Shopping and Cooking Frugally for One

Truth: There are lots of great books on cooking for one, but not a single one on how to grocery-shop effectively for a household of one!

It can’t be denied — cooking for one is a tricky thing. It seems like a lot of work for only a single meal. Dishes made, serving sizes to be determined, and usually too many leftovers. Besides, after all that cooking, you don’t typically have someone else to wash dishes.

I spoke with DebtKid (who prefers to use this alias for privacy reasons, but you can read his story at We compared our single-days experiences. We both seem to remember regular standby meals. For DebtKid, it was Hamburger Helper. For me, frozen taquitos. We’re both pretending that we supplemented this nutritional catastrophe with fresh fruit and vegetables…

In later years, I widened my repertoire with a handy (and also) broke neighbor. As newlyweds, we both cooked for one plus the fridge and traded ideas. Sometimes we even traded entire meals—we’d both made our dinners only to discover we were tired of them, so we simply swapped. My husband worked shifts rarely allowing for a meal together, and her husband was deployed at the time.

Libby (and all of our single-dwelling friends), there is hope! A key technique is to have a bit of a food routine, but not so much routine that you go trading your dinners with the neighbors.

Automate one or two meals a day if you can, leveraging some staple foods.

Here Are Some Things to Always Have On-Hand

Pantry Fridge Freezer
Canned black beans Chopped cooked bacon (cook weekly) Soup stock in small containers
Canned garbanzo beans Eggs Shredded cheese (freeze on a cookie sheet, and then pour into a zipper bag)
Potatoes Salad spinach: wash weekly and chop and store in mason jars in the refrigerator. (And if the spinach is getting long in the tooth, simply pour it into a bag in the freezer) Chopped onions. Chop them at home, freeze them on a cookie sheet, and then store in a freezer bag. They get mushy, but it doesn’t matter much for cooking/soup.
Canned tuna or salmon Corn tortillas (can also be frozen) Old bananas. If you have a banana too spotted to eat during the week, just put it in the freezer for later use in banana bread. (You can freeze it right in the peel, unwrapped).
Pasta Oils. Oils in the pantry can become rancid if they don’t get used fairly quickly. Keep them in the fridge to prolong their life, and you can make it a little safer by adding a vitamin E tablet to the oil. Pantry items like flour or popcorn, which can develop cancer-causing freeradicals if not used promptly. Freezing slows the aging process.
Canned chili Larger quantity items like tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, milk, heavy cream, or soup stocks frozen in ice-cube trays and poured into in plastic freezer bags.



Mason jar salads. This site has a number of clever salads made in Mason Jars. The jars keep the greens fresh—just put your dressing in first, and shake it right before serving!

Potatoes. You can bake a whole bunch of them in the oven or a crock pot. (For crock pot, scrub the potatoes, and poke holes in them with a fork, then coat in butter or wrap in foil and place in the crock pot for 8 hours on low or 4 hours on high). Leftover baked potatoes should live in the refrigerator. They can be topped with chili and cottage cheese, bacon and cheese, cheese and broccoli, salsa, or even this clever recipe for egg/bacon potato breakfast boats. (I’m trying this tomorrow!)

Eggs: Fried, scrambled, poached, boiled, or baked inside a potato (as above). You can top some canned black beans, rice and avocado with a fried egg for a quick juevos rancheros. Egg in a basket is a quick and easy dish for one (or more) simply cut a hole in a piece of bread with a glass or cookie cutter. Grease a frying pan, and put the toast in on a medium temperature. After a few seconds, add an egg into the hole. And let it cook, then flip it over and cook the other side.

Chicken: Now with a family, I seldom buy a whole prepared chicken. We typically buy two raw ones, and roast them at once. But in a one-or-two person household, I’d do this in an instant! Many supermarkets offer a whole fryer chicken pre-seasoned and cooked (often available in several seasonings). Buy one per week, and split the meat between salads, main meals, and then make a stock from the bones, adding leftover vegetables, or potatoes and leeks and freeze in individual portions for later use or lunches for work.

Produce: Buy spinach instead of lettuce. It does double-duty in the fridge and freezer. If it’s in danger of spoiling—keep a big zipper bag in the freezer and add your fresh spinach to it. For avocados, use , and leave the seed in the remaining half and spritz with lemon or vinegar before refrigerating to use the next day. Buy apples and oranges in the amount that you can use. Apples, pears, squashes, zucchini and the like all freeze well if you can’t use them all. You can puree or shred into ice cube trays and use in baking (especially bran muffins!) Many foods can be chopped, frozen on trays, and then put into bags. (I do this during the summer with bell peppers, and use them year-round from the freezer). Fresh ginger can be kept in the freezer—just use a cheese grater and grate the amount you want into your cooking. Cook hearty greens that freeze well. Collards are great when boiled with ginger and garlic or bacon and brown sugar. Leftovers freeze and store well.

Meats: Don’t be afraid to ask the butcher to downsize your order. Order 1-2 salmon steaks instead of the whole fish (or order the whole fish, have them cut it in steaks and freeze it separately—when packed properly, salmon freezes well!). You can often find pre-packaged individual steaks in the freezer section. Canned salmon and tuna are great for sandwiches and salads, and the trusty whole-roasted chicken from the deli. Some groceries cater to smaller family sizes and pack accordingly. The Trader Joe’s near me does a great job of packing single-serving size foods. Don’t forget the seafood. You get to do what those of us with larger families only dream of doing…. buy scallops and oysters! Maybe it’s just a Northwestern thing, but I’d need a second mortgage around here to share oysters and scallops with the whole crew. (The kids and I are getting fishing licenses this year though, so we can go crabbing and clamming).

Avoid: Beware of the packed-in-a-cardboard-box convenience foods. They typically aren’t very healthy, and aren’t a good value. If you really love the convenience of a hamburger-noodle casserole in a box, investigate a home-made alternative (this site offers some great home-hacked alternatives). Avoid the takeout every-day routine. Avoid the “I can’t buy anything fresh because I can’t use it all” mindset. Yes, you can use it. With the right techniques for utilizing and preserving, you can use your entire purchase.

Must Haves

Own a toaster oven. You can cook so many things, so much faster, and using less energy. I still have my toaster oven from my single days. Only one button still works, but it’s just what I want when I want to whip up a midnight snack. You can even get “single-sized” bread pans, muffin tins, and cooking pans to make little lasagna, or casserole, without getting a great big dish dirty. It’s perfect for 1-2 servings, and easy to clean up after if you have a tiny kitchen.

Ok readers, time to chime in! Without using a meal-in-a box, how can our single readers eat frugally, and nutritionally?


By , on Jan 2, 2012
Jessica Ward Jessica Ward is a full-time writer and adoptive mom to two wonderful children. She writes to support her parenting/adopting habit. For frugal family tips see The PennyWise Family or @jessc098 and my google+ profile.


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  1. Mun:

    Great tips! I live alone and for a while I’ve tried making a meal for one 3 times a day, but that didn’t work out well. (Too much work + expensive)
    Now I make a huge meal that I can eat up over 2-3 days. On weekends I cook ‘real food’ -meaning I’m not freezing it- so I feel better about myself :D

  2. shane:

    a toaster oven? really? do we live in a trailer park? there are way more efficient ways of cooking for one.

  3. Barb:

    HI there, just found your blog in my explorations, but I would simply suggest (as a single early retiree), that I still cook for four, most of the time. I simply freeze those meals. Granted, I do on occasion get the rotissery chicken, and buy individual frozen breasts. But I like to eat, and feed myself, a part time college student (who is six foot six) and hungry dogs on a couple hundred a week. by that i mean hes here part time. In the past week I have had chili, homeade beef stew, you name it. Granted, you need some kind of freezer space to do this well………..

  4. Kathy:

    I still use my toaster oven on occasion for small quick things. We had to stay in a motel for a few months….3 of us….and we did ALOT of meals in this. Also made good use of my crock pot and my little 1 burner hot plate.

  5. TJ:

    Invest in a small upright freezer. Too easy to lose things in chest freezers. Crockpot is essential (3.5 – 4 quart). Also invest in a vacuum sealer for food. Buy meats (ground beef, pork, chicken breast, steaks, etc.) in bulk on discount days and vacuum seal it in portions and freeze. Cook regular sized recipes in crockpot and freeze it in portions. Plastic or glass containers with lids work great. Cook meatballs, vacuum seal & freeze. Cook some ground beef (some fine and some coursely cooked) and vacuum seal it for use in soups and chili. Form and freeze uncooked mini hamburger patties (about the size of a meatball), but be careful if you vacuum seal as it can squish them out of shape. Remember to write dates on everything!

  6. Rebecca:

    lol Libby – you can totally do it. I’ve made some of the recipes and I am the WORST cook — and somehow, somehow, I managed to actually make a decent meal!

  7. Libby:

    Thanks so very much, Jessica! And, Rebecca, I just ‘liked’ the Lonely Gourmet Facebook page. Wish me luck on my attempt at eating something other than bread and cheese while standing over the sink:-)

  8. I think the problem with eating pantry items is what I call “sad single person eating” — where you eat, and you’re full, but you’re not satisfied. I find that I HIGHLY prefer to freeze lunch-sized portions of leftovers than to eat just a piece of cheese and some turkey meat.

  9. Pam:

    Love the spinach tip. Because it’s hard to buy lettuce for 1 person for the week without it starting to wilt and getting tossed. But by buying spinach, I won’t have to toss it, but can use it later for a cooked side dish or in soup.
    And a toaster oven is on my list to buy after I move into my own place again.

  10. Allison:

    I am single, and am a big fan of the cooked rotisserie chicken, especially since I found a place that sells them for $4.99 apiece, comparied to other stores that sell them for $6.99 and more. I use it for recipes mostly, such as chicken and rice, or chicken noodle soup. Call different stores and see if anyone has a deal like that.

    This might sound a bit odd, but I found a deal on steaks & other meats by going to a local meat processing place. I can buy about 10 steaks for $25. They are already frozen and in a nice compact box, which doesn’t take up a lot of room in the freezer.

    At all costs, avoid the dry sandwich on a paper plate in front of the TV routine. It is depressing. Or maybe that’s just me.

  11. Glenda:

    Soups. stews, and chili are great because many of them freeze really well. Make one, freeze in 2-serving containers, do a different recipe next week and after 4 weeks you’ll have another 4 months of variety! I also love my George Foreman grill and use it for chicken breasts, pork chops, burgers, hot dogs..I can do just 1 or do 4 and use the rest for sandwiches or to reheat over the next day or two.

    • Jessica:

      Oh yes! We gave away our forman grill when we became a family of 4, but yes indeed, DH and I both relied on those!

  12. Angelsong:

    In your section on potatoes, I think you have the cooking time reversed for the crockpot baked potatoes. Should it read, “four hours on high, and 8 hours on low”?

    Some people may find it easier to cook slightly larger meals, and it is often possible to freeze the extra food in single meal sized portions; this is even better when you don’t have much time for cooking, or for days when you don’t feel well.

    To your Must Have list, I would add a blender and a microwave oven, at least one cast iron skillet and a small dutch oven, as well
    as a set of good quality knives. A hand mixer is also helpful.

    Don’t forget that there are many good recipe sites on the internet, and you can also search for “make your own” recipes instead of buying packaged and over-processed foods and mixes.

    For the inexperienced cook, a good cookbook with “how-to” guides is a good investment.

    • Jessica:

      Thanks for catching that. Will fix!

  13. Rather than modify the recipies that my family used at home (family of 5) I simply froze the remainder. My freezer was full of hearty meals and all I had to do was warm them up. Beware, it’s best to do this with a few different meals at a time or you’ll end up eating hotdish every day for a week!

  14. Now if you really want an idea – write this up as a little download for college kids. And is there a way to get a copy of the list someplace? Hell I still use most of those. Oh, and the toaster oven and I were buddies for many years. I still miss mine now and then because a full size oven takes much more time on things (brownie in a mug, or tuna melts)

    • Jessica:

      Hrmmm…. now you’ve got me thinking on some e-book potential. :)

  15. I think rice is great for one person along with cabbage and beans

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