I’d like to think of myself as a good cook but let’s be honest. I’m not. Most of what I’ve learned about cooking was by mimicking my kitchen-savvy college roommates or trial by error. I have a few dishes I make well but for the most part my hunger overpowers my ability to invest time into creating anything truly delectable.
As my New Year’s resolution a few years ago, I vowed to waste less food. I’m a permanent member of the “Clean Plates Club” so when I started cooking for myself in college it pained me to throw out food that had gone bad. As I shopped for groceries, I always had the intention of making home cooked meals with fresh foods only to find myself ten days later throwing out rotting produce. Over years of fine-tuning my approach to how I buy food, I’ve found a few ways to keep my purchasing consumption as close as possible to what I’m actually consuming, especially when cooking for one.
1. Plan ahead:
The only way I can begin to monitor what I purchase is by planning my meals ahead of time with a grocery list. I use the notes app in my phone so every time I think of something I want, find a recipe, or get close to running out of a staple (peanut butter, for example), I add the ingredients to the list. This eliminates the number of times I need to go to the store for essentials. I segment the list into categories with like items such as: produce, refrigerated, dry goods, and non-food items so I can be as efficient as possible while in the store. I keep my weekly menu updated in a note as well so if I forget what I bought, I can refer back to the list during the week.
2. Use what you have in the fridge:
I make a list at the end of the week of any perishables I need to use up, then try to devote recipes to using up those leftover ingredients early in the week. If I have leftover pesto, I’ll make pesto chicken or use it on my sandwiches. If I have leftover tortilla chips, I will make nachos or crush them to bread chicken. I always have a few ingredients leftover and by using them as inspiration for the next week, it becomes much easier to create a menu.
3. Aim to try one new recipe each week:
I try to take at least one day a week to try a new recipe. I love foodgawker.com because I can save recipes to my favorites and add notes later. For those that go well, I tag the recipe with comments on what worked. For those that don’t go well, I’ll add notes as to how to better substitute next time or delete it from my favorites altogether. This gives me a place to look back in my personally curated food gallery and pull ideas that worked well in the past.
4. Shop at the same place each week:
I go to the same grocery store at the same time every week even if I only need to pick up a few things. I work a Monday through Friday desk job so I typically go Friday night or Sunday morning, when it isn’t unbearably busy. I’ve been to my neighborhood grocery store enough times to know not to go right after work during the week or on Sunday afternoons if I want to avoid the crowds. Going to the same store each week also helps me find what I need quickly and avoid the areas I don’t need to spend time in.
5. Know thyself:
This is so so so important. I have spent too much time and money thinking if I bring something into my house, I will prepare it. If you have no idea how to prepare rutabaga and don’t have a recipe–don’t buy it. Since food is a necessity and relatively inexpensive per item, we don’t undergo the same decision making process we do with items like clothes, shoes, etc. If it’s not jumping off the shelf at me or part of my meal plan, I don’t buy it anymore.
As my lifestyle has changed, I’ve noticed my eating habits changed as well. I used to be a huge snacker, but as I’ve established a more regular schedule, I now have pretty consistent mealtimes. Whenever I buy any snack foods, I never eat them. Knowing the proportion of time I devote to eating full meals, snacking, and eating out helps to strike a balance and develop a more suitable grocery list to my eating style.
6. Buy what you like:
Similar to #5, I’ve stopped making promises to myself I can’t keep. I’m not a picky eater but after trying to make myself love kale, I just don’t. Certainly experiment, but if you hate brussel sprouts, don’t ruin an otherwise delicious dish. I only buy the foods I enjoy eating and can prepare multiple ways.
7. Keep it stupidly simple:
Most of us are not going to be featured on the next season of Chopped. Nor do we need to buy whole containers of exotic spices for a dish. Find recipe books, food bloggers, or websites with short ingredient lists and prep time. Aim for recipes with no more than seven to ten ingredients. Several food bloggers have even made this their core concept. I rarely ever fuss with a dish that has over a dozen ingredients or takes more than 30 minutes to prepare. (That’s what eating out is for!) There are so many dishes that only require a few simple ingredients and a few minutes to prepare.
8. Don’t try to mix foods together:
I’ve wasted a lot of food trying to create something fancy only to have a massive portion covered in a slop I tried to convince myself was sauce. Now I keep ingredients separate, especially when experimenting, to prevent ruining multiple aspects of an otherwise delicious meal.
9. Focus on the mains:
I’ve recently discovered how to cook chicken that isn’t dry and overcooked. Let the main dish be the star and keep the sides simple: broccoli or peas (you can buy those frozen bags of florets that taste just as good as fresh), rice (cook a big batch for the week or use a rice cooker), baked potatoes (poke holes with a fork and microwave for a few minutes), or a simple salad (add shredded carrot, cherry tomatoes, oil + vinegar or a dressing on hand). If you can use a grill, throw some corn on the cob or peppers on with the protein.
10. Make leftovers (but just a little):
If I want leftovers, I’ll usually make enough to eat the meal again no more than twice. Any more and I’ll become sick of it and let it sit in the fridge until it goes bad. I’ve found that if I crave it more than twice as leftovers, I am more excited to make it in the future. For the first couple years of cooking for myself, I made the habit of remaking a dish I really liked meal after meal, week after week. I would eat the same thing so many times in a row, I never wanted to see it again. Now I maintain the appeal of the recipe by limiting the number of times I remake the recipe
11. Treat yo’self!
I had to slip the cliche in here…but *sigh* it’s just so true. I can’t ever enjoy my weekly menu if I don’t give myself the space to have fun with it. I typically pick one item per week to add to my list strictly for the soul. Whether it’s a Pinot Noir, some tea, or a bar of dark chocolate, I always feel so much better coming home with a treat for myself. It helps resist the temptation of ordering in or eating an office doughnut I didn’t even want in the first place.
Last but not least – Make it fun.
Last but not least, cooking does not have to be a chore. Pour a rich cup of coffee on a Sunday morning or a glass of wine on a Friday night after work, put on a podcast or a new album you’ve been wanting to listen to, or invite a friend over to help you cook. Make the prep about YOU. Spend the time doing things you would otherwise do while scrolling Twitter and check off that self care box. I mean, where would we be without food?