Cooking for one on a budget: easy, eco-friendly meal ideas

woman cooking for one

Brian Kelly via Flickr

You live alone, whether you want to or not. And you have to eat. Cooking for one person may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Consider the alternatives:

  • Eat out all the time––but it’s expensive even if you limit yourself to the cheapest places. Plus, most restaurant meals have unhealthy levels of sugar, fat, and salt. And restaurants make outsized contributions to food waste. 
  • Buy microwaveable single-serving meals from the grocery’s freezer––but there’s limited selection and most of the choices probably have some ingredient or seasoning you don’t like. And they, too, have unhealthy levels of sugar, fat, and salt. Once you’ve eaten, you have all that packaging to discard, and some of it isn’t recyclable. 
  • Subscribe to meal kits­­––but you probably still have to prepare them. There are too many different plans to summarize them quickly. Some of them are precooked, comparable to the microwaveable meals from the grocery store. Some of them require as much as 30-45 minutes of preparation and cooking before you can eat. Some, but not all, are careful to assure that you can recycle or reuse all the extra packaging. Meal kits typically cost as much as restaurant meals.
  • Other options that can require some cooking include prepared foods such as Hamburger Helper or frozen food options where you can empty a plastic bag of something into a skillet.

Cooking for one can be budget friendly, eco-friendly, and even beneficial for your mental health. 

If you cook for yourself, you can prepare delicious meals in no more time than it takes to prepare one of those meal kits. You eat only what you like. Your food is less expensive and most likely healthier. Plus, you have more control over how much packaging you bring home. 

Grocery shopping for one

First off, go to a store or farmer’s market rather than hiring a delivery service. Here’s one big advantage: when you go to the store yourself, you can choose your own produce. If the green beans don’t look good today, you can choose something else. You can pick large or small apples.

The pandemic has made people needlessly afraid of this simple task. But in fact, according to the CDC, people don’t get COVID-19 from food or touching surfaces. People get it from being within six feet of infected people for a cumulative ten minutes in a day. You can easily stay that far apart from others in a store.

Plan what you intend to fix and, when it comes to perishables, buy only what you need for those dishes. Try to plan multiple meals that use the same ingredient—celery, for example. Take a list and stick to it. 

I’m assuming you eat meat. If so, please learn to fix some meatless meals. The amount of meat in the typical American diet is neither sustainable nor healthy. And don’t just substitute eggs or cheese. You can get plenty of protein by simply combining grains and beans in the same meal. Other combinations of plant foods also provide complementary protein.

If you’re vegetarian or vegan, I hope you can benefit from the general principles I describe.

Know what won’t go bad

Maybe nothing keeps forever, but some things might last for years:

  • dried pasta
  • grains
  • dried beans
  • flour

You can stock up on more than one kind of each of these. Buy whatever is on sale and get a lot of it. You can use them for all kinds of easy meals for one person.

When it comes to condiments, fermented sauces such as soy sauce also keep for a long time, but you won’t use very much at a time. Spices may lose some flavor over time, but they don’t spoil. 

Some perishable foods last a long time properly refrigerated. Eggs keep for about a month. Butter lasts for up to nine months and hard cheeses for several weeks When it comes to produce, you can keep potatoes, carrots, and apples, at least, for a couple of weeks. 

Know how much you’ll use perishables

I buy a gallon of milk at a time because I drink some every day and use it for cooking. If you only put it in coffee, maybe a quart or a pint will last you as long as a gallon lasts for me.

On the other hand, I seldom buy salad greens because I don’t want as many salads as I’d have to eat before they go bad. Some people want a salad with every meal. Buying a head of lettuce makes more sense for them.

If you make a special trip for grocery shopping, try to get a week’s worth of food at a time. On the other hand, if you can stop at a store while you’re out doing other errands, you can shop more often and enjoy more fresh produce.

Fruits and vegetables

produce display

Buy individual pieces of produce. A great deal on a three-pound bag of potatoes isn’t a great deal if they’ll start to go bad before you finish them. Buy two or three if that’s what you plan to eat.

You can put most of your choices directly in the cart and not accept the store’s plastic bags. Or if you like to bag your produce, take reusable produce bags

Most stores offer cut melons, pineapple chunks, or grapes in little plastic packages. I usually avoid them because I don’t want to have to discard all the packaging. But they’re a great way to enjoy foods that spoil quickly.

Don’t forget the fruits and vegetables in the freezer section. You can fix a single serving and return the rest to the freezer. If you like canned fruits and vegetables, they offer the same advantages. 

Meats and dairy

Most packages of meat are intended for families. When you’re cooking for one person, you have a couple of choices.

First, you can ask for a single serving of something to cook at the butcher’s counter or get single servings of cooked meats and cheeses at the deli counter. 

Or second, you can buy the whole package of, say, pork chops, lay them out separately on a rack or tray, freeze everything, and put them all in a bag. Then, when you want a pork chop, get one out of the bag the night before (or thaw it in the microwave, but that takes more electricity). 

Or third, buy a whole package of, say, chicken pieces, cook them all at once, and freeze them. 

You can buy bacon, wrap two- or three-slice servings in wax paper, stuff them back in the package and put it in the freezer. 

Again, don’t forget to investigate the freezer section. But I don’t recommend such conveniences as packaged cut chicken. Cook three chicken breasts. Cut them into whatever size you want and freeze them. 

The freezer section probably has various fish fillets individually wrapped in plastic. Too bad about all the packaging, but they make quick and tasty meals for one person. 

If you already have a supply of plastic bags, use them—and then wash them when they’re empty and reuse them. If you don’t have plastic bags, get some silicone storage bags instead. They can go in the dishwasher if you have one. 

Equipment you need for cooking for one

I realize that not everyone has a full kitchen. If you have only a mini fridge and no freezer, it forces you to buy small quantities and eat the food right away. An electric hot plate and toaster oven can be enough to cook quite a variety of things.

Kitchen tools

You need to prepare the food before you can cook it. The following will come in handy. It’s not an exhaustive list of kitchen tools. You’ll know if you need something else. 

  • Measuring cups and spoons
  • Knives: at least a paring knife, a chef’s knife for chopping, and a serrated bread knife
  • Cutting board
  • Mixing bowls
  • Hand mixer
  • Immersion blender
  • Stirring spoon
  • Slotted spoon
  • Soup ladle
  • Spaghetti server
  • Spatula
  • Whisk
  • Tongs
  • Splatter cover for the microwave

You can find these items made from a variety of materials, including glass, metal, wood, bamboo, silicone, or plastic. 

Almost anything has environmental advantages over plastic, but some environmentalists seem to equate a plastic ladle with a box of plastic straws. Sheesh. You’re not going to throw out the ladle after using it once! If you already have plastic, keep using it. 

14 Pcs Silicone Cooking Utensils Kitchen Utensil
Set: 446°F Heat Resistant, Turner Tongs, Spatula, Spoon, Brush, Whisk. Wooden Handles Gray
Kitchen Gadgets Tools Set for Nonstick Cookware (BPA Free)

GreenLife Soft Grip Healthy Ceramic Nonstick, Cookware Pots and Pans Set, 16 Piece, Turquoise

Microwave Splatter Cover, Microwave Cover for Food, Large Microwave Plate Cover Guard Lid with Steam Vents Keeps Microwave Oven Clean, 11.5 Inch BPA Free & Dishwasher Safe-2 Pack


slow cooker. cooking for one person
Tammra McCauley via Flickr

You’ll need a few pots and pans of various sizes. And probably more than one of the smaller ones. 

Cookware with non-stick coatings can be tempting but not a good idea. First off, if the coating gets damaged, food sticks like crazy. And the coating releases toxic fumes if it gets too hot. 

I recommend heavy stainless-steel pots and pans with copper or aluminum bottoms. You can put them in the dishwasher. For a superior non-stick surface, I like ceramic ones, but you need to treat them as carefully as the ones with non-stick coating. Don’t use metal utensils or the dishwasher.

Get some glass casserole dishes with lids. Square and rectangular bakeware (cake pans, loaf pans, etc.) can be glass or metal. You’ll want various sizes. Making a single-serving casserole hardly seems worth the effort, so don’t limit yourself to the smallest ones you can find. But you probably won’t need really large ones, either. 

I depend on my toaster oven, microwave, slow cooker, blender, and food processor. I’ve never used a pressure cooker or air fryer, but I know some cooks swear by them. 


Unless you want to cook something every night, leftovers are your friend. Whenever you cook more than you’ll eat immediately, you need something to store it in.

In cooking for one, you especially need single-serving containers. You can find some as small as one-cup capacity, but I think you’ll find them awfully limiting. Two-cup containers are about right.

For some things, you can just keep some of the glass jars that jelly or salsa or pasta sauce came in. You’ll probably be happier with a supply of containers of uniform size and shape that will stack better.

If you take leftovers to work, plastic containers don’t have the same danger of breaking. Just nuke them in a bowl instead of the plastic. Microplastics will leach from the container into the food—and accumulate in your body. 

Bovado USA 2 Cup Glass Round Dish for Storage, Mixing, Serving – Dishwasher, Freezer & Oven Safe Glass, Easy-Clean, Clear with Lid, Pack of 6 Containers

Rubbermaid 085275708479 7J60 Easy Find Lid Square 2-Cup Food Storage (Pack of 6 Containers)

Shape+Store Burger Master 8-in-1 Innovative Burger Press, 8-Patty, Red

Easy meals for one person on a budget

split pea soup
Alan Levine via Flickr

You can probably think of some things easy enough to cook for yourself. You can easily cook one pork chop, one steak, or one piece of chicken. Cook some pasta and sauce. Eggs. But after a while, the obvious things get boring. I came across a page with more than 400 single-serving recipes, so I won’t try to compete with that!

So I recommend cooking a lot at a time. For example, I recently baked a family-size package of chicken legs, two turkey legs, and a pork loin all at once. Then I sliced the pork loin into serving-size pieces and put it all in the freezer. In other words, instead of cooking three meals for a family, the same amount of food might make a dozen quick meals for one person.

They all cook at the same temperature for the same amount of time. Cooking them all separately would have cost three times as much time and energy. Supper is ready as soon as I have a taste for any of them in no more time than it takes to cook a potato.

I also make eight hamburger patties from two pound of ground beef and freeze them. Then when I’m ready, I cook them all at once, eat one, and freeze the rest. It takes longer to get a hamburger at Wendy’s than it does to nuke one from the freezer.

Stews, soups, and casseroles work the same way. If one makes six servings, eat one right away. Eat a couple more over the coming week. When you get tired of it, put the rest in your single-serving containers and put them in the freezer. Beware, however, that some things don’t freeze well. Potatoes in a stew, for example. I make stew with turnips or rutabagas instead. They taste the same to me and hold up in the freezer much better.

Here are some other posts on this site where I explain some simple procedures you can use to make easy meals:

I also recommend inspecting your refrigerator and freezer once a week to make sure you remember what’s there. That way, you’ll eat everything before it goes bad.

Previous Post
The Lorax: environmental warning still valuable after 50 years
Next Post
Recycling right: how clean is clean enough?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Related Posts

Follow by Email