Cooking for One? These 7 Simple Strategies Will Help You Grocery Shop and Prep for the Week

Loving small-scale cooking starts with a little planning.

man grocery shopping reading label
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I can think of a lot of valuable life skills no one learns in school, including how to file taxes, how to put on a duvet cover, and how to cook for yourself (and maybe one other person). One day you're blissfully lining up at your college dining hall for dinner, and the next day, you have to learn how to feed yourself.

Listen, I still have no idea how to use a power drill, but I am one well-fed gal. Cooking for myself is seriously one of my greatest joys and sources of pride. There's something about using up what I've got in my fridge and pantry to create a meal that scratches an itch for me.

If you're ready to become a better, smarter grocery shopper and home cook, here are some of my favorite strategies for approachable, delicious at-home meals.

1. Know What You Have

One of the most common mistakes I see among home cooks is buying foods you already have. Your fridge, freezer, and pantry are not meant to store food till you remember about it six months later. Do your best to keep a mental note of the things you have. If something sits untouched in your cabinet for more than six months, that probably means you'll never use it. If you have an open bag of rice in your pantry, use that before you buy another.

2. Shop by Category

The easiest way for me to visualize what I need at the grocery store is to think in terms of categories. If I open my veggie drawer and see a whole lot of nothing, I make sure to pick up something leafy and something hearty. The same goes for fruit, cheese, nuts, animal protein, canned beans, and starches. I assess where the gaps are, then fill them in accordingly.

We singletons do not have the luxury of buying all the fresh fruits, veggies, and cheeses all at once because it will be a stressful race against time to finish them before they spoil. Instead, I pick one or two fruits and veggies to purchase and resist buying any others until I've finished what I have. It may sound militant, but it's quite satisfying to make use of what you already own before you go out seeking more. Not to mention, your wallet will love this exercise.

3. Ditch the List (Yes, Really)

A lot of grocery shopping advice will tell you to always go to the store with a list. If you're a list person, keep doing what works for you. Yet, I believe you should feel empowered to go to the store and purchase whatever looks or sounds good while you're there.

Of course, going rogue at the grocery store can result in a shopping cart full of artisanal nut butter and seasonal popcorn. If you have an idea of what sorts of items your kitchen needs, however, such as leafy greens, a loaf of bread, and breakfast meats, you can make a game-time decision once you're at the store depending on what you're feeling or, even better, what's on sale.

4. Rely on Pantry Staples

Since we're being a bit more conservative in the produce section (waste not, amiright?), the interior aisles of the grocery store are where you can let loose. I like to keep a couple of starches on hand, whether pasta, tortillas, or grains. You can grab beans for salads, hummus, and chili. Canned tomatoes are great for sauces, soups, and stews. And no shame in more canned veggies – I like artichoke hearts for pasta and bowls. Finally, tinned fish is an easy, reliable protein.

And while we're on the topic of dry goods, let's talk spices. There's no need to go buy one of each spice for your cabinet. Instead, try out a couple of pre-mixed spice blends and see which one you like. Olives, anchovies, pickles, and capers also add some excitement to your meals. With chicken or vegetable bouillon, you can add a spoonful of quick flavor to whatever you're cooking.

5. Set Yourself Up for Weekday Success

I don't subscribe to strict meal prepping or assembling a lunch four days before you plan to eat it. But I do believe in some light weekend prepping to get ready for quick weekday meals.

For me, this may mean roasting potatoes for bowls or cooking a big pot of grains, lentils, or beans to incorporate into lunches or dinners throughout the week. I like to keep my fridge stocked with hard-boiled eggs and some shredded rotisserie chicken. I'll often whip up a simple dressing or a tasty sauce like pesto or chimichurri so that I'm only a drizzle away from a flavor-packed meal.

6. Take Advantage of Your Freezer

Your freezer is a magical place — use it! If you like to buy chicken, fish, beef, or tofu, get in the habit of freezing some so that you don't feel pressed to use it all up before it spoils. Single people basically need a freezer to enjoy bread at its freshest. Throw half of the loaf in there so you don't have to experience the heartbreak of noticing mold on it.

If you're making a large-scale recipe that you won't be able to get through fast enough, commit to wrapping up half of it and freezing it for later. Lasagna, soup, chili, casseroles, and braises all freeze like a charm. Wrap them in zip-top bags and label them. When you're ready to enjoy your leftovers, let them thaw in your fridge overnight before reheating.

7. Be Adventurous

My favorite part about cooking is that you can always find new ideas to try. Making the same food over and over again can become monotonous, so don't be afraid to branch out of your comfort zone. There's plenty of recipe inspiration on Instagram and TikTok, or head to your local bookstore and buy a cookbook that piques your interest. If a recipe is written to four servings, either halve the recipe or enjoy the rest as leftovers.


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