Mastering the Joy of Cooking for One
Because you can’t survive on cookies alone. A chef’s guide to the art of cooking solo.
Cooking is a labor of love. One that is best when shared with others over conversation and experiences. Food brings people together, comforts, and creates lasting memories.
But these days, with many of us spending much of our time alone, it’s easy to fall into the trap of endless snacking to replace a balanced meal.
It starts with good intentions.
A kitchen stocked with healthy supplies and new recipes planned for the week. But when dinner is a party of one, the simple task of a balanced meal becomes a heroic measure.
Dinner looks more like scrambled eggs four nights in a row, mindlessly spooning peanut butter from jar to mouth, or balancing a plate of cookies with a glass of milk.
The simple joy of cooking is a challenge when it’s a solo event. Creating a lavish meal gets put on the back burner when there’s no one to share the creation or to tackle the mountain of dishes piling up.
With no sous chef, no prep cook, and no dishwasher, it means you're in for a lot of work. And after a full day of actual work, who really wants to add another task to their to-do list?
But we can’t survive on cookies alone, despite what our inner child says.
It’s time to get back on your cooking game and show yourself some much-needed love. Here are a few simple tips that will turn the struggle into a balanced, wholesome, and rewarding feast.
Keep it Simple with Staples
The key to mastering solo cooking is simplicity. By stocking your kitchen with go-to staples you can build a balanced meal faster than you can burn toast. You won't have to buy fancy ingredients or even follow a recipe.
Here’s a simple formula I follow.
A hearty base + protein + sauce = dinner done.
The satiating sustenance needed to feel like you’ve had a complete meal. Whatever you like or falls within your diet du jour. Below is a list of my favorites:
Grains & Startches
Rice - brown, jasmine, black
Fast cooking grain/beans - quinoa, lentils
Pasta - whole wheat, lentil, or chickpea, gluten-free options made from quinoa, buckwheat, or rice
Sweet potatoes, regular potatoes,
Winter squash like spaghetti squash, butternut, delicata
Cauliflower everything - regular, rice, and pizza crusts
Broccoli, Brussels, cabbage
Zucchini, eggplant, peppers, mushrooms
Most grocery stores now sell grains like rice and quinoa already cooked in the frozen section. Even vegetables can be found in the freezer section, like sweet potatoes, squash, cauliflower rice, and broccoli.
The freezer is your friend. Most of these ingredients when cooked fresh require additional cooking time. Frozen versions are the perfect solution when you are not into meal planning.
Frozen vegetables are often of higher nutritional quality than their fresh counterpart.
They can save you money and minimize waste. You can avoid throwing away another rotting vegetable you had high hopes to cook but ultimately, forgot about.
Protein reigns king in keeping you full and satisfied. But protein can be intimidating to the novice cook. Buying a four-pack of chicken breast means you’ll be stuck eating chicken every night or end up tossing money in the garbage. Here’s my advice
Chicken - breast or thighs usually come packed with 3-4 portions inside. When I buy chicken, I remove it from the package, wash and dry it and then wrap each individual piece in plastic wrap and immediately freeze it. I leave out the one or two pieces I know I will use and save the rest for another day or week.
Fish - frozen fish typically comes pre-portioned in individual serving sizes and makes a perfect one-person meal. I find frozen fish to be fresher than what you get at the fish counter since often it is flash-frozen right on the boat after it’s caught. And the truth is your fresh fish, was probably frozen as well. Skip the line at the counter and buy from the freezer.
Ground turkey, beef, lamb, or chicken - This protein isone of the most solo-friendly meals. It’s affordable, fast cooking and can transform based on the way you season it. If you’re into meal prep, you can cook it all off at once only seasoning with salt and pepper, and have your protein for the week. You add variety by using different sauces and seasonings to make it feel like you’re having something different.
Eggs - these tiny superfoods are the perfect staple for personal cooking, but you don’t have to limit yourself to the lazy scrambled or hard-boiled eggs every night. The possibilities are endless and I have an upcoming post devoted to eggs. Eggs are cheap, individualized, and have a relatively long shelf life.
Variety is the spice of life, but don’t think you have to be a Food Network Chef to make creative and different meals for yourself. Ditch the overcomplicated recipes and make it easy on yourself.
Below are the basic store-bought sauces, I always have on hand.
Tomato sauce - not just for pasta, tomato sauce is rich in umami flavor that adds a layer of depth to your meal. A spoonful mixed into rice or quinoa can be a total game-changer.
Soy sauce - another flavor bomb, goes beyond just sushi. Soy sauce is great as a base in marinades or sauces to bring out all the right flavors.
Sesame oil - this oil offers a lotta bang for your buck, meaning you don’t need much for a ton of flavor. Sesame oil adds a nutty flavor that can be overpowering if you use too much, but just a little can take your simple scrambled eggs into a 5-star feast.
Tahini - A sesame seed paste that can be made into a miracle sauce with limited ingredients. All you need is tahini, lemon, water, salt, and whisk and you have a rich sauce that will add depth to any dish. If you’re feeling fancy, add a touch of sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic powder or mix it with your tomato sauce for a unique gourmet treat. This is my go-to and I pretty much drizzle it on everything
Olive oil - Do me a favor, buy high-quality extra virgin olive oil. It’s worth it. Quality olive oil can do more for your food than any store-bought dressing.
Vinegar - Red wine, balsamic, champagne - any kind you like. Acid wakes up the tastes buds and gets your mouth ready to enjoy the delicious meal you just prepared yourself.
If you’re feeling slightly ambitious, check out these easy sauces that don’t require much effort but offer a maximum reward.
Forget Meal Prep, Embrace Mise En Place
Meal Prep. Those words make me cringe. There's no faster way to give up your dinner pursuit than bore you to death.
The first thing you learn as a chef, is the term mise en place, the French term for everything in its place. This foundational principle teaches cooks to properly set themselves up for fast-paced cooking, where accuracy is required and mistakes are unforgivable.
Mise en place front-loads your efforts, making the execution flawless and more important, fun. It lets you focus on the creating rather than the overwhelm and worry of what comes next.
Here's what mise en place means:
Organize - whether using a recipe or just an idea, review and gather all the ingredients, equipment, utensils, and anything else you will need to prepare the dish. I like to have different bowls or containers for each ingredient once it's prepped.
Prep - you want to make sure you wash, peel, chop, cut, dice, slice, mix, blend. You are taking every ingredient to the step right before the actual cooking. When it comes time to cook - that is all you have to worry about.
Set up - this is where the bowls mentioned above come into play. After you've diced your onions or whatever vegetables, place them in a bowl and have them within reach to easily throw into your pan when you start cooking. Follow suit with the rest of your ingredients. Don't forget essentials like cooking oils, salt, pepper, spices. Rundown your list again and make sure you didn't forget anything. Check your equipment, too. You don't want to start cooking and have to turn the heat off to grab a spoon to stir the burning pan. You want everything in sight and in reach.
Execute - Now you're prepped, set up, and ready to make a delicious dish. The most important thing here is to taste every step of the way. Don't trust your recipe. Every time you add something, taste it. This will help you develop your sense for cooking.
Simple. I watch so many get frustrated and overwhelmed simply because they didn't have their mise en place together.
Don't Be Afraid to Make Mistakes
Cooking is a skill. There is no magic recipe, no secret sauce. The key to becoming a better cook is practice and learning from your mistakes.
Recipes are guidelines, not rules. Even if they were, rules are meant to be broken. Don’t get flustered if you are missing an ingredient or don’t know what julienne is. This is where you get to be creative. Trust your gut and try something else in its place or skip it altogether. You will never learn if you don’t fail.
Trust me, in ten years of cooking professionally, there have been way more misses than there have been hits. The failures teach you what to do differently next time. They get you closer to your masterpiece.
Clean as you go
This will save you from yourself and the endless dishes piling in the sink. It’s so simple, yet so overlooked. But will keep you from ruining your night with a sinkful of dishes.
Don’t leave the mess for the end. It will spoil your dinner you worked so hard on and leave a lasting impression that cooking for yourself is too much work. When you simply wash what you use throughout your process, clean up becomes a breeze. Plus, you have a clean workspace, which will keep you from getting overwhelmed and let you focus on your task, dinner.
I get it, you're burnt out. The ambitious days of pandemic-induced-stress-baking banana bread and sourdough, are long gone.
But it's time to bring back the OG self-care routine and find joy once again in cooking. And when life goes back to whatever normal maybe, you'll be able to wow everyone with your new-found skills.