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The Joys of Solo Cooking

Yes, it is possible to cook great-tasting meals for one without breaking the budget or having leftovers for a week.

Guest Author: Monda Rosenberg 

Over a quarter of Canadians live on their own, and that figure is rising. From 2006 to 2011 alone, it soared over 10 per cent. 

Two very different age groups frequently face the challenge of solo cooking: students when they first leave home, and seniors living on their own. 

For the younger age group, lack of time, money and lack of cooking skills can mean they down a bag of chips and call it dinner. Many seniors simply lack motivation and may end up eating toast-and-jam suppers.

Fact is, cooking for one definitely has its upside. You can buy and cook only what you love to eat, with no need to worry about pleasing others. The possibilities for treating yourself are unlimited—from what you buy, to how you cook and season it. 

MEAL-IN-ONE 

Making a meal-in-one avoids the need to have a bunch of pots brewing away at the same time—a skillet to fry meat, for example, plus a couple of pots with peas and potatoes— which can lead to a sink full of dirty dishes. Furthermore, if you’re just starting off, you may just own a single skillet and might have access to only a microwave or slow cooker to do all of your cooking. 

Here are a few ways to reel in a nutritionally smart meal, from wrapping a complete dinner in foil or parchment, to cooking everything in a frying pan or single baking pan. 

ALL WRAPPED UP 

Cooking in packets is an easy way to make dinner, with no cleanup required. Check out Tomato Feta Chicken for One and Asparagus Chèvre for One at chicken.ca. Both of these nutritionally complete meals are enclosed in parchment paper using the fancy French technique known as “en papillote” (pah-pee-yoht). Foil also works well in these recipes; it’s just not as pretty. 

Here’s a simple DIY idea: Start with one piece of chicken (whichever piece you prefer); place it on foil or parchment. Add a vegetable and cheese, if you want to include that recommended dairy component. Use whichever vegetables you have that will cook in the same time as the chicken, and any cheese you adore. A good sprinkling of poultry seasoning, tarragon or thyme adds flavour and fragrance. Then wrap, bake, and dinner is done.

ROAST

Got a hankering for an old-fashioned roast chicken dinner, but don’t want a ton of leftovers? Easy peasy! Choose a chicken leg or breast with skin on and bone in. Place on a pie plate or small foil pan. Add pudgy potato wedges, and a few carrots or slices of squash or pepper. Rub everything with butter. Sprinkle the chicken with salt and poultry seasoning, or sage and thyme. Paprika is perfect on the potatoes and dill on the carrots. Roast at 375°F (190°C) until golden, about an hour. Turn potatoes and carrots a couple of times. 

Also try our Honey-Dijon Drumsticks and bake squash or half a sweet potato alongside. 

SKILLET 

For a fast healthy dinner in a frying pan, start by browning the chicken (a mix of butter and oil in the pan is best) over medium heat. The browning will take 2 to 3 minutes a side. Then lower the heat, cover and cook through. Count on 4 minutes per side for boneless thighs and as much as 12 minutes a side for a leg with thigh attached. Now, there is nothing taxing about this method. 

To make it a complete dinner, throw in some cut-up fresh vegetables (from Bok Choy to pepper strips or inexpensive zucchini) or a handful of cherry tomatoes for the last few minutes of cooking. You could also add a few spoonfuls of water and either frozen or canned vegetables. Some quick-cooking rice, quinoa or pasta on the side, and it’s a wrap. 

Glam up your meal a little by trying our Prosciutto-Wrapped Chicken with Brie Mash and Green Beans. Use whichever creamy cheese you may have and whichever vegetable you like.

STIR-FRY 

Stir-fries don’t need to be gargantuan. A frying pan is an excellent sub for a wok when cooking just for yourself. While most stir-fries are kick-started by sizzling onions and garlic in a generous splash of oil, you can keep the oil count low by simmering with a few spoonfuls of water instead. Alternatively, simply skip this step; instead, throw in green onion and garlic powder with the chicken. In place of frying cut-up chicken, add leftover cooked chicken from the fridge or freezer after stir-frying cut-up veggies. Add teriyaki or hoisin sauce thinned with water and let the chicken poach (or heat if previously cooked) in the sauce. You may also want to drizzle in a little honey. 

To make it more interesting, check out our Chicken Stir-Fry with Peanut Miso Sauce. And remember, the easiest way to kick up a dish is to add a fiery touch—hot chili flakes, Asian chili garlic sauce or a big dash of hot sauce.

SAUCEPAN SUPPERS 

In the time it takes to boil pasta, soak rice noodles or steam up rice or quinoa, you can have a protein-rich sauce ready to pour over top. Start with part of a can of diced tomatoes (freeze the rest), and add a whole piece of chicken. Simmer until done, adding a handful of frozen peas, fresh spinach or kale near the end. Toss sauce with pasta, or pour over couscous. The chicken goes on the side. Using sliced chicken will slash cooking times, or you can toss in leftover bits from the freezer. 

Tomato-based pasta sauce delivers dynamic flavour and a cache of nutrients. Spruce it up with sliced peppers, zucchini or whatever veggies may be lurking in the crisper. Bite- size chicken pieces or those bits of cooked chicken you stripped from a carcass and collected in the freezer are ideal here. And when you want to treat yourself, heat a creamy alfredo-style sauce along with the chicken, frozen peas and maybe some frozen shrimp. 

Our Creamy Chicken Pasta Dinner is far from a guilt-ridden, high-fat recipe, boasting not only a serving of chicken, but three servings of vegetables plus two grains—and all for less than 550 calories. Quinoa and gluten-free fans should check out our Herb Chicken and Mushroom Spaghetti, which calls for the newer quinoa brown rice pastas (but you can use whatever is in your cupboard) or spoon the sauce over quinoa. 

SLOW COOKER 

Most slow cooker recipes are designed to make enough to feed at least four people for two dinners but don’t let that hold you back from this easy cook-once, dine-multiple-times method. 

Take our French Fusion Braised Chicken Dinner, for example. You get an Asian/French flavour-charged complete dinner for your first meal. For dinner number two, mash up the potatoes, take the chicken off the bone and heat in the sauce for spooning over the spuds. The remainder goes into the freezer to reappear with added broth in a soul-soothing soup, and the last bit pleases as a pasta topper bolstered with canned tomatoes and maybe some shredded kale.  

Craving something more exotic? Try our Burmese Chicken Curry; it’s fragrant with turmeric, garam masala and fish sauce. It’s so enticing you may end up morphing four servings into two. 

RICE COOKER

Only have a rice cooker? Don’t let that hold you back! It can almost be a stand-in for a slow cooker. Our Chinese-style Steamed Chicken and Broccoli cooks the fresh green in a steamer on top of the cooking rice. Don’t hesitate to use whatever vegetable you love in place of the broccoli, and regular soy sauce for the tamari. 

If you don’t want to follow a recipe, simply stir cooked chicken pieces plus frozen peas and carrots into the rice as soon as it is cooked, and they’ll quickly heat through. I’d also add Asian chili sauce or a good sprinkling of curry powder. 

MICROWAVE 

Wanna cook a piece of chicken ASAP? Then turn to your microwave, and remember that “microwave steaming” gives the juiciest results. Since microwaves cook from the inside out, a whole chicken breast with bone in will cook unevenly. But microwaving the chicken in a hot bath of water will even out the cooking and prevent drying.

Peel off the skin. Place chicken in a microwave dish close in size to the chicken piece. Fill dish 1/3 full of water. Cover with plastic wrap and lift a tiny corner. Microwave on full power about 6 minutes per pound (500 g), which works out to about 3 minutes for a boneless skinless breast. Let it sit, covered, 2 to 3 more minutes. Then test with a meat thermometer to make sure it has reached an internal temperature of 165°F (74°C). 

On those mornings when a nice brunch is in order, treat yourself to Chicken & Egg in a Mug – a protein-packed “breakfast for one” all microwaved up in a coffee mug. (Just be warned, the cooking time of 1 ½ minutes isn’t quite long enough to brew some coffee to go with it.) Add whole-grain toast and you’re off to a super-nutritious start to the day. Or, before you run out the door to a class, pack a Grab & Go Breakfast Burrito

ALWAYS BE PREPARED 

Stocking the pantry, fridge and freezer with the staples you like best is the first and absolutely essential step in getting a good dinner on your plate. Many canned and frozen goods have a very long shelf life, so stock up when they’re on sale. 

Ditto with chicken shopping and stocking. With chicken pieces, there are always good buys on big family packs. Use what you can right away. Freeze the rest on a cookie sheet until firm, then tumble into freeze bags so they don’t freeze together in a big clump. 

Try roasting a whole chicken when it’s on sale; freeze the leftovers in dinner-size pieces. Also freeze every little bit of chicken you aren’t eating up; these can be added to a can of soup, chili, pasta sauce, package of mac and cheese, ramen noodles, stir-fried rice, pizza slice or nacho stack. Not only will this up the flavour and texture of your meal, you can pat yourself on the back for boosting the nutrient count. 

Any time you need motivation or inspiration, go to chicken.ca and type in “cooking for one.” Hundreds of ideas will pop up, including a blog with specific tips for shopping and stocking the pantry, as well as a plethora of recipes sure to appeal to every palate. 

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