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If you live by yourself you might feel that preparing healthy, nutritious meals for yourself is a bit too much of a challenge. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that it’s just too much effort to go to for one person and besides, it’s hardly fair that you have to do the dishes as well as cook.

But when it comes to looking after yourself, if you don’t take responsibility then who will? Besides why should only couples and families get to eat tasty meals? Read on to find out how to cook for one without the wastage or hassle!

The excuses

It’s just all too easy to resort to a quick bowl of cereal or a vegemite sandwich for dinner where there is just one of you – there’s no one else to complain about it, and it’s quick and easy with minimal dishes.

Thirty-year-old Sarah can relate to this attitude. She has been living on her own for the past year. Compared with the years when she was sharing a house with her partner, she now hardly ever cooks meals for herself. ‘Before Chris and I split up, we regularly cooked meals at home. It was easy then – we shared the cooking and it seemed worth the effort when there was someone else there to enjoy it. Now I have to cook every night – and do the dishes too. I just can’t be bothered most of the time.’

There is also the issue of wastage – how many times have you brought produce only to have it go off in the fridge before you can use it all. As Sarah says ‘Buying vegetables is a problem for me. I like to eat them but they go mouldy in my fridge before I can use them up.’

These are common complaints among singles – it seems that we don’t go to as much effort when it’s just for ourselves. In fact, a U.S. Department of Energy study found that 42% of American singles do not cook even one meal per day at home, and are putting themselves at risk of weight gain and long-term health problems.

So what’s a single gal or guy to do?

The positives

Before you throw your hands up in despair and grab the nearest frozen dinner for one, think about some of the positives of cooking for yourself.

  • You can make whatever you like to eat. You don’t have to worry about anyone else’s allergies, dislikes or preferences.
  • You don’t have to worry about others sabotaging your weight loss plans. No cases of ‘Oh sorry, I accidentally brought a 10L tub of double choc chip, mocca fudge icecream. I’m sure a little bit won’t hurt.’ You can keep your pantry stocked with the healthy, low-calorie foods that you want to eat.

The how-to tips

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While there is nothing wrong with a bowl of cereal for dinner on occasion, it’s not the best idea every night. For one, you’re missing out on vegetables and protein, not to mention taste!

So how can you make meals successfully for one and not throw away half of the food you buy before you get to eat it?

Try these tips:

  • Buy foods packaged into single servings. They might be seem more expensive than the bulk package, but not if you end up throwing away half of the opened package anyway. Try sachets, mini jars and tins, and individually packaged products, instead of family sized jars and packets.
  • Buy foods from self serve bulk bins and deli counters. That way you can buy exactly the amount you need – and it’s fresh when you want it. You also won’t feel ‘obligated’ to eat the rest of the packet, just because you paid for it.
  • Don’t leave out fruits and vegetables. Try buying vegetables that have already been portioned into smaller amounts, such as broccoli flowerets and loose lettuce or spinach leaves. Keep your freezer stocked with frozen vegetables – easy access and no mouldy mush in your vegetable crisper. Try tinned or dried fruits (but watch out for added sugar) and chose fresh fruits that are longer lasting, such as apples and oranges.
  • Plan your meals in advance, so you can use up ingredients throughout the week.
  • Get into a regular shopping habit and keep your pantry well stocked. You’ll be less likely to resort to vegemite on toast if there are lots of tempting options in your pantry.
  • Do a fortnightly shop for staples, such as pasta, tinned tomatoes and cereal, and purchase fresh fruits, vegetables and meats more regularly, as needed.
  • Separate bulk trays of meat into individual servings and freeze in plastic wrap or freezer bags – easy to defrost when you want them.
  • Slice bread before freezing. Freeze soon after buying to keep it fresh.
  • Leftovers can be eaten for lunch the next day, or frozen in serving sized portions ready to be defrosted when needed. You can also reuse leftovers in another dish.

Keeping it real

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Right, so that all sounds logical, but you still have the problem of having to cook and clean up by yourself.

The answer to this one is to make things easy for yourself. There’s no point deciding to become a cordons bleus chef when you really just need to be able to whip up a decent dinner. And if you’re smart, you can save on washing up by cooking meals that are made in the one pot or dish – or that require no cooking at all.

  • Use shortcuts to take the hassle out of cooking. Try buying products such as grated reduced-fat cheese, pre-washed spinach leaves and tinned tomatoes.
  • Jazz up simple dishes with herbs and spices. Consider buying prepared garlic, ginger, chilli and herbs, available in jars and tubes, for an easy, but flavoursome, addition. Or better yet, grow your own herbs.
  • Use some pre-prepared products as a base for your meals, such as pasta sauces, flavoured rices, soup bases and stocks. Be sure to read the nutritional information to check you’re not adding loads of unnecessary fat, preservatives, sugar or salt, and make sure you add fresh vegetables, meats and grains.
  • Experiment with foods from other cultures. There are many quick and tasty options you might not have tried yet – such as couscous, udon noodles and rice noodles.
  • Measure out ingredients till you get familiar with the amount needed for one person. It’s easy to accidentally cook for three or four people!

Simple ideas

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Here are some simple dinner suggestions. Experiment with what you have in your fridge and pantry. You’ll also find plenty of other great ideas in the CalorieKing Recipe section.

Note that most of these dishes can be cooked using only one pot or pan, saving washing up time! And you can prepare them in less time than it takes to get takeaways.

  • Toss chopped fresh tomato, drained chunks of tuna (in spring water, not oil), shredded spinach leaves, chopped olives and lemon zest through cooked pasta. You could also add a little chopped chilli or fresh coriander or basil.
  • Try individual homemade pizzas, using pita bread, lebanese bread or english muffins as a base.
  • Roast chopped vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potato, carrots, baby eggplant, capsicum and red onion, lightly sprayed with cooking spray in a baking dish lined with baking paper (makes the clean-up easy!). Toss together salad greens, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and olives, and top with the roasted vegetables. Drizzle with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
  • Turn any leftover roasted vegetables into another meal by serving them on couscous or rice with a drizzle of fat-free French dressing.
  • Stir-fry thin strips of meat and finely sliced vegetables together with your favourite sauces.
  • Marinate a skinless, boneless chicken breast in your favourite sauce combo, such as soy sauce and sweet chilli sauce. Grill and serve with steamed vegetables. Use any leftover cooked chicken in other dishes or in sandwiches.
  • Try a baked potato. Microwave the potato for a speedier option than baking. Top with your favourite toppings and serve with a dollop of no-fat natural yoghurt, if desired. Accompany with a salad. Try cooked corn kernels, broccoli flowerets and diced capsicum with a small amount of grated reduced-fat cheese. How about chopped cooked chicken, shredded spinach leaves, finely diced red capsicum and chopped fresh coriander?
  • Make toasted sandwiches filled with roast beef, tomato, spinach leaves and condiments, such as chutney or mustard. Serve with a side salad.
  • Steam chopped vegetables, such as zucchini, broccoli, capsicum and baby eggplant. Toss through cooked pasta with a small amount of tomato-based pasta sauce, some chopped chilli and sliced olives. Top with a little grated reduced-fat cheese.
  • Fish and seafood cook very quickly and taste great. Buy just enough for one meal, as seafood is best eaten on the day you buy it. Try grilled fish, or briefly stir-fried cleaned, opened and scored (in a crisscross pattern) calamari tubes with chilli and garlic. Serve with lemon wedges and salad.
  • Soup is a warm and filling meal – and easy to make! Simmer stock in a large pot and add your favourite chopped vegetables. Cook until tender and mash lightly or blend in a food processor. Try adding beans or cooked chicken for a more substantial meal. Soup also freezes well.
  • How about a salad? It’s not just “rabbit food” if you combine as many vegetables as you can think of, such as lettuce, spinach leaves, carrot, tomato, cucumber, red onion, snow peas, sprouts, avocado and capsicum, and top with drained, tinned salmon or cooked chicken. Seasonal fruit makes a great flavour addition, try mango, nectarine, fuji apple or pear. Make a quick dressing by combining low-fat natural yoghurt and your favourite flavourings, such as grainy mustard, herbs and lemon/orange juice.

Remember you’re worth it! You don’t need to be cooking for a group of people to justify making healthy, delicious meals. Your body and your tastebuds will appreciate it!

Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.
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