost always better the next day - bolognese, curries, chillis etc. Always just cook up fresh pasta/rice each day.

And yeah, frozen stuff on hand for when you can't be bothered to get out to the shop for fresh ingredients for a few days - breaded chicken or fish, frozen veg, some good quality, high veg content ready meals.

Lunch I make a big batch of soup and freeze it in portions, microwave it when I want it. Keep a loaf of sliced bread in the freezer and have a slice of toast with my soup.
posted by penguin pie at 8:19 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Make sure you go to a grocery store with a decent produce section (not all prepackaged) and a real meat counter (if you eat meat, so you can buy one pork chop or one piece of chicken or whatever rather than a package).

For leftovers, the issue is thinking all meals will be tasty or interesting reheated in the same format. A lot won’t. Instead you make elemental foods that you can make different for another meal. Leftover roasted pork becomes a sandwich or goes in fried rice, leftover roasted veggies go in a lentil salad, leftover chicken becomes a quesadilla or chicken salad.

Sometimes a hybrid or takeout and home cooked works well. Get a main dish from somewhere and make your own fresh vegetables side. Doesn’t use a lot of dishes, but stretches out your takeout.
posted by vunder at 8:24 AM on May 8 [6 favorites]

Batch cooking and then freezing is the only way to go here, in my long previous experience of being a single cook. You need a decently-sized freezer (worth buying one if need be).

My routine was to cook once or twice a week, usually once. I would typically cook a stew, curry, crustless quiche, or something else hearty that would freeze well. I would make the full size (usually 8 portions). I would eat one portion that day, and save 1-2 of the other portions for later in the week, in the fridge. I would then freeze the remaining 5-6 portions in individual portion sizes (label each with contents and date made). On the 5-6 days per week that I didn't cook, I would pull out a single-sized portion, thaw it out, and bam: instant home-cooked meal. Saves tons of time to make big batches rather than small, as big don't take much more time to make. Also saves tons of money because they are far fewer leftovers. Cons include the fact that previously-frozen food tastes a bit less better than freshly made, and you have to orient your diet around things that freeze well (so not that much fresh veg or dairy-based stuff unless you add it just before serving).
posted by ClaireBear at 8:25 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]

Only buy fresh things if you know what you will use it for. I shop once every two weeks for veggies, once a month for anything dry or canned or for meats to freeze. I usually buy one large pack of ground beef and one big pack of pork chops, portion it into plastic bags and freeze until I need it, so I have individually frozen fish, chicken, pork chops, and ground beef packets, available to make whatever. I also keep a lot of different types of frozen vegetables. If I make food, often I will eat a portion and freeze the other - so I don't get tired of the same food over and over the same week. I normally cook every other day or so, eating leftovers from the freezer (maybe adding rice or pasta if I need to) or eating out the other days. It is very seldom I have to throw food out.
posted by gemmy at 8:26 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

If you don't mind obsessive planning, it can really help. I love obsessive planning, so here's what I would do when I was single:
  • On Saturday, pick out three meals to cook for the week. Make a shopping list for the ingredients I would need for 2 or 3 servings of each one. Buy them.
  • Cook meals on Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday. Reserve the simplest meal of the three for cooking on Tuesday.
  • Eat Saturday's leftovers on Monday, Sunday's leftovers on Wednesday, and Tuesday's leftovers on Thursday. Get takeout on Friday (or eat any extra leftovers, if they're still good.)
Also, I did learn over time that certain dishes just didn't reheat well. Starches generally are better when freshly cooked, so (for example) if I was cooking a pasta dish on a Saturday, I'd make enough sauce for 2 but only the pasta I would eat that night. Then the "leftovers" would be freshly cooked pasta with leftover sauce. Same goes for rice and mashed potatoes. Vegetables in stir-fries generally suffer, but can be fine as leftovers if you take care not to overcook the veggies the first time around.

Occasionally I would be forced to buy more of a "semi-perishable" food than I needed (i.e., if I needed something like cottage cheese for a recipe, which will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge.) If I had such leftovers in the fridge when I was planning the week on Saturday, I would try to find another recipe to use up the excess.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:27 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

I cook for two, but the other is not eating much these days due to medical stuff.

I also find left overs unappealing, with a few exceptions. I say try to think of ones you do like to help solve this. For example, I can deal with :
-pizza, calzones
-chicken (sometimes eat straight but also repurpose as a casserole or chicken salad kind of thing), and I don't mind a piece of steak the next day.

I have learned to pay special attention to how much I use--instead of the whole bag of spinach, I use half or so.
I always make too much pasta, have become at peace with chucking the left over, it is relatively cheap and I never eat the stuff the next day.

For using stuff up before it goes bad, I pretend I'm on an easy version of the show "Chopped"....the mushrooms are getting old, better use those up, which could guide my choice of cooking a steak with shrooms, or a casserole w/ the mushrooms and other (maybe wilty) stuff.

I use small pyrex casserole dishes that are one person sizes to make shepherds pie or whatever casserole.

It is not clear if you don't like to cook, or just don't know how to cook. That matters in how to maximize your usage. If you buy a big bag of potatoes and never use them til they rot, you should buy just a few from the bin, not the two pound bag. Baked potatoes might be the most you want to prepare, but, you could search some recipes and make a mini potato au gratin type thing.

Ground beef can be used for tacos, or stuffed peppers, or meatloaf, you just have to think it through.
Also, check out the frozen food aisle, for purchase, but also for inspiration.

There are cook books out there that focus on cooking for one or two, so that might be useful.
Good luck!
posted by rhonzo at 8:31 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I make a larger amount of plain rice/quinoa/farro/etc (not TOO large, of course) and do different things with it over a few days - it's usually fine to skip a day if you don't want rice, too.

An example

Day 1 - rice with anything you like - a protein and some jarred curry sauce, peas and butter and seasonings, etc
Other meal - saute onions, mini bell peppers, maybe another vegetable; add some rinsed canned black beans (reduces the salt); add some chopped fresh tomatoes and rice, stir, add seasonings maybe add a little cheese
Other meal - saute some finely chopped cauliflower in peanut or coconut oil, add rice, add curry paste mixed with a little water, add cashews or peanuts
Other meal - saute tofu, peppers, onion; add fish sauce and chili garlic sauce, add rice and cilantro or thai basil, add other things to season to your taste
Other meal - heat a tortilla in an oiled pan; as it heats, spread rice on tortilla along with leftover canned black beans and cheese, top with hot sauce, salsa, etc.
Other meal: Over easy fried egg on rice with whatever - some beans and cheese, some sauteed vegetables, etc.

Vegetables that keep well: cherry tomatoes, carrots, onions, mini bell peppers
I also keep a lot of frozen spinach and peas on hand - I usually microwave them for three to four minutes before adding

For most of these, you can sub in quinoa; farro has a stronger, wheatier flavor and I usually don't use cheese with it. With quinoa, I often do onions, bell peppers and tomatoes and stir in some goat cheese at the end.

The key part is that the rice is the backbone but you don't get sick of it because it's not seasoned any particular way.
posted by Frowner at 8:45 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]

We cook for two which is probably more than twice as easy as cooking for one, but it's close enough for me to know what you're talking about. I make lunches for one (me) and I find the motivation to do the work for me only is difficult. Nobody wants to put in two hours making Beef Wellington for one.

With a bit of searching, you can find seafood and maybe chicken in vacuum-sealed single-portions. They keep (frozen) much better than the same product loose in a bag. Our favorite is Tilapia loins from Costco. Once thawed, season each side with a spice mix you like, cook with a pat of butter over medium heat for 4-5 minutes a side in a non-stick skillet.

We simplify the supply chain with more or less standardized substitutions. For example, we stock dark brown sugar and not light brown. (If light is needed use a mix with white.) We substitute black olives (which we like) for capers (with which we are less familiar).

Small portions of rice are tricky if you try to use the traditional method with an exact amount of water. The new method is to cook "like pasta" in a pot of water and strain. We only stock one kind of rice.

I suggest looking at the YouTube videos of Adam Ragusea. Most of his examples are for two portions, which is way better than the six portions you often see. He has a knack for simplification, most outrageously on display here. He alternates between recipes and non-recipe topics.
posted by SemiSalt at 8:46 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]

Buy with recipes already in mind

Cook large batches at once and learn to love leftovers. Sorry but you can't be super fussy about this if you want to cut down food waste

Fudge recipes - if it says 1 carrot, but I have 1 1/2 carrots on hand, then I'll use 1 1/2. Or use 1 and just eat the extra 1/2 raw because I love raw vegetables. Recipe calls for parsley but I only have cilantro? No problem, it will still be delicious

Learn to cook with what you have on hand - takes practice

Rely on shelf-stable basics: dried beans, dried lentils, etc and learn to construct meals that incorporate these nutritional bases with fresh fruits and veggies on top

Learn which veggies can still be used even when past their prime. Brown bananas --> banana bread. Wrinkly limes with skin turning brownish --> still good, time for some Coronas. Eggplant with brown patches --> still good, and you're gonna roast or sautee it anyway

My desserts and snacks are usually fresh fruits and fresh veggies, which also helps use up stuff that would otherwise languish in the fridge

Learn to store things correctly to maximize shelf life. I wash cilantro, trim the stems, and stand the bouquet up in a mug of fresh water in the fridge covered lightly with a reusable baggie. Cilantro lasts 2-3 wks easy

Make stocks from your veggie scraps. Compost the rest. Community composting is a thing, it takes a small lifestyle shift to get used to but really cuts down on your trash production. Composting also cuts down on landfill methane production. My trash is now entirely inorganic material and I only take it out like every 2-3 months. Bonus: I hear that Waste Management haaaates it and has lobbied against curbside composting in a lot of municipalities, so I derive an additional layer of joy from it

Learn to use veggie scraps that people would normally toss. Broccoli stems - absolutely no reason not to eat these. Beet greens are sooo lovely and have this wonderful luxurious texture. Kombu and shiitake mushrooms, once used to make stock, can then be sliced and sauteed with garlic and soy sauce to make a wonderful side dish. Cilantro stems should be eaten - they are just as tasty as the leaves. Carrot tops can be used to make a sort of pesto. Most veggies, esp carrots, also don't need to be peeled even if the recipe says so (just make sure to scrub root veggies well if you're gonna leave the skin on)

Find the discount produce rack at your grocery store - usually veggies that are soon to go bad and need rescuing by a kind and hungry heart!

Don't use plastic produce bags, just put stuff directly into your cart (who on earth duped us into thinking we need these??). Learn which grocery stores carry loose veggies rather than prepackaged ones
posted by aquamvidam at 8:46 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]

I think some of it is just experience. I used to waste a lot more food than I do now. Now I don't waste much, and when I do it's usually because I've changed my mind about what I want.

Some of it is getting familiar with the quantities available at the store, so I know when to have a plan for what to do with leftovers. A lot of it is building a repertoire of recipes/cooking methods so when I need a plan, I have one. Like, if I can only get a huge bag of green beans and only need a few for a recipe, I know a few different ways to prepare them so I can use up the leftovers. I have a pretty good sense of what kinds of recipes freeze well and what don't, and if it's something I have to make in a bigger quantity I'll try to pick one that freezes well.

But also, a lot of it is being realistic about how much I want to cook. Cooking can be exhausting if you have to do it for every meal. I don't think that it's realistic for most people to cook for every meal. When I tried to do that a lot would go to waste because I was just tired of cooking!

Now when I go to the store, I usually get what I need to make a couple of bigger recipes, or three or four smaller but easier ones. I make simple/easy sides for them like roasted veggies instead of getting ambitious. I do eat leftovers for a couple of days if I make a big recipe (not all week). For the rest of my meals, I do a lot of things like easy udon with frozen noodles and a few veggies/proteins thrown in, frozen meals, frozen pastas with premade sauce, sandwiches, and things like that.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 8:51 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

You can buy the exact amount of vegetables you need at the grocery store salad bar. They will usually cost more per pound, but they're ready to use and there won't be any waste.
posted by metasarah at 8:59 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

When I was cooking for one, the things that helped me the most were:

Making soups and stews portioned for 4-6, eating one portion fresh, one portion a day or two later, and freezing the rest in 1-2 portion containers. After awhile I got a good selection of different things in my freezer that I could defrost overnight for an easy 1-2 meals a few weeks/months later so I still had some variety: lentil sausage soup, dal, corn chowder, veggie soup, French onion soup, Turkish lentil soup. Getting properly sized Tupperware for this was incredibly helpful.

Never impulse buying fresh berries (raspberries, strawberries, blackberries) or avocados unless I was going eat them immediately and instead buying fruits that lasted longer: apples, grapes, pears, citrus, mangos (for mangos, put them in the fridge once they’re ripe and they last 5 more days).

Breaking down larger packages of meat into 1-2 meal portions. I’ll take a 1 pound package of bacon, split it into 2-4 strip portions, and stick it in a big ziplock freezer back that I roll up to separate the portions so I can defrost one at a time. Similarly, a one pound package of sausage can be split into 1-2 link portions or you can freeze chicken thighs in pairs. I often don’t like chicken and fish when it’s reheated, so I usually eat it cold on top of a salad the next day if I make too much for a single meal.

Eating more tofu, lentils, and beans and less meat because it lasts longer than fresh veggies and meat. Tofu is usually good in the fridge for about a month before you open it; if you only eat half a package put the remainder in a Tupperware full of water and it will last 3-5 days. Dried and canned legumes last years and are good just with spices and veggies that last a long time.

Biasing towards veggies that last a long time and can go in soup if they start to get a little sketchy: carrots, onions, celery, kale, garlic, ginger. Cabbage lasts a long time, too, but doesn’t do as well in soup.

Getting fluent with substituting dairy for other dairy so I could buy fewer or longer lasting kinds of dairy. Sour cream and yogurt are often interchangeable, buttermilk can be made by adding lemon juice to milk, “ultra pasteurized” organic milk will last 3x longer than “normal” milk. Hard cheese like Parmesan will last months in the fridge.

Always keeping some shelf-stable or frozen foods in the house in case I planned wrong and ran out of more perishable food: ingredients for Smitten Kitchen’s “adult spaghetti o’s”, boxed Mac and cheese + frozen peas + bacon, lentils + onions + spices for a quick dal, etc
posted by A Blue Moon at 9:07 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Frozen foods and meal planning. So for example, if you buy a pack of two chicken breasts, put one in the freezer. Plan meals with fresh veggies at the start of the week and use frozen for the rest. Also you can do things like make chili and put portions in the freezer to defrost for later meals. Bread freezes -- just pop two slices in the toaster to defrost -- and grilled cheese and a canned soup is one of my favourite really easy ways to feed myself.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:14 AM on May 8

There are two of us, so it's much easier. But each week we plan four specific meals that are reasonably self-contained, and buy a bunch of lunch stuff ands some things for the freezer that go together to make a meal for one or two (so, proteins, carbs, veg) including some 'junk' food like good frozen pizzas. This works well for us in limiting the amount of food we waste, not running out of food, and having enough flexibility that we don't feel like we're tied to a meal plan.

What does help is being able to look at a selection of random ingredients and work out how to make a meal. For that, I think it's helpful to have eggs and cheese on hand (or any other single serving protein) as the selection of random ingredients seems to always include carbs and veg. Plus also, herbs, spices and seasoning you like as well as salt & pepper.
posted by plonkee at 9:30 AM on May 8

Are you committed to having "meals" or just wasting less food? If left to my own devices I tend to "snack" for meals or make very simple egg sandwiches. I buy enough fruits and veggies to get me through maybe 4 days and just...graze. The trick for me was only having mostly healthy snacks in the pantry so I'm not tempted to eat cookies for breakfast. I found that when I focused on building "meals" I over-bought and wasted way more. If I do really want to try something new I invite friends over so that way I don't have too many leftovers. I also paired down the number of individual fruit and veggie varieties that i have at any given time. I don't need broccoli and cauliflower and carrots and peas and fennel and greens all in my fridge all the time. I just need one or two of those and and if I don't really have a taste for it I know I can get something new in a few days when I get to the store, but in the meantime it's all I've got so I'm going to eat it anyway.
posted by carnivoregiraffe at 10:04 AM on May 8

Before I tried them, I thought these BluApple produce savers were some kind of nonsense, but they really do make produce last longer.
posted by corey flood at 10:05 AM on May 8 [4 favorites]

I would focus on meals that have ingredients that overlap, and meal planning. It is a hard skill to manage at first, but pays dividends. Learning what types of dishes are kind of 'self contained' and which ones make good leftovers also helps a lot. Start with a couple core recipes that you like, notice what gets left over, and then plan around that. What dishes could use that up?

Cilantro was the worst goddamn culprit for this; it would rot, get nasty and we'd throw away most of a batch of cilantro like every goddamn week and I hated it. Cilantro pretty much directly lead out family to directly branching out to other cuisines. Solving the Cilantro Problem helped dovetail other things into the situation.

This is an example of a really common weekly meal plan for my little family of 3, that dovetails a lot of ingredients into each other, and provide several leftovers that are decidedly not gross but also provide a wide variety of flavors (its only six days because we often build a day of slack into the meal plan to allow for crazy days, or days we don't have time to cook.

Day 1 Chicken tikka masala (sometimes we add a side of frozen samosas or naan)
Day 2 Tacos (with pickled onions, salsa and sour cream)
Day 3 Tom kha gai soup (served with jasmine rice, make extra for....)
Day 4 Stir Fried Rice (this is honestly our garbage dump and its always delicious)
Day 5 Pasta dish (usually entirely pantry-driven)
Day 6 Dan dan noodles (usually with mushrooms, sometimes with left over chicken bits)

For our recipes for the following, the only fresh/spoilable ingredients you need for this meal plan are:
a whole chicken*, cilantro, red onion, garlic, ginger, chilis, lemongrass, lime leaf, galangal, green onions, a red pepper.

All of it gets used. There is usually no waste from this week; sometimes there a few leftovers for like ginger and stuff, but really most of those items that could be left over here are entirely storable in your fridge for a few weeks.

*learning how to break down a chicken is a valuable waste and money saving proposition; one breast goes to chicken tikka, one goes to tom kha gai, the thighs go to tacos and the leftover thighs go to the stir fried rice, and you can make a dope-ass broth for your soup of the week. With this week planned out, I usually end up buying fucking two cilantro bunches because it ends up in every goddamn meal except for the pasta dish. Cilantro problem solved. The chicken tikka can often stretch to a total of 4 servings, and so can the stir fried rice (if you bulk it up with veggies; frozen peas are our go-to here)

The rest of the items for that whole week are shelf stable pantry items. I would also encourage you to search the green for "how to build a pantry" asks; there are a few out there, and they're well answered. Building a dedicated pantry to the types of cuisines you like to cook, can actually reduce waste in the long run. Having a decked out pantry allows a ton of flexibility.

This is just an example. When I build weekly meal plans it is usually built around the thing that can spoil the easiest.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:41 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]

Cooking was supposed to be a way for me to save money. How did you find a balance?

I usually end up buying groceries every week or so. I do get easily tired of recipes and I wouldn't really consider myself that great of a cook. Leftovers can be gross sometimes. I think I'm doing something wrong.

I cook for one. Only one. Me. I mostly stopped going to the grocery store during COVID and then started going once a month. My choices won't be everyone's choices but I waste almost nothing. Only mentioning this because you may think "Oh gosh that's too far the other direction" and you may be right, but it might help you think of things that will work for you. Here is what I do.

- I eat two meals a day usually, with morning coffee a few hours before lunch. I have a snack before bed so I'm not ravenous in the morning. I keep some healthy grazing foods around so I am never cooking while super hungry and so I have something to eat after exercise.
- I have a LOT of pantry staples (rice, beans, flour, sugar, tea, coffee, eggs, butter) as well as shelf-stable snacks and usually an extra loaf of bread frozen so I always have extra. I use my freezer a lot.
- My first meal of the day is usually one of a few basic things. I'll make a dutch pancake (either sweet or savory) or I'll have a veggie burger or PB&J sandwich. Handled. Done. I know everyone doesn't like to eat the same thing every day, but I also think some of it is a "retraining" thing. Maybe eat a veggie burger wrap with different toppings. Maybe mix up the sandwich. Maybe a lot of things.
- Cook in bulk. If I'm doing real cooking I'm usually making a lot of...something. Stew, pasta, roasted veggies, soup, bread, applesauce, whatever. Dinners are usually multiple things usually one main thing or a few smaller things. I make anywhere from 3 to 6 servings. If it's more I'll freeze half and put half in the fridge. Then I mix up how I eat the main course stuff. Veggies over rice, veggies with veggie burgers, veggies with some of that leftover thai food. I'll try to have one part of dinner that I'm really jazzed about and other parts that are just... more like filler.

To your main question: eating out isn't much of an option where I am, but if it is where you are, maybe make that part of your plan. Like Saturday night you get takeout and you get a few extra sides that you can use to dress up whatever you're making at home. Also about leftovers, I don't know if you mean gross like they don't keep or you mean gross like you don't like them. If the latter, then you do need to focus more on fresh meals for you so you're not setting yourself up for failure with leftovers you know you don't want.

Part of this is trying to resolve knowing yourself and what you like and don't like with also trying to get decent nutrition and sustenance and stay within a budget. I've found you can eat a lot "fancier" at home if you shift more of your eating our budget to better supermarket food, for me (not really a splurger) this means better cheeses and more of the dessert food I LIKE. For you this might mean getting some simmer sauces that mean you can just toss in some chicken and be done with it. If you eat meat it can be simple to get larger containers of meat for lower prices and then freeze it in portions so you can just pop out a single serving of, say, chicken, and serve it with veggies and rice and have a perfectly good and good for you meal. So think honestly about what you think your real challenges are and find ways to try to get around them without being down on yourself. It's been a hard year!
posted by jessamyn at 10:53 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I have lived alone for most of my adult life and while I *can* cook decently well, I currently have a kitchen that is MISERABLE for food prep. And I'm also frugal and hate wasting anything, especially food, so I really sympathize with your plight.

There is some great advice in this thread; I would add the following:

- Find take-out that freezes well and stretch it with other food. Every 3-4 weeks, I order a large cheese pizza from my favorite pizza place, eat two slices for dinner, and freeze the rest in two-slice portions. It reheats beautifully in my toaster oven, and I have some cut-up fruit and veggies with it so I don't need more than two slices at a time. I've also found that Chinese food freezes really well, as long as you keep the rice separate, and the main dish doesn't have a bunch of delicate greens in it or something. There's a fried tofu + vegetables dish from my favorite Chinese place that can feed me at LEAST four meals, so I eat one portion, freeze the other three, and eat them when I need an especially delicious dinner. Serve with fresh rice (although frankly, I also make huge batches of rice and freeze that too!) and some fresh or frozen veggies on the side.

- How do you feel about smoothies? It's easy to keep all the ingredients on hand without them going bad, since you can use frozen fruit/veggies, peanut butter, whatever milk you have on hand, etc. My go-to smoothie (which is frankly just a relatively healthy chocolate milkshake) is frozen bananas, frozen strawberries, peanut butter, chia seeds, almond milk, and chocolate protein powder.

- I agree with batch cooking several different recipes, freezing them in small portions, and pulling them out when you need a meal. I've fallen away from that lately, but there have been times where I've got 4 or 5 different types of soup or stew in my freezer, so I can literally eat a different type for lunch every day of the work week without repeating.

- Find combinations of frozen + shelf-stable ingredients that make a tasty meal. One of my current favorites is pasta (whatever kind you like), Gardein frozen vegan meatballs cooked in my toaster oven, some frozen broccoli, Rao's jarred marinara sauce (the best jarred pasta sauce I've ever had!!), and some good old Kraft grated parm. I boil the pasta and the broccoli together, and I am SO EXCITED whenever I have this for dinner. It's weirdly delicious and it's super easy to keep all the ingredients on hand.
posted by leftover_scrabble_rack at 11:36 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

It's hard to buy greens for one person. Most pre-prepared salads are not my preference. I've come to accept that a certain amount of arugula, cilantro, parsley, will get wasted. I don't buy spring greens anymore - they come in a giant plastic container, and the leaf lettuce goes bad really fast. I grow cilantro, parsley and arugula in season, quite easy, but the rest of the year, there's waste, because the packaging is for families.
posted by theora55 at 12:07 PM on May 8

So much great advice here! One I would add is what I think of as “produce bin” recipes: recipes that will use up the last, sad vegetables hanging out in the crisper at the end of the week, because I forgot them/only used half/etc. In descending order of how many different veg you can cram in there, my faves are minestrone (diced up small), fried rice or frittata (sautéed), or pasta or a grain bowl (roasted). Being able to combine basically any veg with shelf stable or stable-ish ingredients (canned tomato, rice, eggs, grains, noodles, sauce) really helps me not let things rot in the bottom drawer.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 12:13 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

Seconding the "batch cooking" advice, and seconding the "use your freezer" advice. If you don't like leftovers, turning them into a DIY frozen dinner for later is a good way to cope.

Another option: have a look at the cookbook The Pleasures Of Cooking For One by Judith Jones. The no-waste, scaled-down, cope-with-leftovers complaints are a lot of what she addresses, and she addresses them in two ways:

1. The first half of the book is recipes in what I call "recipe groups". What I mean is: she will list two or three recipes together, for example a lamb chop recipe and then a recipe for lentil stew with lamb, or a group of recipes using different parts of a pork loin. The idea is - you make the first recipe the first night, and then the second recipe includes the leftovers from the first recipe as an ingredient, and you end up with something totally new. Or, with that pork loin, she tells you how to cut the one pork loin up into three parts - one for pork scallopini the first night, the second for a stir fry the second night, and the third for a roast pork loin the third night.

2. The second half of the book is recipes that use random things like leftover rice, cheese, grains, vegetables, or what have you to yield yet another meal. There's a recipe she has for cooked rice and sauteed greens that is a go-to recipe for me because it's so damn easy, and it is perfect for using up leftover rice when I accidentally make too much or when I splurge on takeout and didn't use up all the rice from the delivery.

Throughout the book there are lots of ideas for using random odds and ends and turning them into other things - turning the half-size portion of beef stew into a pasta sauce, turning the little last bit of cooked vegetables into an omelet filling, things like that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:03 PM on May 8 [4 favorites]

I think there are multiple skills involved, and you don't have to improve at all of them simultaneously. This has been a sloooooow process for me, over years.

I had to learn to eat and enjoy leftovers (I have a notoriously picky palate). Some of this is knowing what makes good leftovers, and some is knowing how to make leftovers more appealing. A large take-out pizza can be a week of tasty lunches for me, jazzed up with different toppings (fry an egg, put a handful of arugula on top, use the saag paneer to make my version of Indian pizza). Indian curries in general are great leftovers. Kimchi jigae also is better the second, third day.

I had to learn to not waste vegetables and fruits and other grocery items (this skill is still a work in progress -- I have a very sad, very ancient orange in the fruit basket right now and some neglected radishes in the fridge). If I use a salad mix package or get one of those prewashed bags of arugula or spinach, I'll put a paper towel in to make it stay fresh longer. There are cookbooks like the Vegetable Butcher that include lots of great advice on how to keep produce longer. I ignore the best-by date for eggs and instead do the float test. I almost never buy meat, but I will buy bacon, and then freeze half the package for use in chili, stews, etc. My #1 pro tip -- freeze minced garlic as flat sheets in a small ziploc baggie and break off as much as you need when cooking.

I had to learn what shelf-stable or long-lasting foods can be turned into a quick savory meal. Chili (a can or two of beans, a can of diced tomatoes, a can of jalapeno peppers, a strip or two of bacon, spices, the frozen minced garlic), tuna/olive pasta (any dried pasta, a can of light tuna in oil, a jar of olives, the frozen minced garlic, spices), soondubu stew (packet of seasoning, soft tofu can be bought either as a refrigerated tube that somehow lasts for months, or as a semi-indestructible pantry item). I always have flour tortillas, frozen hash browns, white rice, pasta on hand to serve as the base starch of meals.

I had to learn how to cook from the fridge. Fried rice, breakfast burritos, and some of the other suggestions in this thread are great flexible dishes that can take all sorts of random ingredients, whether half a zucchini or the last piece of Popeyes fried chicken...

I had to learn to keep track of what is in the fridge. I have a small whiteboard attached the fridge with a list of "To Eat - Perishable". The nights before trash pick-up I'll go through the fridge and see what is there.

Skills I still don't have include batch cooking and weekly meal planning. I'd like to, but I'm satisfied with my progress so far. I waste way less food then I did, and can always rummage up a meal I'll enjoy.
posted by spamandkimchi at 1:46 PM on May 8

The classic book about this is "How to Cook a Wolf" by MFK Fischer. I find it a bit hard to read, but it may inspire others. A contemporary equivalent is Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.
The principle in both books is to let each meal feed into the next, so the leftovers from one meal form the base of the next meal.

This could be a sad way of life, if leftovers were always cooked stuff from last night. But in my fridge, leftovers can be the rest of a head of cauliflower. The first day, I may have made a cauliflower salad to go with a lamb chop, and then the second, I make a gratin. To go with the gratin, I make a salad of arugula and tomatoes, but since I am alone, I can't use all the arugula and tomatoes, so the next day I make a pizza with tomatoes, arugula and prosciutto. Then I have leftover dough and prosciutto, and I make rolls before I go to bed, so I can make a sandwich with the prosciutto the next morning. Then I have leftover rolls, and I might make croutons of them, and shop for a Caesar salad which will leave me with more anchovies, eggs and lettuce than I need, so the next day I'll make a salad Nicoise. And so on.

You can do this as a meal plan, where you shop once a week and plan ahead how to use the ingredients. I really enjoy shopping for food (not any other type of shopping), so I just go to the store every day and buy the one new thing I need to keep the system going.

I also have a lot of pantry staples, like pasta, rice, couscous, canned tuna, onions, olives, pickles, all the legumes, all the condiments and oils and vinegars and I always have lemons and garlic. I can make a meal from those if I somehow don't make it to the store.

Mostly, I have some form of cabbage, carrots, oranges and apples which all keep well.
posted by mumimor at 3:01 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

Long shelf life is a path to reduced waste. Eggs stay good for weeks, and fried, scrambled, or in an omelet, they are about the quickest to prepare.

We also have good luck with cooked sausages, especially chicken-based ones. A wide variety of flavors is available in most grocery stores.
posted by SemiSalt at 3:23 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I'd also argue that you're not doing anything wrong! I struggle with the same things. I don't like cooking much, and don't like eating the same thing for very long. Honestly there are some weeks where I don't eat much fresh food because I just don't want to do the prep let alone know I'll be tossing some food (we compost and it still feels terrible to waste). I think this is the nature of cooking for one if you aren't into cooking (or doing the prep which is a burden to me, and no not everything comes pre-chopped and frankly looking at the quality of the pre-chopped I'd just rather not try it), and grocery stores not being great for single eaters, and if you're like me who just doesn't want to spend so much thought and effort into eating.
posted by evening at 5:11 AM on May 9

Bread: never stored at room temperature. Immediately into the freezer as soon as you get home from the store, and slices extracted (and then toasted) as needed.
posted by Rash at 11:28 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]

This stuff is hard. I'm better at it than I used to be, but I still have surprise weeks when I eat out more than expected and all my fresh food goes squidgy. Here's what I've worked out works for me.

- Freeze things. The freezer is where most of my "fresh" ingredients are stored. Meat is always frozen, precooked rice/quinoa, bread, milk (I buy milk by the 1L, and freeze half of it as soon as I open the carton), leftover bits of celery/baby spinach/tomato paste/hummus/spring onions/cooked chickpeas & beans/yoghurt/cream. I also batch cook chilli/curry/pasta sauce/pizza dough and freeze it in single serves (Everything needs to be frozen in the appropriate serving size, or it's essentially useless to me). If something's getting towards the end of it's life in the fridge, it gets tossed in the freezer if at all possible. I choose to have low standards wrt freezer burn.

- Prioritise long shelf life foods. Pantry items get replaced as I use them up, even if I have no plans to eat them any time soon, because it is just too irritating to not have rice. Eggs, cheese, yoghurt, cabbage, carrots are staples for me because I like them and they last forever.

- "Almost done" food prep. Most meals taste best when at least some of it is cooked just before eating, but it helps soooooo much if I've got at least one option that requires minimal effort. Like "cook pasta, reheat sauce, grate cheese, mix, eat" or "reheat dhal and rice, cook broccoli, eat". Also, veg that's easy to prepare, like baby spinach, prewashed lettuce and baby tomatoes.

- Eat what you like. I'm currently on a ramen kick, so I'm buying bok choy which I wouldn't normally. I don't try and force myself to eat things I don't want to eat. It's the only good thing about cooking for one.
posted by kjs4 at 8:38 PM on May 9 [4 favorites]

A confession first - when I linked to the Judith Jones book above, another cookbook caught my eye to the point that I bought it, and after an initial flipthrough I am willing to recommend it too - the Cooking for One book from America's Test Kitchen.

I'm not recommending it because of the recipes, however - although those are good - I'm recommending it because of the shopping and storage advice. They have advice about how to store produce, especially things you've cut into, that I can definitely see myself referring to in future. Of especial interest is the "how to prepare various meats for freezing" bits.

They also have a tip that I've seen recommended elsewhere - if your supermarket or some other place near you has a salad bar, the kind where you pick what you like and they sell it to you by weight, get some of your produce there. It's a lot easier to get small quantities of various vegetables there ("two ounces of baby spinach, a half a chopped cucumber" or something like that) - and, bonus, usually everything is already chopped for you, so that saves you a step.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:05 AM on May 11

Oh, the recipes, too! The recipes they have all come with notes about what ingredients can be substituted in each recipe ("don't have kale? use spinach instead if you have it" or "if you don't have chicken, you can leave it out" or "if you can't find this particular noodle just break up some spaghetti"). Some of their recipes do produce leftovers, but only one meal's worth, which you can take to lunch the next day or save for later in the week. They also have notes for the regular pantry items to get and keep stock of so that you only have to add a couple of other fresh ingredients to make what you need to make - if that.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:08 AM on May 11

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