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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Your Complete Guide to Cooking for One

You know the story: It’s late, you just got home from work, you’re alone, and you have zero desire to pull out your pots and pans to make dinner for yourself. 

But before you reach for that box of neon orange mac and cheese (or organic white cheddar—don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s better for you), just wait a second: Cooking for one isn’t as bad as it sounds. One shopping trip to pick up the essentials, and from here on out, you can have a delicious dinner on the table (or couch) in no time.

First: Stock Your Pantry

For starters, make sure your pantry is stocked with the basics.

  • Grains (pasta, brown rice, quinoa)
  • Low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock
  • Canned beans (garbanzo beans, kidney beans, black beans)
  • Canned tomatoes (diced, whole, pureed)
  • Nuts (pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, cashews)
  • Dried fruit (dried cherries, cranberries, apricots)
  • Nut butter (peanut, almond, sunflower)
  • Herbs and spices (red pepper flakes, oregano, cumin)
  • Coarse salt
  • Peppercorns

    Fill Your Fridge

    You’d be surprised how long things can last when properly refrigerated. Everything on this list should last a few weeks, at least, but make sure you check the expiration dates at the supermarket.

    • Eggs
    • Butter (Euro-style is best, like Kerrygold)
    • Greek or plain yogurt
    • Milk, cream, or half & half
    • Dijon mustard
    • Ketchup
    • Soy sauce
    • Worcestershire sauce
    • Sriracha
    • Honey (I keep mine in the fridge only because I’ll remember to use it if I see it)
    • Vinegar (white wine, red wine, balsamic, rice, champagne)

      Don’t Forget Your Freezer

      Your freezer can be a haven for lots of delectable ingredients. (It can also be a black hole, though, so make sure you clean it out fairly regularly.)

      • Frozen fruit (strawberries, pineapple, raspberries, mango)
      • Frozen veggies (spinach, corn, onions)
      • Frozen garlic and herb cubes (find them at Trader Joe’s)
      • Bread (fancy-schmancy artisinal, sliced sandwich bread, naan, pita, tortillas)
      • Pre-packaged rice
      • Ice cream (duh, the perfect dessert for one!)

        Write up Your Weekly Grocery List

        This is where you can get creative, and ward off foodie boredom. Mix it up from week to week, so you can try out new combinations of ingredients. And, though it may be tempting, try not to go overboard—you’re cooking for one, not 100!

        • Lemons and/or limes
        • Fresh berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries)
        • Other seasonal fruit (apples, peaches, nectarines, pears, pineapple)
        • Veggies (mushrooms, tomatoes, onion, garlic, zucchini, peppers)
        • Salad lettuces (spinach, romaine, arugula)
        • Herbs (basil, mint, thyme, oregano, cilantro)
        • Cheeses for grating (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Dry Jack)
        • Cheeses for slicing (Cheddar, Swiss, Provolone, Monterey Jack, Gruyere)
        • Fresh cheeses (Ricotta, Mozzarella, Goats Cheese, Feta)
        • Roast chicken
        • Other meat from the meat counter (steak, pork, lamb, sausages)
        • Fresh fish from the fish counter (salmon, ahi, halibut)
        • Pre-made turkey burgers or chicken/steak kabobs

          Bring it All Together

          Now that you have all of the ingredients, prepare to be inspired by the multitude of meals you have on hand! To help get you started, here are seven of my tried and true favorite combos. No long, drawn-out recipes, no enormous lists of ingredients—just easy meals you can put together in the flashiest of flashes (or, well, 30 minutes at the most). I promise you they’ll hit the post-work spot.

          Quick Cherry Tomato-Spinach Pasta

          Cook a handful of pasta as directed, toss with olive oil, cherry tomatoes, spinach, salt, and pepper, then grate some Pecorino or Parmesan on top. If you have meat on hand, throw it in, too—ground turkey or a spicy sausage would make this meal even heartier. No pasta? Rice or quinoa will work just fine.

          Tip: Did you know fresh spinach freezes beautifully? If mine’s on the cusp of going bad, into the freezer it goes, ready to be used later that month in pastas and soups.

          Homemade Asparagus Pizza

          Buy some fresh pizza dough at the store, roll it out super thin using a rolling pin (or wine bottle), and place on an oiled baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, grate some Pecorino Romano on top, then scatter chopped asparagus over the top. Bake at 500 degrees for 15 minutes, so the cheese is bubbling and the crust has browned. Finish with a healthy crack of black pepper.

          Tip: Cut the dough into two pieces when you get home and freeze one half for next time. Use the leftover asparagus (because they always come in massive bundles) as your veggie accompaniment the next night for dinner. Leftover pizza? Perfect for breakfast the next morning with an egg on top.

          Chicken With Everything

          You know those roast chickens they have at virtually every grocery store? They are so, so versatile! Use the chicken breast meat to round out your salads, or just eat it with a squeeze of lemon over the top and a side of veggies. Or, for even more fun, shred the breast with a fork, reheat with some spicy seasoning, and make tasty tacos with shredded cheese and avocados on top.

          Tip: When you bring your chicken home from the store, get the dirty work over with and cut all the juicy meat off the bone—it’s so much easier to do when it’s warm.

          Heirloom Tomato Caprese Salad

          It’s amazing what you can do when you buy top-notch ingredients—sliced heirloom tomatoes and a small container of burrata (an extra creamy mozzarella) quickly becomes dinner when you top with a fruity olive oil and a couple grinds of salt and pepper. Serve with a piece of crusty bread so you can mop up all the juices at the end.

          Tip: Buy an amazing loaf of bread, slice into indivdiual portions, double wrap each portion in foil, and freeze them. You can reheat (from frozen) for 5-10 minutes in the oven whenever you want.

          Simple Stir-Fry

          A stir-fry has to be one of the fastest dishes ever—seriously. Heat your pan, add a spoonful of oil, slice your meat of choice, then add to pan and start cooking. Meanwhile, chop up some veggies, then add to the pan and continue cooking. Once everything’s cooked, sprinkle with soy sauce (and Sriracha!) and serve on top of rice.

          Tip: Foodies may shun me, but I’m all for the pre-packaged cooked rice they sell pretty much everywhere. Punch a couple of holes in the top, stick it in the microwave for a minute or two—voilà! Freshly steamed rice.

          Seared Steak Salad

          Craving steak? This salad is a snap—while you grill your steak to medium-rare, throw together a simple arugula salad (tossed with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper) then shave some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese on top. Use a vegetable peeler or the side of a box grater to create nice long shards.

          Tip: Buy your steak at the meat counter so you get exactly the quantity you need. Also, most grocery stores have bulk salad bins, so you can grab a couple of handfuls of lettuce at a big discount to the pre-bagged mixes.

          Chicken Noodle Soup

          This soup is surprisingly easy to throw together, and it freezes like a dream. Chop one onion, two carrots, and one or two pieces of celery, and saute in a bit of olive oil till soft. Add a carton of chicken stock and bring to a boil, add whatever pasta you have on hand, and cook it as long as you would normally. Season according to taste. Rice, barley, or quinoa will work really well here too. Throw in some lentils or canned tomatoes if you have them, or add in the extra breast from your roast chicken earlier in the week. You’ll likely have 2-3 servings leftover that you can freeze for the next time you’re craving something warm and comforting.

          Tip: I always get frustrated with the fact that I can never buy one piece of celery or two carrots. Thankfully, most grocery stores have started to sell pre-chopped mirepoix (that’s the fancy French term for chopped carrots, onion, and celery) so you’re not left with a mass of extra veggies.

          Tell us! What are your go-to cooking-for-one meals?

          Photos courtesy of Niki Lowry.