FOREST FOR THE TREES

Vered writes advice because Abby, Amy, Ann, Carolyn, Cary, and Prudence too often miss the mark for Gen-Xers and Millennials. She hopes to offer progressive, pragmatic advice that’s not out of touch with Rebellious readers, and maybe metaphorically take someone by the shoulders and shake them when they need it. Need some advice? Email vered@rebelliousmagazine.com. Letters may be edited for clarity. No names will be published.

Cooking for One

Vered Siegel
Sunday, January 27, 2013

Dear Vered,

I live alone, and I just looked over my bank statements for last year. I spend waaaaay too much on eating out. As in, I spend more on eating out in a week than I do in groceries for the rest of the month. I'd like to swap that ratio, and possibly even save some money, but every time I think to do that, I look in my (bare) fridge, look in my (bare) pantry, remember how long it takes to cook something, and grab the take-out menus again. Cooking for one really sucks, because I spend longer cooking than eating. How can I change my habit?

One Place Setting

***

Dear Reader,

You've already figured out that doing your own cooking will save you money, and that's the first step. But doing the cooking, especially with a bare fridge and pantry, is harder. Nothing is easier than picking up a phone. When I lived alone, I used a few strategies to get the ball rolling. Now I'm an expert. The key is meal planning. Yep, just like grandma used to do... but for one. Write out a list of your favorite dishes; come up with at least 8. Don't worry if it's a breakfast dish or whatever, just list a bunch of meals you enjoy eating. For example, my list looked like this:

  • Chicken n' Dumplings
  • Cold cereal & milk
  • Pot Roast
  • Grilled Cheese
  • Caesar Salad
  • Rice Pilaf/Couscous
  • Israeli Salad
  • Falafel
  • Omelettes
  • Tacos
  • Pizza
  • Khao Soy/Pad Thai

I looked at that list and looked up recipes for everything online, and wrote them all out in Excel. Turned out, there were several ingredients that kept showing up: garlic, onions, tomatoes, greens. Those were the foods I should always keep in the house. Then I mapped all of these favorite meals out on a month's calendar. (Yes, sometimes a girl's gotta just eat a bowl of Chex for dinner.) Some of these dishes could be made in advance and reheated, or components could be made in advance. For example:

Pot Roast can be made in a big batch and frozen in tupperware, then reheated by portion on the stovetop. So can the Chicken n' Dumplings. Making a big batch on a Sunday can make 3-4 meals of each, which is enough for a month.

Israeli salad's veggies can be chopped and kept in an airtight container in the fridge for as long as a week or two. The tomatoes I chopped for that can also be used for tacos. The extra cucumber can be used to make the tzatziki I like with my falafel.

The taco meat I make from ground turkey can be made in advance and kept in the fridge, to be reheated at dinner by portion.

In other words, get the main parts of your dinners made in advance and portion them out. That way, when you get home, you're just combining and reheating. Yes, your fridge is going to look like a Tupperware party, but I actually liked how organized it was. I even labeled the containers so I knew what day to eat what. Turns out, I was rarely bored, especially if I brainstormed 10 new meals each month. (Pinterest is a really great source of inspiration.)

Don't be ashamed to use convenience foods when they're on sale. For goodness sake, buy a pre-made pizza crust. Trader Joe's has great fresh ones in the refrigerated section for $1.99, I buy them two at a time. Fantastic Foods makes tasty falafel mixes and vegan taco filling, which I love. Use canned tomato sauce, your forearms will thank you. Bisquik those dumplings. 

Finally, don't underestimate snacking. Be sure to stock your fridge and pantry with healthy snacks, because on some nights you may come home from work late, or after a happy hour, and just want a nosh, not a full dinner. I like to keep cottage cheese, lowfat string cheese, pre-chopped veggies, hummus, pickles, olives, and Chex mix in the house at all times for just such occasions.

When you get in the habit of cooking in advance, the prep time no longer overshadows the eating time, and cooking starts to feel more worthwhile. You might even feel inspired to invite a few people over for dinner!

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