Food Waste and the Single-Person Household
Single-person households face unique problems when it comes to food waste. With the retail environment for food geared toward family-sized portions, it can be hard for a single person to avoid buying more than they need. Foods with a short shelf life, like produce, are often bundled into large sizes, and the “buy more, save more” mentality prevalent in many stores can mean higher prices per item for people buying only one thing. On top of all that, single-person households are often physically small, with less food storage space overall, including smaller refrigerators with minimal freezer space.
What to do?
I’ve read a variety of articles about this subject and talked with single people I know. Here is my collected wisdom.
Shop More Often? Look Beyond the Grocery Store?
In theory, frequent shopping trips help limit the waste of produce and perishable items like bread or some meats. The idea is that you head to the store, buy a few individual items–a couple of apples, a tomato, a baguette, a few slices of turkey from the deli–then return to the store a few days later to buy more. It’s sometimes referred to as the European way and it’s fantastic advice, if you can manage it.
As good as it sounds, this method is not for everyone. If you work full-time, the idea of heading to the grocery store three or four times a week might not be appealing. If you don’t live close to a store, it’s not always convenient to make multiple trips. Or, if you are someone without a car or who needs assistance when shopping, you may depend on others for transportation and have no choice but to minimize the number of times you shop.
I’ve also seen suggestions to shop at bulk stores or farmers’ markets where you can buy food in smaller amounts. Again, this is great advice for those who can get to those places, but not everyone can. And, as much as people want to support local farmers, individuals on a budget may not be able to afford the higher prices often charged at farmers’ markets.
If you can shop more often or at a variety of retailers, great. If you can’t, you may have to think of shopping smarter instead of shopping more often and planning for any excess amounts you might have.
I’ve talked in previous posts about meal planning (including leftovers) and mindfulness, both of which are critical to reducing food waste, no matter the size of your household. If you make a plan for what you need and consider each purchase before you put it in your cart, you’ll find you end up buying, spending, and wasting less. As to how to plan for one person, I’ve listed some ideas below.
Figuring Out Your Serving Size
Before you can plan for meals and leftovers, you need to know what constitutes a serving for you. Can you eat a whole chicken breast in one meal? What volume of ground meat or vegetarian equivalent do you need for a pasta dish, and how much dry pasta do you need for a serving? How much spinach can you eat in the few days between its arrival at your home and eventual wilting in the fridge? Can you really eat an apple a day before the supply you have starts to go bad?
Knowing the general amount you eat in one serving or over the course of a few days will help not only with shopping and cooking, but also with long-term storage. For example, if you use half a chicken breast for a stir-fry, that helps you determine the size of package to buy and what size portion to freeze. (More on that in the section on freezing, below.)
Determining serving size can involve some trial and error, but it helps immensely when meal planning.
Planning to Cook For One
It’s not always easy to plan and cook for one, but here are a few tips that might help you downsize your meals and use up the ingredients you have on hand.
- Part of planning is having a collection of recipes and meal ideas you can choose from. When you are cooking for one, it can be challenging to find single-serving recipes. Scaling recipes down can be difficult, but a good culinary calculator makes it easier. I find this “How to Cut Down Recipes” chart from Taste of Home pretty handy. (I have also converted measurements to metric and cut recipes in halves or thirds that way. Honestly, metric is so much better than imperial for this kind of thing.) If you print recipes, you can make notes about adjustments so you have them for next time.
- When collecting recipes, try to focus on ingredients that can be used in multiple ways or will last at least a few days. I don’t cook for one, but when I buy something like kale, I am the one who eats the bulk of it. So I have a multi-use plan in place: a standard lunch salad for a couple of days, a smoothie, an omelette, and a dinner salad (scaled down) that I typically eat with a protein and starch.
- Plan meals that are inherently single-serve and, ideally, flexible. Think sandwiches or wraps, omelettes, fried rice or rice bowls with vegetables and dressing, pasta, avocado toast, a small stir-fry, a single pizza made on store-bought flatbread–anything that can be custom-sized and act as a fridge cleaner to use up any vegetables, cheese, and proteins you have on hand.
- Include in your meal plan frozen foods that are packed indivudally, like chicken or veggie burgers, or appetizers like mini quiche or spring rolls. There will be times you don’t feel like cooking, so having these small, ready-made portions in your freezer can make mealtime easier. No room for a large package of burger buns in your freezer? Skip the bun. Burgers don’t need to be served in the traditional way. Pan fry one and serve it with a side of raw vegetables and pita chips or crackers as your “bun.”
- And remember that your meals do not have to conform to other people’s ideas of what breakfast, lunch, or supper should look like. A sandwich or some crackers/naan/pita with dips and crudites make a perfectly fine supper. And oatmeal, fruit, and nuts make a great lunch. When you’re cooking for one, you make the rules, so eat what you have on hand, whenever you want.
Phone a Friend
If you have a friend or relative who lives alone or has a small family, make a plan to shop together and divide larger items. If you know a single senior, do the same.
Bring along some food containers or bags, ring up items to be shared on a separate bill so it’s easy to split the cost, then divide things in half once you get to one of your homes. Think large bunches of greens, carrots, or celery; a container of cherry tomatoes or strawberries; a bunch of green onions or cilantro; an English cucumber. On the protein side, you can divide a package of chicken breasts or other meat or tofu and freeze what you can’t use immediately. (Well, maybe not the tofu–it doesn’t always freeze well but it does come in small packages that, divided in two, work out to a pretty manageable amount.)
Economies of scale at food retailers often mean you save more by buying more, so if you divide bigger items, you can get the savings without any waste.
As I note in my meal planning post, a plan for leftovers is essential. When you select meals and make a shopping list, plan for leftovers too. I have a Leftovers post you can consult for ideas. That post is geared a little more toward families, but the advice applies to single-person households as well.
The general idea is to include intentional leftovers in your meal plan:
- Starches and grains are a great base for meals that extend beyond one serving. For example, if you’re having pasta and tomato sauce one night, cook a little extra pasta for a salad the next day that can incorporate vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers, and maybe some feta. Or try grains that go from side dish to lunch very easily, like farro, freekeh, and pearl couscous. Sold dry, they last a long time and you can cook only the portion you need.
- Various proteins are also good intentional leftovers. If you cook an entire chicken breast or block of tofu for supper one night, toss it into a salad or wrap the next day. The possibilities are endless; you just have to have a plan ahead of time.
- Canned beans are a great protein option but a large can is a lot. Make a bean salad for dinner one day and lunch the next. Freeze leftover beans for use in a soup, chili, or stew.
- Speaking of soup, chili, and stew, they all freeze well so making a little extra means you’ll have a stash of ready-made meals in your freezer.
Use The Freezer Space You Have
If you have a small freezer, you have to plan wisely for freezing leftovers. The key is having the right kind of storage. Many freezer bags and containers come in small sizes, making it possible to store small amounts with minimal air around them. (Larger, looser packaging means more air and faster freezer burn.)
You’ll find that your serving size information comes in handy here. Returning to that package of chicken breasts I mentioned earlier, if you know you only eat about half of one at a time, cut each one in half and put it in the smallest container it will fit in to avoid freezer burn, and don’t buy so much that you can’t fit it in your freezer or use it before freezer burn starts.
I talk more about freezing in my post on Leftovers, including the universally recommended trick of freezing sauces and soups flat to save space.
Plan to Save
I use the word “plan” a lot, and it can sound overwhelming to do all this prep work before shopping, but it makes a world of difference. Once you figure out your serving size and get in the habit of meal planning, it will become second nature. You’ll know exactly how much of each item to buy and how you will use it all up. You’ll save money and reduce waste, making all that effort worth it.