Single Chef: The Art of Buying and Cooking for One
*This articles was written by Lindsey Rae. See the Contributors page for more. Bonus recipes at the end of the post.
Living single certainly has its perks, amirite? You get to know yourself inside and out. You get to do things on your own time, on your own terms. That freedom extends to include mealtime. You eat what you want, when you want to, and it’s awesome. But it also means that you, sole person, are the only one doing the planning, shopping, chopping, cooking, consuming, and cleaning-up in this outfit. If you’re like me—where you’re not only super busy, but also find this kind of stuff to be a chore—that can feel like a tall order, especially after a long day. And if you’re still like me, then you also appreciate good food and understand that part of living a healthy lifestyle is preparing food at home.
Want to be a bit healthier and a bit more money-conscious in a way that takes as little effort as possible? You’re in the right place! I’m sharing bits of my single-chef philosophy that have made my food life work for me. I’m coming at this from years of listening to friends, reading food-blogs, stumbling through cookbooks, trialing and erroring, and being a practicing single-chef. When I started this journey back in 2012, I could barely boil water, and that’s not an exaggeration. (I didn’t even have salt in my house, folks–who doesn’t even have salt?!) Being in Single-Chef Land on and off the past four years, I feel like I finally maybe kind of sort of actually know what I’m doing… maybe. In other words, anyone can do this! You have the powah! You’ll feel better in all of the ways, and your homemade lunches will be the envy of your colleagues. It’s gonna be great.A minute to tell you about myself. I’m 29 and a single-chef lady. I have a regular 40-hour M-F work week. I’m social and active most evenings after work. In my spare time, I sing and read and write and draw and game and practice martial arts. While eating delicious food is somewhere in my Top 10 favorite things to do, cooking doesn’t even make the list. And I’m mindful about money, but I’ll be honest, I don’t clip coupons or hunt for bargains. Which is to say, I’m no kitchen maven. Convenience plays trump when it comes to things I have to do in order to function as an adult so that I can get back to doing the stuff I love. Namely, nothing to do with meal-prep. :D
Let’s start by taking a personal inventory. And I don’t mean of what you have in your pantry, ladies and germs. I mean an inventory of you. Which may sound weird, but hang with me. I found I started to make headway in my meal-planning when I got absolutely 100% no-holds-barred honest with myself about who I am, my priorities, and how I eat in the moment. Don’t get me wrong, being honest with yourself about anything can be a challenge. We all have aspirational selves, and it’s easy to jump the gun and make decisions based on who we want to be in the future rather than who we are right now. I’m giving you permission: Cut yourself some slack and honor who you are at present.
I stress this because it serves as the foundation for my mealtime philosophy. Things only clicked into place after I got real with myself about what I will actually commit to, especially in the midst of a busy week. For me, this meant accepting deep-down that, at the end of a long day, there are few things I dread more than having to think about everything that goes into making food. Honestly, it kind of sucked to admit that, but once I owned it, I saw what I needed to do to set myself up for success. As a consequence, I eat simple, healthy meals and use only the essentials to prepare them. That’s what finally worked for me.
So, take an assessment, a real one. Who are you at this very moment in time, especially when it comes to food? What is your lifestyle like and what are your priorities right now? Where would you like to be? What’s in your way, and what are some reasonable steps you can take to get from point A to point B?
With the existential part out of the way, funnel this philosophy into your meal-planning, start to finish. Basically anywhere I’ve read about being healthy or saving money when it comes to food has talked about meal-planning. For a long time, I was staunchly against it. Meal-planning felt like I had to commit to a month’s worth of menus and meals, and that just never worked for me. For one thing, I hate being told what to do (I meant it when I said be honest with yourselves, you guys), and feeling like I had to eat something because I’d ordained it so in some master meal-plan just brought out the angsty teenager in me. And I don’t know about you, but I’m one fickle human being who couldn’t possibly predict what I’d want to eat three weeks from now. On top of that, the thought of planning or prepping all of that food in one go was overwhelming, which translated into my never actually doing any planning at all and just winging it at the store. Spoiler alert, those results were no better.
What I realized is that I could have it both ways, planning to make my life easier with some built-in flexibility to change my mind. I only got there after developing a thorough understanding of my pitfalls. I encourage you to take a hard look so your arch nemesis is out in the open and you can conquer it. Mine was named Lunch. Observing my own behavior, I noticed lunch was the linchpin to whether or not I came out on top with relation to my food goals. Days I didn’t have an easy, nutritious lunch to bring to work, my whole food day fell apart. Since I was buying lunch, I wouldn’t bother to bring any good snacks either, which meant lots of cafeteria and vending machine visits. Planning enough so that I had at least lunch under control set me up to make better food choices throughout the day. With the Lunch Problem taken care of, playing it by ear for breakfast and dinner suddenly didn’t feel like such a mammoth task to me.
As far as flexibility is concerned, I like to plan for some wiggle-room in my schedule, like an impromptu dinner out with friends. If I’ve bought too much food for the week, or I’ve put off using something I wasn’t excited about, that’s one more night it hangs out in the fridge inching closer to the trash. This has led to more trips to the store, also not my favorite thing, but it was the lesser of two evils. It was a compromise I was willing to make, and now I get the best of both worlds. I hit the store with a game plan 2-3 times a week, and it works.Speaking of the store, let’s talk shopping for a second. Along the lines of that meal-planning/flexibility balance, put simply, buying food I ultimately won’t eat—whether I’m not in the mood or it’s too complicated to prepare—is a waste of money, food, and time. (Which, if you do the math, compounds into even more wasted money. Can you hear my wallet crying in the corner?) I’d be embarrassed to admit the number of times I came home from the store with a head of kale thinking, “I’m going to eat all the kale from now on because kale is good for me and I want to be healthy!” only to throw the wilted head away at the end of the week, because every time I saw it in my fridge, the thought of preparing and eating it made me die a little inside. I had to be honest with myself. The me in that moment wasn’t ready to deal with an entire head of kale yet, and I had to accept that. Maybe the you right now isn’t either. That’s okay! If it’s a goal, you can get there. In the meantime, save yourself the money and the kale-lovers the kale by being realistic when you go to the store. No matter your goals, start simply with good choices that are easy for you to make and build from there.
While I’m wandering around the store with my loose shopping list, I have nutrition, convenience, and my food goals all rolling around in my noggin. I say “loose” because I focus on the building blocks I need to achieve my food goals but let my tummy be my guide while I’m doing the shopping. Think planning for ingredients rather than recipes. Let’s return to the Lunch Problem I brought up earlier. Recently I’ve gotten hooked on pasta with roasted veggies. When you break this meal down into its parts, it’s just cooked vegetables and something else to satisfy me. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what either of these things are. For veggies, I can grab whatever. You can roast just about anything. I go by what looks good and what I’m in the mood for/know I’ll eat that week. You could also look at what’s in season or what’s on sale. And as far as the accompaniment, talk about options. Pasta and roasted veggies? Easy. Replace the pasta with rice, now it’s a stir-fry. Replace the rice with beans, now it’s a protein powerhouse. Replace the beans with Thai noodles, now it’s kind of fancy. Looking at pasta alone, the store is a cornucopia of choice: white, whole wheat, quinoa/corn, chickpea, spelt, you name it. They’ll make pasta out of anything. The beauty is, no matter what I put in my cart, the process at the end of the day is the same: chop veggies, put on baking sheet, toss with olive oil and seasoning, roast in oven, done. Nutritious and easy, flexible without a lot of thought or effort. Whenever I heat this up at work, my colleagues comment on how good it smells. And there’s basically nothing to it. It’s the easiest thing in the world. Bonus, it’s super simple to make enough to feed me for lunch the entire week. Boom.
Let me also just put out there that I feel your shopping pain. It can be frustrating shopping as a free agent. Food often isn’t packaged to accommodate for single-people portions, which means we need to be strategic about what and how we buy. All the good meal-planning in the world can’t solve this problem. The biggest tip I have to give? Stop buying big.
“But wait, Linds, that’s crazy!” you say. “Buy big, save money, right?” That’s what mass media and advertising have led us to believe. Couple that with the money-saving advice our families gave us growing up, cookbooks and their “stocked pantry” suggestions, and our once-a-week-shopping-trip-giant-refrigerator culture in the United States, and we’ve set up schemas that place “value” on buying big. (Literally. These products sometimes have “value” right on the label!) It’s true if you’re a family of four, or even if you share food with a roommate, but as a single-chef, I’ve found this couldn’t be further from the truth. When I was buying for “value,” I was wasting gobs of food–and therefore money–and that was not okay by me. There’s a better way, my friends!
The better way being shopping smaller, more often. Because, let’s face it, you’re a consumption department of one, which can make it hard to manage refrigerator turn-over. This is especially true when it comes to fresh items and produce. Ask the folks in your grocery store if they can even cut things or sell things in smaller portions for you. Seriously, go do it. Hunt around your local store, and I guarantee you’ll find what you want in smaller quantities. That giant bag of baby carrots? For the love of god, put it down, and go find the bulk carrot section. Remember how I said earlier I go to the store 2-3 times a week? Not only does it allow me to build flexibility into my food week, but it also addresses this issue. I’d rather make a conservative consumption estimation and have to return to the store mid-week than buy more than I need and be wasteful. To help out during particularly busy weeks, and to save a buck since buying fresh can be pricey, I’ve also become a big fan of frozen. I’ll keep bags of veggie mixes for my go-tos in the freezer so in a pinch, I’m all set. My favorite has carrots, corn, green beans, lima beans, and peas. Super versatile, I can add this to just about anything—pasta, rice, eggs, beans, Dana’s baller veggie chili recipe—and have a healthy meal at the end. Augment with a fresh onion and a green pepper, and now we’re really cooking.
Buying in smaller quantities like this also got me to reach some of my food goals by helping me introduce new, healthy options into my diet. Instead of going for the giant “value” package, I’d get a smaller size the first time around to see if I liked something. This seems like a no-brainer, but when “big = value” has been drilled into your head for decades, it can be a tough impulse to shake when you’re at the store. The bulk aisle is great for this too, where they keep all the nuts and build-your-own-trailmix stuff. I like going there and trying different things to expand my all important snack repertoire. That way, if I don’t like it, I’m not stuck slogging through it forever, or worse, giving up the fight and pitching it prematurely. Forwarding food goals, saving food and money… And all you have to do is go to the store one more time a week and be more mindful while you’re there. See? Easy.
Now that you’re exhausted from picking all of that crap out, time to get cooking! Which, in case you haven’t figured it out by now, is far from my favorite thing. My point being that I want to be healthy and eat well as much as the next person, but man do I ever want to make it easy on myself. When I do cook, I try to make it count. Economics, right? Every time I cook, I make enough for later, whether it’s one later or many laters. Let’s say I’m making my pasta and roasted veggies. Whether it’s enough for tonight or enough for the week, I’m still washing that same pot I used to cook my pasta. May as well make the whole box and save my future self some valuable time.
That said, I mentioned balance earlier, and it comes into play here too. There is such a thing as too many leftovers. I know you know what I’m talking about, single-chefs out there. Where there is just no frigging way you can eat that again, or it all goes bad too quickly. There’s a zen middle ground to this process, and again, it all comes down to being realistic about how much food you need in order to function as an adult. For myself, I’ve found that halving recipes is a godsend. That problem about food being packaged for not-so-single-chefs holds true for recipes too. They often yield way too much for single-chef me to go through on my own. Cutting a recipe in half though is a cinch and an easy way to manage the fridge turn-over problem. Buying less to make less to have less leftover, but still having food on hand to feed your hungry self? That’s a whole lot of weird fuzzy math, but it’s worked out in my favor.
Speaking of economics, exercise this in your kitchen too. I recommend doing an equipment assessment to make sure you’re set up for the kind of single-chef food life you want. Do you have everything you need to make easy, healthy meals? Like a good non-stick pan, for instance. I invested in a ceramic one last year, and I have to say, it’s kind of my favorite thing. Beyond that, what do you need? That will all depend on your personal tastes and style of cooking. Things I regularly use:
- ceramic non-stick pan
- small pot (like for boiling pasta, eggs, and the like)
- big pot (for making soup and chili and stuff)
- baking sheets (for roasting — and cookies, let’s be honest)
- Pyrex mixing bowls, 4 sizes
- heavy metal garlic press
- measuring spoons/cups
- rubber spatula
- wooden spoon
- slotted spoon
- veggie peeler
- mid-sized cutting board
- a good knife
There is other stuff in my kitchen, but at the end of the day, this is really all I need to make the food I want in my life, and I’ve since become a stakeholder in it. I’ve surrounded myself with kitchen basics that make me happy and don’t make me groan with frustration while I’m using them. It’s stupid how much this has improved my cooking existence. Gone is the tiny cutting board without enough room for chopped veggies and the dull knife that couldn’t cut through anything. It was a bit of an investment at times, and yeah, it feels like a whole lot of #firstworldproblems, and it is, but these are things that hit my counter every single day. Bottom line for me is, if it’s something that I hate using or that takes extra effort, I’ll avoid it. And cooking for myself as a single-chef already feels like a lot of effort to me. So, I gave myself a pass. Being the single-chef in your kitchen, take advantage of that. Consider your lifestyle and personal priorities. You are the one person using this stuff day in and day out. It should be set up to help you reach your goals. Save up. Ask for your birthday. Invest in those few items you really need in your kitchen, and cooking for yourself is suddenly a little less awful. As you level up and your needs change, you can always add to your equipment entourage.That’s all well and good, Linds, but how do you keep it going day after day? I mean, this is the $64,000 question, right? How do you, single-chef, find the motivation to continue to do all of this as a family of one? My answer is that food is only one piece of this puzzle. Your mealtime strategy should fit your single-human life outside of the context of the kitchen. Mealtime is not a lonely island. What is your food trying to accomplish? What are you trying to accomplish with your meal-planning?
For me, food equals fuel and performance. I’ve been training Brazilian jiu-jitsu for about two-and-a-half years, and after some significant time off the mats, I’m getting back into it in a big way. I’ve never competed before, and I want to push myself and make it to a tournament this year. My sport takes a lot of energy. It’s important for me to feed my body if I want to be on top of what little game I have and I’m very cognizant of that. Plus, eating better just means I feel better. My mind is clearer. I feel more at home in my body. I know this from trial and error, of repeatedly falling into habits of cutting corners one too many times. We all need a break now and again, but I want my breaks to be exceptions, not the rule. To create a rule, I’ve had to set myself up for success with food, to make it as easy as possible to fit food in and among the many other things I love to do in my life. Because that is what I can realistically commit to. Structuring my mealtime around the larger goal of wanting to be clear and confident helps motivate me in those times when I just don’t feel like it.
You’ll notice I didn’t include anything specific to my weight or shape in this, and that’s not to say those aren’t noble goals. If those are important to your food goals, that is awesome! But I want to challenge you to dig deeper. Where do those weight-specific goals come from? Is it so you can be more engaged in your sport? Live a generally more active lifestyle? Give the finger to diabetes? Tap into what’s underneath and what’s true to you. Use it as a touchstone. You have the time, and you have the ability to do all of this. It’s just about getting yourself to do it sometimes when you don’t want to. For me, it’s knowing for sure that the “blegh” I feel in the future isn’t worth the bit of time I save in the moment. Because I’ve felt both things over and over again, and I always come to the same conclusion. I go back to that place and remember how sluggish I felt at work or at play when I wasn’t treating my body right. Seeing it has helped me believe it, and that’s what makes me light the burners on my range.When Dana asked me to write this blog post, she came to me to look at the single-chef problem of quick grabs and bad habits between career and hobbies, challenge the mindset of “It’s just me, so what’s the point?” when it came to cooking at mealtime. But that is exactly the point. As a single-chef (and as anyone really, no matter the size of your household) you are your first priority. We’re the one true thing we have. Don’t we owe it to ourselves and the people we love to honor that through feeding our bodies in a way that makes us our best selves?
Food isn’t an isolated incident; food is what fuels your life. You should create a mealtime strategy that fits the life you want to make. And as a single-chef, you have the complete freedom to make that life look however you want!
I’d like to acknowledge the people and resources that have in some way significantly contributed to my mealtime philosophy journey: My sister Jolee M., my parents, Jake & Kieran L., Cinse B., Matt M., Ian T., Mike L., Dana S., the city of Rochester, the city of Burlington, Ottolenghi, and the authors of Thug Kitchen. Special thank-you to Dana for this opportunity, her yummy recipes, and primo friendship. <3!
All stock photos in this post are from https://unsplash.com.
And now, let me suggest some recipes to get you started!
Killing Thyme recipes that should be brought up on charges:
- Vegetarian Chili (Please note, I entered this veggie chili in a contest and WON, so there’s that.)
- Panko Crusted Tilapia
Tried-and-True Solutions to the Lunch Problem:
Get the Recipe:
Roasted Veggies with Pasta (a la Ian)
- Veggies, Seriously, use whatever you want. Use whatever you’ll eat. Experiment. Best results have been with brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, butternut squash. Mix and match, shoot for three. As far as quantities, put your training to the test. Typical example for me would be 1 large broccoli crown, 2-3 carrots, 15ish sprouts. It all depends on how big all of this stuff is and what you feel like, right? Use your best judgment. Pro tip: If you wanted to do something like try brussels sprouts, just buy like 3 of those suckers loose from the store and add them to your roasted veggie pile. Then you’ll know for next time!
- Olive oil
- Pasta, again, whatever you want/whatever you’ll eat
- Baking sheet/pan/whatever, a flat oven-safe surface for roasting
- Tin foil, if you’re like me and hate doing dishes
- A large pot
- Preheat oven to 425°F (or as high as it will go before your smoke detector goes off)
- Chop the veggies. Use that good knife you just bought and the cutting board you like. I like to chunk my veggies for pretty big bites. Plus, they’ll shrink a little in the oven. Also, bigger pieces equals less chopping.
- Somewhere in here, start boiling the water for your pasta. Does anyone ever use as much water as indicated on the box? I just fill the pot until it won’t boil over and call it a day. By the way, why does boiling water always take forever?
- Put tin foil down on your roasting pan to save yourself some dish time. Spread your chopped veggies over the pan in a single layer.
- Drizzle olive oil lightly over the veggies. Shake some salt and pepper on them to your taste. Stir it all around on the pan so they’re lightly coated. You could do this in a bowl, but I do it on the pan, because dishes.
- Stick the pan with the veggies in the oven. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
- Hopefully by now, the water for your pasta is boiling. Dump the entire box into the pot. Follow the directions on the box.
- Has it been 10 minutes? Stir the veggies around a little. Set the timer for 10 minutes again.
- Drain the pasta. Add a little olive oil so it doesn’t stick. Transfer to a big bowl and let it hang out.
- Take out the veggies. Pour them over the pasta. Mix everything together. Maybe add a little extra salt and pepper for good measure.
- If you want to get fancy, grate a hard cheese like asiago over that deliciousness, or sprinkle some sundried tomatoes in there.
Get the Recipe:
Lunch Problem Soup
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- a small onion
- 2-3 carrots
- 2-3 stalks of celery
- 2 large zucchinis
- fresh garlic, to your taste, I use like 4 cloves because I’m a nut
- 2 tsp thyme
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 28 oz can diced tomatoes, the really big can
- 1 c chicken broth, pro tip: Look for the little containers in the natural food aisles. They often have certain brands in packs of four 1 c containers. Best invention ever for the single-chef.
- 1 c water
MATERIALSa big pot
- Dice the onion, carrots, and celery.
- Put your pot over low-medium heat (like 3-4 on your oven knob). Put in the olive oil. Swirl it around a little to coat the bottom. Throw in the onion, carrots, and celery. (Also known as a mirepoix. Yeah, you didn’t know you were going to be getting an education up in here, did you?)
- While those veggies are starting, dice the zucchini, stirring the veggies in the pot around occasionally. I find that the amount of time it takes me to dice the zucchini is perfect for getting the other veggies where they need to be. Once the zucchini is diced, put it in there. Stir everything around. Let it hang out for a few minutes.
- While the veggies are hanging out, get ready to add the garlic. (Tip for peeling, put the garlic under the flat of your knife and give it a whack with the heel of your palm. Stubborn skin comes right off.) I like to crush mine in my garlic press because I find it faster/easier, but you can mince it or do whatever you want. Stir things around some more, let it sit for another minute.
- Add your thyme, paprika, salt, and pepper. More stirring, more brief episodes of hanging out. You can also play around with the spices as you get to know your personal cooking tastes better.
- Add the diced tomatoes, chicken stock, and water. Bring to a boil.
- Once it’s come to a boil, turn the heat back down to a simmer (which will depend on the size of your pot, your stove’s temperament, etc. Bubbles should still be kind of forming, but only a little bit.) I usually salt and pepper a little again at this point.
- Cover and let it do its thing for 20 minutes. You can stir occasionally if it makes you feel extra chef-like.
- Serve yourself a bowl, because you earned it. Put the rest in the fridge. Healthy lunch all week long! No canned soups for us, no sir.