Single Person Menu Planning Without Losing Your Mind or Budget

single person menu planning
Image thanks to Terje Sollie on Pexels

Reducing recipes and and changing servings is not the only challenge when cooking for one.  The other hurdle is that grocery store portions and packaging are designed for families. Single person menu planning and cooking is not on their radar!

And, few of us can eat an entire bunch of spinach at once, or consume a whole package of chicken thighs at one or two sittings!

It can all seem a bit daunting and overwhelming, especially if you’re just going out on your own or you are newly single and you’re not used to cooking for one person.

Single Person Menu Planning and Shopping

There are ways around this. The most important thing for planning one person meals is taking a bit of time to think about your menus before you go shopping. Figure out in advance what you want to eat that week.  You can do this one of several ways:

  • What’s on sale in your local market (most of them have web sites now), or check the flyers if you get them
  • Go through your recipes and write down what you want to eat each day (or that week, or that month)
  • Plan a menu based on what you already have in your kitchen
  • Use an app

However you do it, having a guide makes shopping much easier and faster. You’ll save time and money because you’ll make fewer trips to the market.  It also cuts down on wasted food because you know what you’re going to eat that week.

Cooking for One Meal Planning

The meal planning can be as detailed or as general as you like.  If you prefer to decide in advance what to eat for every meal on each day, make a daily menu plan and map out everything you want to eat that week or that month. That way, you can defrost any frozen ingredients in advance, and make sure you don’t need to pick up anything, Plus,  you don’t have to wonder “what’s for dinner” when you get home.

If all that precise scheduling is too much for you, make a list of six or seven things you plan to cook over two weeks.  You can do this with an app, going through cookbooks, searching the internet, or by checking local sales.  You could also start by looking in your kitchen to see what you already have.

I usually pick a week’s worth of recipes and then go on from there. Then, I can cook the recipes I planned, check my pantry and fridge, and recombine the ingredients for additional meals.

For example, if I plan to make Spaghetti with Spinach and Lemon Cream Sauce, I can use the rest of the spinach to make Spinach and Egg Frittata for One Person or a Spinach and Feta Cheese Omelette. Since I nearly always have eggs and some sort of cheese, I don’t need to buy anything special to make two more meals.

Or, let’s take a “family size” chicken pack.  It can be Stir Fry Chicken with Peanut Sauce one week, Crispy Lemon Chicken Thigh Recipe for One another week (that also helps use up the lemon from the pasta and spinach recipe), and Chicken with Olives and Tomatoes for One a third week.  The peanut butter and the  olives are staples and won’t spoil.

Then there’s a can of tomatoes. Depending on the size of the can, they can first be used to make the chicken with olives and tomatoes, then for Pasta with Olives Tomatoes and Capers (Puttanesca), (another use for the olives) and finally a Small Batch Spicy Stovetop Chili Recipe.

Single Person Menu Planning: Turning One Meal Into Two or More Meals

Cooking for one doesn’t always have to mean only one meal every time you cook.  If you prepare some extra food, you can have additional dinners or lunches later in the week.

Add an extra piece of chicken when you cook lemon chicken and use it to make chicken salad with yogurt and currants.  Have the lemon chicken for dinner one night and eat the chicken salad for lunch on another day.

A double batch of Italian meatballs can go over spaghetti with sauce on one day and  into Italian wedding soup on another.

Use the rest of the butternut squash from Roasted Cinnamon Nutmeg Butternut Squash to make yourself a pot of Curried Butternut Squash Soup with Apples. Get a bag of apples and use some for that squash soup, and some to make Small Batch Cinnamon Sugar Apple Bread. Eat the rest plain, or use them instead of bananas in Cinnamon Sugar Bananas with Brandy.

Cooking for One on a Budget

Just because you are shopping and planning menus for one person doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of bulk packaging (and discounts). Meat, fish, chicken, and butter all freeze well. Stock up when there’s a sale on your favorites, or on the basics, depending on how much freezer space you  have.

One person can’t eat a whole pound of butter all at once (I hope!), but you can buy a pound or two at a time.  Put one stick of butter in the fridge, and store the rest in the freezer. You can also freeze bread if you have enough space to put it.

Buy the family size packages of meat or chicken and put each portion in its own freezer bag (or wrap it in saran wrap). Then take all the wrapped pieces and freeze them in one large bag labeled with the date and contents.

That way, you don’t have to worry about the food going bad, and you can easily find it in the freezer. Since the pieces are individually wrapped, they won’t stick together and you can remove one or two at a time.

Cook Big (or Bigger) and Freeze Small

This is where the “small batches” come in.  My grandma used to do this (but with full size recipes, since she had a full-size kitchen and an extra freezer).  If you make a larger amount of food all at once,  you only have to cook once, instead of three or four times.

For example, prepare a Small Batch Chicken Chile Verde Recipe and then freeze it in individual portions labeled with the name of the dish and the date. Do the same thing with Small Batch Unstuffed Cabbage Rolls Recipe or Easy Ham and Lentil Soup. Then all you have to do is defrost it and heat it back up another day. A great meal without any cooking.

Clean Cooking

My personal food philosophy is to use “real” ingredients. That means foods that aren’t processed heavily, few cans, and even fewer prepared foods.  I suppose I’ve been following “clean cooking” practices before the term became popular.

Essentially, I recommend shopping from the outside of the supermarket: milk, eggs, cheese, chicken, meat, fruit, vegetables, etc. I mostly avoid the inner aisles where the heavily processed foods are shelved. The only “convenience” foods I regularly use are canned tomatoes, jam, condiments, dried pasta, canned tuna, frozen vegetables, and some frozen fruit (can’t resist that Trader Joe’s frozen mango).

This is not only healthier, it’s more budget-friendly. The more preparation and processing, the higher the expense. A package of chicken thighs costs a lot less per pound than a package of cut, cooked, and breaded chicken nuggets.  Also, when you make food from fresh ingredients, you know exactly what’s in it!

I avoid anything that has added salt or sugar, because it’s mostly too salty or too sweet for me. I also try to avoid buying anything with ingredients I can’t recognize.

Your mileage may vary, depending on your own preferences. This is all meant as a guide for single person menu planning and cooking, not a set of rigid rules you absolutely must follow.

 Stocking the Pantry and Fridge

Of course, before you can cook anything, you need some basic kitchen essentials in your pantry, cupboards, and refrigerator.

Here’s what I generally have in the cupboard.

  • Baking supplies: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and cornstarch
  • Cooking oil: olive oil and a neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable or corn oil)
  • Vinegars: red wine vinegar, white vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar
  • Canned tomatoes: crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste
  • Pasta: Long pasta (such as spaghetti or linguine) and short pasta (like macaroni or fusilli)
  • Condiments: soy sauce, sesame oil
  • Peanut butter
  • Jam
  • Canned tuna
  • Canned beans (black or red)
  • Dried white beans; in the winter I’m also likely to have lentils or split peas for soup
  • Bread crumbs or panko
  • Rice
  • Honey
  • Raisins
  • Spices and seasonings:

kosher salt, table salt, black pepper, basil, bay leaves, cayenne, hot pepper flakes, chili powder, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, curry powder (hot and mild), dill,  garam masala, garlic powder, ground ginger, herbs de provence, lemon pepper (or dried lemon peel), mustard powder, nutmeg, oregano, paprika, dried rosemary, taco seasoning, thyme, turmeric, tarragon, and vanilla extract

I can’t grow much (having no garden), but I do keep little pots of basil, rosemary, and mint in the windowsill.

In the fridge:

  • Condiments: ketchup, brown mustard, Dijon mustard, chili garlic sauce, sriracha, mayonnaise, hoisin sauce, black bean sauce, hot sauce, jam, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice
  • A chunk of ginger
  • One or two heads of garlic
  • Dairy: milk, butter, two or three kinds of cheese (such as mozzarella, feta, cheddar, muenster, havarti, edam, or gouda, plus a chunk of parmesan), Greek yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables: changes with the season, but usually at least carrots, potatoes, and onions
  • Fruit: seasonal
  • Bread (often homemade, but not always)

In the freezer (which is tiny, or this list would be longer):

  • Individually wrapped chicken pieces
  • Frozen mixed vegetables
  • Butter
  • Individually wrapped fish portions
  • Trader Joe’s uncured bacon when I can get it (Imperfect Foods bacon is good too)
  • Chopped meat in individual portions, and then put in one big bag
  • Chicken or other sausage, frozen individually and then bagged (like the chicken above)
  • Several individual meals (like chili or soup)
  • Chicken broth cubes (I freeze them in the ice cube tray, then put them all in a big freezer bag).