Cooking for One

Growing up, my family sat down for dinner every single night together, the easiest ritual in the world, and something we still do when we’re back in Connecticut. On rare occasions, we’d order from the local pizza place (Aside: NEW HAVEN STYLE 4 LYFE. End aside), and on REALLY special occasions we’d get Chinese takeout, but for the most part, mama B, a veritable superwoman, would cook for us every night. From a young age, I watched my mother chop and marinade and grill and bake, always inserting myself into the cooking process to help, starting with stirring and eventually taking over prep altogether. In high school, I started making dinner for the family, giving mama B a break from the stove and giving me a chance to learn her methods and her meals, appreciating the calm that rushed over me the moment I stepped up to the counter with a cookbook, knife in hand.

I didn’t cook much for myself in my early years in New York, for a few reasons: my kitchen was minuscule, going out to grab lunch at work guaranteed I’d get at least a little sunshine that day and I really only knew how to cook meals large enough to feed a family. I enjoyed having friends to my place for dinner parties, and my to-this-day favorite roommate and I used to cook together, navigating our shoebox kitchen in a feeble attempt to share one square foot of counter space. But for the most part, I lived on Seamless take-out and leftovers from whatever I’d picked up at lunch that day. It wasn’t until I moved into my own place in March of last year that I finally had a kitchen where I could actually cook: counter space, cabinets and a big oven and all. Hearing people and media complain about the difficulties in “cooking-for-one” at the time seemed silly to someone like me, a seasoned dinner prepper and someone who loves to cook. I remember standing in the kitchen those first few days, so excited about the culinary possibilities. “Difficulties? Nonsense!” I naively thought as I put together my first Fresh Direct order.

Me, on day one in my Heights kitchen.

Me, on day one in my Heights kitchen.

Cooking for one is the most difficult thing I’ve had to learn in my adult life. It is more difficult than when I had to learn my way around the West Village for the first time, more difficult than waking up after a Sunday Funday brunching with my fashionista C and honestly, it’s more difficult than dating. It took about eight months before I started to get the hang of it, eight whole months of buying too many groceries and throwing out food that went bad, not buying enough groceries and resorting to take-out more often than necessary, cooking way too much food and then not enough food, and impulse-buying snacks that went uneaten. Oh god, the amount of snacks I’ve had to discard is so depressing I can’t even think about it. RIP, that half-full bag of dark chocolate Milano’s that I forgot existed until far after they were stale.

Now in month 17 of living alone, I’m still no expert in cooking-for-one, as easily referenced by the massive bowl of quinoa salad in my fridge that I made on Sunday and will still have to eat for the next two straight days before flying out to Austin on Saturday. However, quinoa-issues aside, I have picked up a few tips to make the most out of solo food time:

  • Pick a grocery store and stick to it. I know this sounds obvious, but for a while, I fluctuated between the local Bravo, Fresh Direct, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods for groceries, thinking the variety was fun and exciting. Honestly, it’s more a pain than anything: stores aren’t set up the same, it’s harder to remember where your staple items are in each place and you end up buying more than you need because you’re not in a routine. Once I started doing weekly shopping trips to the Whole Foods on the Upper West every Sunday, I saw myself wasting less food, making smarter choices about what to keep in the apartment and even experimenting with small quantities of foods I rarely used before, like yellow beets and fresh ginger. Simple life hack, but hugely, hugely helpful.
  • Don’t overload on produce! This was the number one mistake I made for months. I’m generally a healthy eater and like to keep fruit/veggies in the apartment at all times. This does not, however, mean I need to have three different types of peppers, asparagus, carrots and tomatoes, plus apples, cherries, blackberries and raspberries in my fridge because I won’t use them all before they’re bad (learned that exact lesson the hard way). Unless you know exactly what you’re using each thing for, stick to one or two fruits/veggies per week and incorporate them into each dish you make. True life: last week I had basil and zucchini in every single meal I ate. And they were all delicious.
  • Leftovers over salad = perfect work lunch. Yes, going out to pick up lunch is sometimes the only non-work social interaction I have all day. But from a cost and a quality control standpoint, I usually bring my lunch to the office. Easiest lunch ever? Just put whatever you had for dinner over some greens and voila: bangin’ salad. Works with pasta, the aforementioned quinoa, Thai takeout, and I know it’s weird, but cold pizza over spinach is super, super delicious (my brother’s wonderful girlfriend D convinced me to try once and I’ll never look back).
  • Freezer foods will save you. If you look in my freezer on any given day, you’ll see at least two kinds of frozen veggies (currently kale and broccoli rabe) and at least two kinds of meat (currently chicken and sausage). I try to plan meals in my weekly shop but sometimes I forget to buy things or I’m a few days behind in grocery stocking, so having things on-hand that make a quick and easy meal is beyond a lifesaver. This kind of transcends cooking-for-one, but you’ll thank me when you notice your fridge is empty after you’re already in your post-work, “no-one-can-see-me” sweatpants, sans bra and wine in hand. No one wants to grocery shop once you’ve hit that level of “day’s over.”
  • Accept defeat: you know what? Stores do not cater to the single. Produce and meats and snacks come in multiple portions and cookbooks scale everything for 4. Sometimes you’re going to throw food out. Sometimes you’re going to live on eggs and leftover quinoa for three days. And sometimes you’re going to throw your hands up and order take-out because the idea of doing dishes UH-GAIN is just depressing. Accept defeat sometimes and order Seamless. There’s no one around to judge besides the cat, and sometimes we all need a break.

Go forth and cook, my friends.

As do we all, Jess.

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