“Cooking for yourself is simply a matter of self respect.”
— Nigel Slater, British food journalist
A 2020 economic report from the University of Oxford says the number of one-person households in the United States has nearly doubled in the past 50 years. Influences driving this growing trend include changing lifestyles, income, and freedom of choice.
Since the pandemic began, single cooks have been preparing most of their meals at home. Some have cooking fatigue and say mealtimes feel like Groundhog Day; they are in a rut eating the same foods over and over. Too often, dinner is takeout or a bowlful of popcorn or cold cereal. A steady diet of make-do meal solutions can take a toll on happiness and good health.
The quick-scratch approach to cooking offers a better balance by combining fresh ingredients with shelf-stable pantry items. The meals are often healthier than in a restaurant since portion sizes, salt, and fat can be controlled.
Organization is the key to overcoming unexpected challenges in meal planning, grocery shopping, and scaling recipes. First, make a shopping list of ingredients for meals that will stretch over the course of a week or more. This helps cut down on impulse buying and minimizes waste. Cooking will be quick and easy if everything you need is close at hand.
Stock the Larder
Consumer product companies are catering to singles with smaller food packages, single-serving options, and shrinking household appliances. Due to coronavirus concerns, prepackaged produce has become a popular grab-and-go item. Options for handpicking produce include shopping at farmer’s markets, organic-focused grocery stores, roadside markets, and ethnic food shops. Solo cooks often gravitate toward premium items as a healthier option or indulgence. Specialty butcher shops and full-service supermarket counters sell higher-end cuts of meat and seafood plus value-added items (marinated, seasoned, stuffed) for convenience.
Pandemic stockpiling fostered new appreciation for the well-organized pantry — an indispensable space for the single cook whether it’s a walk-in or a kitchen cabinet. Meal preparation can be simplified by pairing pantry essentials with fresh foods, which are the building blocks of quick-scratch cooking. Foundational dry staples include items like beans, grains, and pasta; buy small amounts in grocery bulk isles. Pantry staples can include sauces, sustainably caught tuna, soup starters, canned tomatoes, condiments, oils, dried spices, and herbs. A well-stocked pantry can inspire creative cooking even when the cook lacks the energy or time.
Savvy solo cooks use shortcuts that might be a little more costly but worthwhile. Cut-up vegetables and ready-to-eat items from salad bars, condiment bars, and delis reduce preparation time and waste. Many self-serve food bars currently offer prepackaged items due to the pandemic. Lowes Foods offers Pick & Prep services. Select your fruits and vegetables, and they will be cut up according to your request while you continue to shop.
Flash-frozen fruits and vegetables can help jump-start recipes. Make frozen flavor cubes for cooking by filling the wells of a flexible ice cube tray with stock, leftover wine (8 cubes equal one cup), lemon juice, tomato sauce, pesto, or chopped herbs in water. Pop out the frozen cubes; package for freezer storage. Before baking a meatloaf mixture, freeze portions in a jumbo muffin pan. Form smaller packages of bacon each with two or three slices. Cake batter that is oil-based or made by the creaming method can be frozen. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator; bake cold for the best rise. Think of the freezer as short-term storage; rotate foods in and out quickly for optimum freshness.
It’s smart to cook more than a single serving to accumulate “planned-overs” — a trendy term for leftovers. Freeze extra servings for later or repurpose them into a delicious, new dish. One recipe of a cooked staple ingredient like quinoa or rice can be divided up for use into two or three dishes.
Sometimes less is more. Scaling down recipes means using fewer ingredients and smaller-scale equipment and adjusting cooking times. Most savory recipes can be reduced in size by one-half or more. An extra pinch of this or that won’t hurt and can add a new flavor dimension. Converting large recipes to a single serving can be tricky; the dish might not turn out as expected. Embrace the leftovers!
A solo baker may want a few cookies to fill a small plate — not the entire cookie jar, or just enough cake to satisfy a sweet tooth. Baking is more precise than cooking; measurable scientific principles are at play. Recipes for items like cookies, butter cakes, and muffins can be reduced, but the kitchen math must be accurate whether measuring by weight or volume. To help determine when foods are cooked, depend on visual and sensory clues like color, texture, and aroma. Baking requires careful attention to detail.
Batterie de Cuisine
Small-batch baking and cooking for one requires a few pieces of smaller-scale kitchenware. A 6.5-inch cast iron skillet (fits a toaster oven) and an 8-inch ovenproof skillet are a good start. Small amounts of batter or dough won’t combine well in a stand mixer; use an electric hand mixer plus a deep, 1½ quart mixing bowl. Polar Ware’s ¼ size, sturdy baking sheet is just the right size; parchment paper will prevent sticking.
Consider one 6 by 2-inch round cake pan (holds 2 cups batter); ovenproof ramekins; mini loaf pans; or 4-inch springform pans for cheesecake or deep-dish pizza. High-quality, durable equipment delivers consistent results. Think “outside the pan,” and use empty 8-inch or 14-inch food cans for baking or cooking. A mug is handy for microwaving a single portion of cake.
Explore cookbooks and websites focused on cooking and baking for one, and then experiment with recipes that appeal to your taste. Even if you mess up, you’ll learn something. Solo cooking can be a meditative experience, bring a sense of mindfulness, and make you a better cook.
Caramel Applesauce Cake in a Mug
Cake in a mug is a quick fix if you only want a single serving. This microwave recipe takes less than 10 minutes to make. I use a classic, white, microwave-proof coffee mug that holds 15 to 16 ounces of liquid. When the cake is done, the mug will be about ⅔ full, leaving plenty of room for a topping of ice cream (vanilla, apple pie, or rum raisin); a drizzle of caramel sauce, preferably homemade; and toasted pecan or walnut pieces. (Batter can be divided between two 10 to 12-ounce mugs. Microwave separately; if necessary, add or reduce a few seconds of cooking time.) Recipe can be doubled; use two mugs. I have a recipe for homemade “Oven Caramel Sauce” in the December 2019 issue of Columbia Metropolitan Magazine.
6 level tablespoons (¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons) all-purpose flour, such as Gold Medal
¼ cup packed brown sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon baking soda
⅛ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 pitted prunes or dates, finely chopped, or 1 tablespoon currants
2 tablespoons applesauce
2 tablespoons water
3½ teaspoons safflower or light olive oil
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon cider vinegar
Coat the mug inside lightly with vegetable spray. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, spices, baking soda, and salt; stir in prunes. Combine remaining ingredients in a bowl, then stir into flour mixture until well blended. Cook on high power about 1 minute 50 seconds. (If necessary, adjust the time slightly for a few seconds depending on the age and power wattage of your microwave. My test oven was a GE compact with 700 microwave watts.)
Cake top won’t brown and will be springy, not doughy, when gently pressed. It is done if a toothpick comes out clean when inserted. Remove mug with a potholder; cool about 5 minutes, then top with ice cream, caramel sauce, and a sprinkle of nuts. Recipe © Susan Slack