When we live alone or with just one other person, it can be hard to scale down portion sizes so that you don’t waste a lot of food or end up throwing your grocery money in the trash.
Food waste is a big problem in America. Some sources estimate that we waste as much as 40 percent of our groceries because we buy them but don’t eat them. In 2018, Americans wasted nearly 63 million tons of food.
It’s not only a poor financial investment, it’s just wrong to waste that much food! So how do we avoid tossing out as much food as we consume?
No. 1: Planning. Make out your menus for the week. Figure out what you’ll need for those dishes. If your list calls for one green pepper, don’t buy three because they look nice! Don’t just plan main meals, either – plan how to use the leftovers, too. Write it down so you don’t forget that you meant to make barbecued beef sandwiches with your leftover Sunday roast.
I’ve always made menus for the week on Friday night, made a grocery list based on those menus and gone to the store on Saturday morning before it gets too busy. If I spot lettuce on sale but don’t have it on my menu, I can do one of two things: Skip it (it doesn’t save you money to buy it on sale if it rots in the fridge); or change the menu. Maybe make a taco salad instead of tacos.
No. 2: Go fresh. Prepackaged and canned foods have set amounts. Sometimes you can’t help that – you’re probably not going to make a little batch of spaghetti sauce from scratch. Buying fresh gives you options. You can buy one zucchini, a handful of fresh green beans, and so on. Some stores bundle their produce, so you have to buy three heads of broccoli or six large carrots. See if the produce stocker will break up a bunch for you. I’ve asked and they were happy to do it. They even gave me half a dozen clementines once!
No. 3: The meat dilemma. Can’t find a small beef roast? Fine. Buy a larger one and cut it in half and freeze half for another time. Are the packages of chicken breasts too much? Buy one anyway and individually wrap each one and freeze them. Or buy a package of chicken tenders, especially if you just want it for a salad or stir-fry. You can buy smaller portions of some things in the fresh meat case, but they can be more expensive. So buy a pound of ground meat and divide it into four portions, wrap and freeze. Do it right away or you’ll freeze it all and then be stuck with a whole pound of frozen meat to deal with.
If you find a grocery store with a friendly meat guy, he may break up a package of pork chops or chicken thighs for you. I haven’t found this guy, so I just break the package down when I get home.
The seafood case is a great place to get small portions. They’ll weigh out a quarter pound of salmon or six large shrimp, no problem.
No. 4: The freezer is your friend! If you’re going to break down a package of meat into individual portions, be sure to wrap each portion well in cling wrap, then place into a freezer bag. Label and date everything! Check your freezer each week before you make your grocery list. Some weeks, I have enough of everything I don’t even need to buy any meat at all.
No. 5: Consider the deli. A rotisserie chicken can be your best buy ever. First, you have a warm chicken for dinner. Eat the parts you like best. Save the leftovers for next-day lunch or dinner and finally cook the carcass with the remaining meat for a pot of soup. You have three or four good meals for the price of one meat entrée. In the deli, there also are tubs of already-cooked chicken breast meat. If you make enchiladas, burritos, chicken salad or soup at home, it’s a no-waste deal.
Check out the deli’s other options. You can buy just one stuffed pepper, one burrito, one chicken thigh, or a small container of your favorite salad. Many even have Asian, Mediterranean and other more exotic offerings.
No. 6: Check out the frozen food aisle. Individual pizzas, meals for one and bags of vegetables where you can just take out what you need for one serving are time-savers and avoid food waste. Small portions may cost a little more, but you won’t have them hanging around until they get stale.
Some of the frozen stuff isn’t very good. Some is very high in fat or sodium. Read the labels.But some things are perfect for a single diner. So buy a bag of frozen dinner rolls or shrimp, and just thaw and use what you want each time. Just don’t let things hang around in the freezer too long.
My mom still buys those big plastic buckets of vanilla ice cream. She has lived alone for 18 years but she still buys them. She says they’re cheaper that way. But half way through each bucket, the cats get a treat because the ice cream has gotten crystalized or gummy. I swear she really buys them for the cats. And the buckets — she likes the buckets.
No. 7: Buy in bulk. The bulk bin aisle isn’t just for folks who buy large quantities of granola or roasted almonds. You can also buy a LITTLE BIT! Just a handful. It’s OK. They don’t mind.
No. 8: Eggs are the perfect one-portion package. They’re high in protein and other nutrients and can make a good meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Make a hot breakfast sandwich with an English muffin, a slice of Canadian bacon and a scrambled egg. Top with a slice of cheese. Cheaper and better than McDonald’s! Good for any meal.
No. 9: Use resources that are available. The internet is your buddy and has LOTS of ideas for recipes for one or two people. There are “cooking for one” cookbooks — check the sale rack at Barnes & Noble or visit a discount bookstore or a used bookstore. If you go online, just search “cooking for one” and you’ll get tons of recipes.
A stuffed baked potato can include all your food groups in one dish. Bake it, split it, add bacon or ham, some cooked spinach or broccoli and top with cheese, then broil for a few minutes to melt the cheese and warm the other ingredients.
An omelet makes a quick meal for one. It’s a great way to use leftover vegetables, a piece of ham, a bit of cheese or whatever. Use one egg if you have a light appetite, two or three if you’re hungry.
Salad night. Salads don’t have to be side dishes. Top your favorite greens with cooked chicken, steak or shrimp. Add a hard-boiled egg, cut into quarters. Then pile on your favorite raw veggies – tomatoes, red onions or scallions, avocado, black olives, etc. Refreshing in summer.
Cream of anything soup: Empty one can of cream of chicken soup into a blender. Add a can of milk and about half a cup of leftover cooked spinach, broccoli or asparagus. Add a half teaspoon of onion powder. Whirl to blend, then heat in a pan. Sprinkle in some grated cheese to melt at the end, if you like. Two servings.
Fried rice: Say you got Chinese take-out and you have this tub of rice left over. Or maybe you made rice one night and you have some of it left. Make your own fried rice by stir-frying it in a pan with a little bit of corn oil, a dash of sesame oil if you have it, some bits of vegetables (like peas and carrots) and meat (cooked chicken, shrimp or pork are good) you have in the fridge, and some soy sauce to taste. Scramble one egg and stir that in at the end.
Quick chili: Brown half a pound of ground beef or turkey in a skillet. Add ¼ cup minced onion (optional). Then add a can of black beans or chili beans in sauce, a can of petite diced tomatoes and a small can of green chiles. Season with chili powder, garlic powder and cumin to taste. Bring to a bubble, then simmer for about half an hour. Makes 4 servings, but you can freeze half and use it later. Also makes good chili dogs!
Pasta. This is an easy one. Make one serving of pasta and toss with a little butter, garlic and Parmesan cheese for a main dish. Add a salad on the side for a meatless meal. Or buy your favorite spaghetti sauce and heat up just enough for yourself. The rest will keep a week or more in the fridge. You can buy ready-made meatballs in the freezer case if you want to add a couple to the sauce.
Take-out. On the rare occasion that we agree on what we want, my husband and I will take out one meal and share it. There are STILL leftovers! Sometimes we get a Greek salad from Panera Bread and share that. If we get two cups of soup, we both get soup and salad and it comes with their yummy French bread!
Old favorites. It’s hard to make a small pot of vegetable soup or a small pan of lasagna. But you can do one of two things: You can do the math and cut the recipe in half. Or make the full lasagna recipe but divide it into two or even four pans. Have one for dinner and freeze the others for later. Or maybe you have a friend who would be grateful for a ready-made meal.
Desserts. Dessert can be tricky, if you love baked goods. However, some manufacturers have gotten smart. You can get mug cakes, cakes that just make 2-4 servings, and you can buy individual portions in the freezer case and the bakery. Or bake an apple, cored and stuffed with raisins, brown sugar, nuts and oatmeal. Fresh fruit is easy, of course. And ice cream – if you don’t buy it by the bucket – can be eaten in a few sittings.
For more Living on the Cheap articles:
Vacuum sealers: are they worth the price?
How to cut your grocery bill in half
Make your own Pop-Tarts and other convenience foods
Guide and recipes for cheap meals
More Ways to Live Well for Less