There are *so* many benefits to meal prepping and cooking at home. Two of the biggest? Staying on track with healthy eating suddenly becomes super simple and it’s totally cost-effective. (BTW, here are seven meal-prep gadgets that make batch cooking way easier.)
But if you’re cooking and/or prepping for one and need single-serving meals? Well, that can be a little more challenging, as getting the amount of ingredients just right without having to eat the exact same thing every night for a week can be tough. And making a huge amount of food and eating it all before it goes bad? Easier said than done.
That’s why we checked in with nutrition and meal prep pros to get their best tips for planning when you’re eating solo. Here’s what they had to say.
Hack #1: Don’t wing it.
Meal-prepping for one can be a challenge because you have to eat everything before it goes bad, and getting the number of meals and grocery list exactly right without giving it a little thought beforehand isn’t easy. “This is why a plan is essential,” says Talia Koren, creator of WorkWeekLunch. “I suggest looking at your social and work schedule before going grocery shopping to get a solid sense of how much food you actually need for the week,” says Koren. “Do you have some dinners, lunches or coffee meetings planned? Then plan meals that you want to cook and prep around that, and you’ll significantly reduce your food waste.” Then, put together your grocery list with specific amounts needed for each item to cut down on food waste. (Related: Why Starting a Healthy Meal Prep Lunch Club Can Transform Your Midday Meal)
Hack #2: Focus on one elevated ingredient.
Need a little inspiration for meal planning, or just something to make your basic chicken/rice/veggies combo feel a bit more special? “Strike a balance by keeping the prep simple but splurging on one ingredient that makes an otherwise basic meal feel more like café dining,” says Meghan Lyle, a registered dietitian and Arivale Coach. “For example, get a great quality Parmesan to grate over soup or pasta; keep a ‘finishing’ olive oil on hand to drizzle over salads or grain bowls, not for cooking; pick up pesto, puttanesca sauce, or a flavorful kimchi from your local farmer’s market; buy some fancy olives from the deli section.”
Hack #3: Hit up the bulk bins in the grocery store.
Once you’ve got a plan and figured out how much you need of each ingredient, it can be frustrating to get to the grocery store and realize that the foods you’re after are only sold in large quantities. Enter: The bulk bins. Whenever you can, utilize them—especially for fresh fruits, veggies, and grains. “Not only is it better for the environment (less packaging!) and usually much cheaper than pre-packaged items, but you can buy exact quantities of whatever you need,” explains Lauren Kretzer, a chef and recipe developer. “No need to buy a full pound of quinoa if you only need a half cup.” (More: Meal-Prep Mistakes to Avoid for Faster, Healthier, and Better Food)
Hack #4: Scope out the salad bar.
“It can be tempting to stick to the same vegetables over and over,” says Jill Weisenberger, a registered dietitian and author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide. “Scope out the grocery stores and restaurants for the best salad bars. Make yourself a nice to-go plate with small amounts of various vegetables. Now you have just the right amount to roast several vegetables or create a colorful stir-fry. (Struggling to love your greens? Here are six tricks that will make you want to eat your veggies.)
Hack #5: Try “buffet prep.”
Don’t want to make five of the exact same meal? We don’t blame ya. “I suggest something called a ‘buffet prep’ to avoid food boredom,” says Koren. “A buffet prep involves batch cooking your favorite ingredients (grilled chicken, roasted sweet potato, rice, lots of greens, chopped veggies, etc.) and creating meals with them as needed. This way, you can easily mix and match and create new combinations!” (Need some real meal ideas? Here’s how to pick the perfect meal-prep recipe.)
Hack #6: Frozen fruits and veggies are your friends.
If you aren’t able to buy the exact quantities of fresh items you need for your meal plans, go for frozen. “Fruits and vegetables are often frozen at peak freshness/ripeness, and you can choose organic varieties, too,” says Kretzer. “If you buy frozen, you don’t need to worry about food rotting before you get around to eating it. Just grab a handful of frozen raspberries for your morning oatmeal, or use a portion of a bag of frozen kale to toss with soba noodles as a way of getting your veggie quotient without worrying about food spoilage.” (FYI, here’s how and when to use the freezer for meal prep.)
Hack #7: Keep your pantry stocked with your staples.
Even if you’ve planned your week out perfectly, stuff happens. Sometimes you need an extra meal, miscalculate how long something will last in the fridge, or end up skipping a meal out. “Keeping a few pantry staples can help you stay on track with your healthy diet if you find yourself running low on prepped food near the end of the week,” says Carrie Walder, a registered dietitian. “I always recommend having a few frozen vegetables and sliced whole-wheat bread in the freezer, a box of whole-wheat pasta in the pantry, and eggs in the fridge. This allows you to quickly put together a healthy veggie pasta, veggie omelet or frittata, or even an avocado toast with eggs when you’re in a pinch.”
Hack #8: Make solo cooking fun.
“If you think of ‘cooking for one’ as a lonely task, you’re less likely to partake in it and reach for the takeout menu,” says Walder. “Take this solo cooking time as an opportunity to listen to your favorite podcast, catch up on the news, or enjoy a new playlist. You may find that you love cooking and that it can be a form of self-care. Soon you’ll be looking forward to this alone time each week.”