8 Tips for Navigating The Kitchen On Your Own

Cooking for one comes with its challenges, but also has perks. Learning to navigate the kitchen by yourself and figuring out how to scale a recipe that’s supposed to be for a family of four down to cooking for just yourself can be confusing, but on the other hand, one of my favorite things about cooking for myself is that I get to make exactly what I want, when I want it. If I’m following a recipe but I don’t like some of the ingredients, I can simply take them out because I’m going to be the only one eating it. If you’re just now trying to figure out how to navigate the kitchen, I've pulled together some of the tips I’ve learned in the past two years to help you along the way. 

  1. 1. Plan your meals for the week ahead of time.

    It’s easier said than done, but my week always goes so much better when I put thought into planning my meals at the start of the week. One of my favorite ways to make sure I don’t end up with too much–or worse, not enough–food for the week is to plan out my meals in a note on my phone. I break it down by what I’ll be having for lunch and dinner each day, along with noting any days I’ll be eating out and won’t need food.

    If you’re not one to plan out exactly what you’ll want for dinner each night, you can use this method to figure out how many meals you'll need for the week. I’m not big into meal prepping, but if you like to cook once and get it out of the way for the week, Abby, a 2018 graduate from Skidmore College recommends “making something you love in bulk so you can eat it all week.” Some of her favorites are roasted veggies and sweet potatoes.

    By coming up with how many lunches and dinners I’ll need to be cooking that week, and exactly what I want to make, I’m able to make sure I grocery shop and prep accordingly.​

  2. 2. Go to the grocery store with a plan and a purpose. 

    a woman stands in front of the health juice/kombucha shelves at a grocery store

    Along with planning your meals for the week, you should go to the grocery store with a fully built-out list of what you need that week. I like to make my list in the notes app and put it in the same order that I go through the store in to avoid forgetting anything. Throughout the week if I run out of anything I make sure to add it to next week’s list. Before I head to the store I take a quick inventory of my fridge and pantry to make sure there are no other staples I’ve run out of that I’ll need to pick up.

    Additionally, using grocery delivery services such as Instacart or Amazon Fresh can help those who easily get distracted in the store or might not have time to go. I typically grocery shop in person but sometimes when I’m feeling particularly busy, I use Whole Foods delivery through Amazon. I realized I tend to stick to my list and buy fewer impulse things I don’t need this way! ​

  3. 3. Shop the counters around the perimeter of the store.

    a bakery counter in a grocery store. a man stands behind it, facing away from the camera.

    Instead of buying a huge pack of deli cheese or a two pound pack of chicken breasts that you’ll never get through by yourself, head over to the counters and order the exact quantity you need! If you are only going to be cooking one meal with chicken and one with steak this week, you can order a single chicken breast or a single piece of steak from the meat counter at most grocery stores. Even better, you can ask for specific weights to be sure you get exactly what you need and that nothing goes to waste.

  4. 4. Buy staples you can keep in the pantry, fridge, or freezer long-term.

    Recently I’ve learned to always have a few staple items on hand that I can use to throw together a last minute meal for the nights I didn’t plan ahead. For me this includes: chicken sausages, prosciutto, frozen cauliflower pizza crusts, frozen bread, canned tuna and pasta. Having these items on hand ensures that I will always be able to whip up something easy and delicious..

    Having good flavors on hand when cooking is essential! A simple seasoning or sauce can go a long way in taking a meal from average to amazing. Some of my favorites are lemon pepper blend, chipotle seasoning blend, italian seasoning, balsamic glaze, marinara sauce, ranch, hot sauce and teriyaki sauce. These different ingredients have a long shelf life and can totally transform a meal or repurpose your leftovers the next day. Avoid cooking boredom by shaking up how you add flavors to your meals.

  5. 5. Don’t buy too much fresh produce in one trip and stock up on produce that is longer lasting.

    a grocery store produce wall

    It’s hard to stop myself from buying every fruit in the store when they all look so fresh and appealing, but don’t let yourself fall for it! I try to buy one or two different types of fruit each week in order to make sure nothing goes bad before I can eat it. I’ve learned the hard way that some produce goes bad in the fridge much more quickly than others, and now I tend to avoid those unless I know I’ll be using it in the next couple of days.

    Olivia, a  2018 graduate of Arizona State University “realized that avocados tend to go bad way more quickly than [she] thought, so [she tries] to be realistic and only grab one or two at a time.” 

    I typically buy cauliflower, broccoli and sweet potatoes the most for veggies because those last the longest in my fridge and I can’t be mad at myself if I spontaneously go out to dinner one night and don’t use them.

  6. 6. Put together a meal with a protein, a vegetable and a starch/carb.

    a woman stands over the stove cutting an herb out of a pot on the window sill with a pair of scissors. there are pans of pasta stirfry on the burner.

    A lot of nights I find myself skipping the recipes and instead coming up with different combinations of a protein, vegetable and starch/carb. When doing this, I’m able to make sure I have the right portions for one person instead of scaling down a recipe. I tend to rotate chicken breast, steak tips, and chicken sausages as my proteins. My favorite vegetables to make are roasted cauliflower or broccoli, and I usually will have crispy polenta, cornbread, rice or sweet potatoes on the side. I'm able to keep my meals interesting by taking these different options and putting them into combinations with different seasonings (as mentioned in tip #4). If you’re tired from a long day, throwing a chicken breast and asparagus into the oven with spices is a lot easier than making a full-on stir fry with a bunch of ingredients. 

  7. 7. Learn how to scale recipes to suit the portion you need.

    three glass dishes sit side by side on the counter full of colorfully arranged veggies

    When I am in the mood to shake it up, I use Pinterest for inspiration for my meals. The only bad thing about this is that a lot of those recipes are meant to feed a small family, not an individual. Taking the time to do some simple math and scale down the recipe means you can cater it to your needs and make sure you don’t waste any food. If a recipe serves four I typically will cut it in half in order to make two servings for myself (yay leftovers!). So you made too much? I don’t see anything wrong with that! In fact, I actually love when I make double quantities of a recipe and have leftovers to take to work for lunch the next day. There’s nothing like a home cooked meal that can be stretched to the next day, or even the next few days. If I know I have a busy couple of days ahead I will plan to make a larger quantity so I have a quick dinner I can heat up when I’m short on time. 

  8. 8. Your freezer space is valuable - use it!

    an open fridge door in the darkness

    Let’s say you skip making one of your planned dinners and go out with your friends instead - that’s okay! Don’t beat yourself up about that food having to go to waste. If you don’t use all of your produce or meat that week you can throw it in the freezer and use it another time. I’m known for letting my bananas go brown but once they do, they go right in my freezer and make for a perfect smoothie addition! Just be sure you follow the correct way to defrost whatever you do freeze to avoid any food borne illnesses.

Since graduating college, cooking has started to become something I enjoy and often times look forward to. Experimenting with new recipes and trying new foods can actually be fun and exciting once you figure out how to do it for yourself. Hopefully these tips will help you navigate the kitchen when you are cooking for one!

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