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Menu Planning Tips for One

Cooking should always be a pleasure, and that’s as true for when you’re preparing meals for one (or two) as it is when you’re cooking for a crowd. It’s fun to seek out the best ingredients, experiment with new flavors, and prepare dishes to your own preferences. The sensory pleasures of cooking—the feel of chopping something, the sound of foods sizzling in a wok, the aroma of a simmering soup—are exhilarating!

Keeping your meals flavorful, interesting, and satisfying should always be the goal. Stop thinking that you have limited choices or that dinner means “leftovers.” With careful menu planning, you can enjoy delicious and healthy meals every day of the week.

Menu Planning 101

The first step in menu planning is deciding what you want to cook. Everything else flows from that, including shopping. For the most flavorful meals, organize your menus according to what’s in season.

When setting a weekly menu, plan meals that use up perishable ingredients in a variety of recipes. Also, don’t be afraid to use substitutes. Like many people, you won’t always have, or want to buy, every ingredient listed in a recipe. You can use substitutes to vary a recipe or move it into the next season. It’s also a great way to try new flavors and ingredients, keeping meals interesting.

Have a plan and a backup. There are times when life catches you by surprise or you find you have bits of this and that to use up. That’s when you turn to your pantry, fridge, and freezer, where, if you’ve been keeping it well-stocked, you’ll find the basics for putting together a quick and healthy meal, like pasta with broccoli or soup made with chicken stock and white beans.

Shopping Strategies

To make a good shopping list that gets you through the whole week, refer to your menu plan. Give careful thought to generating “prep-overs,” which can mean partially preparing foods one day and finishing them another. It can also mean doubling a recipe so it’s part of dinner one night and the basis for another meal the next day. Multi-tasking helps to keep the time spent in the kitchen to a minimum.

Other shopping strategies include:

  • Assembling your shopping list with amounts and quantities noted.
  • Checking your pantry for staples and adjusting your list.
  • Scanning the newspaper to clue in on what’s in season and what’s on sale.
  • Taking your list to the store and using it—but not being afraid to grab an unexpected opportunity (e.g., white peaches at the height of the season or a great deal on fresh tuna).

A Sample Menu Plan

Taking a moment to plot out the week’s meals makes shopping efficient, and helps ensure that you’ll have everything you need on hand when you’re ready to cook.

The chart below shows a real-world example of a typical week. On Monday, prepare a soufflé from the freezer and put a pot of oatmeal on to make enough to have for two breakfasts. It reheats quickly in the microwave. On Tuesday, use some of the figs for the skewers and bake a simple gratin for breakfast the next day. Make enough sausage to use in a sandwich for Wednesday’s lunch. Soak some black beans overnight. On Wednesday, breakfast and lunch are already made. Put the beans on to simmer for Thursday night’s dinner. On Thursday, finish the oatmeal and make the Cornish game hen. Friday is a travel day; make a simple black bean burrito from the leftover beans cooked on Wednesday.

So give meal planning a try—it will change the way you cook, whether it’s for one or a dozen.

Article adapted from the CIA cookbook Cooking for One.

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