The New York Times recently published an article called Scaling Down Recipes for Small Batches by Erin McDowell, a resident baker at Food52 and author of The Book on Pie. The article talks about a growing need for small batch recipes in light of the pandemic, when smaller households don’t want to be stuck with leftovers or when baking ingredients are in short supply.
One line jarred me immediately. “I love to bake,” McDowell says, “but I live alone with my husband.” This is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms that a second grader could spot but that the Times chose to overlook. One commenter provided the basic math: “Alone is just one person. Add a person—the first is no longer alone.”
Cooking for two is often lumped together with cooking for one, but they couldn’t be more different. When you cook with and for another person, the entire dynamic shifts. A negotiation takes place at every meal: what to eat, who is doing the shopping/cooking/cleaning, whether or not to order takeout/where from/what to get. You also have someone to share in the cost, the preparation, and the cleanup, someone to help you eat the leftovers. The only similarity is that single cooks and couples both need less food than a standard recipe makes. It’s important to make this distinction. It’s important to define “alone” as one person and to own it.
The article was otherwise unremarkable, but the comments were both fascinating and infuriating. For every one person who thanked the author for the article or explained why small batches worked better for their lifestyle (ingredients are expensive, storage space is limited, they don’t want the extras or don’t have people to take them), ten more rose up to disparage them and the entire small batch idea. These commenters didn’t understand why you wouldn’t just freeze the extra three dozen cookies or give the majority of what you make to neighbors or friends or organizations in need. They couldn’t fathom why you would bother baking at all just to produce so little.
It’s an example of a conversation I’ve had and heard many times. It goes something like this:
Solo cooks: Your recipes/meal plans/shopping guides don’t work for me. What I need is THIS. Everyone else: Why can’t you just deal with it? Spend more! Freeze it all! Give it away! Solo cooks: Because for me that’s a waste of food and money. I like to cook and bake. I like fresh, homemade meals. I just need recipes that work for me. Everyone else: But WHY can’t you just… (see first response).
Getting others to hear and understand the needs of single cooks and our potential power as an audience feels like shouting into a void. It feels like pushing against a gale force wind that’s howling, “You don’t exist! You don’t matter! Just deal with it!” It’s exhausting. But I’ve had too many conversations and seen too many comments about this to give up now. We may be a chorus of cooks shouting into a void, but the void is getting smaller. And we’re only getting louder.
Cooks of all skill levels know one basic equation: Starchy thing + red saucy thing + cheesy thing = quick, cheap, comforting meal. I started, as most college kids do, with dried spaghetti from a box and sauce from a jar. I still wouldn’t turn this down (pasta snob I am not), but over the years I’ve found many ways to make it so much better, and just about as cheap and easy.
First, the sauce. Like most packaged products, the jarred stuff doesn’t work for me as a solo cook. It’s too big and goes bad too quickly. The flavor also seems overwhelmingly sweet or dried herb-y or burnt tomato-y. Instead, I zhuzh (juj? juge?) up a can of crushed tomatoes with a couple pantry ingredients, just like Italians do.
There’s a wrench here though. A 15-oz can of crushed tomatoes is near impossible to find. For some reason, this style of tomato comes almost exclusively in 28-oz cans. If you can’t find a 15-oz can, you can blitz a can of whole tomatoes until just shy of a puree, using some but not all of the tomato liquid. You can also buy that 28-oz can, transfer the rest to an airtight container, and use in future pastas, soups, shakshukas, etc.
Next, the pasta. Dumplings are a fantastic upgrade from noodles, no fancy equipment required. This recipe comes from @the_pastaqueen. Nadia combines panko, ricotta, Parm and egg, forms into balls, and simmers in the sauce. They double in size and become feather-light as they cook—a cheesy cloud floating in a robust homemade tomato sauce. I’ve scaled down and streamlined her recipe here.
This dish does make enough for two servings, but it reheats like a dream for a late night snack or tomorrow’s lunch (I’ve had it both ways). Go easy on the black pepper here, as ricotta amplifies big flavors much more than you’d think.
Light-as-air ricotta dumplings cook right in a quick homemade sauce—no need for a second pan. Use a large skillet since they will double in size, and cover as they cook to keep the liquid from evaporating.
Prep Time 15minutes
Cook Time 20minutes
Total Time 35minutes
½cupfinely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
2tbspfinely chopped Italian parsley
2garlic cloves, minced
¼tspcrushed red pepper
115-oz can crushed tomatoes (about 1½ cups)
½cupchicken stock or water
Combine ricotta, panko, Parmesan, parsley, egg, salt, and black pepper in a medium bowl. Set aside.
Heat a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and garlic and cook 1 minute or until the garlic just starts to sizzle and turn golden. Stir in oregano and crushed red pepper. Stir in crushed tomatoes and broth or water. (You’ll think there’s too much oil in the pan, but keep stirring to combine—it adds great flavor and texture to the sauce.) Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 4-5 minutes.
While the sauce simmers, divide and shape the ricotta mixture into 12 (1-inch) balls. Add ricotta dumplings to the pan with sauce in a single layer. Cover the pan and simmer on low heat for 10 minutes. Gently turn the dumplings over with a large spoon, then cover again and simmer for 5 more minutes. Serve with extra grated Parmesan.
I’m talking about leftovers with a capital “L”—the big batch recipe that I’m supposed to chip away at for days on end. If I have to eat anything more than twice I do a lot of internal moaning and groaning about it. I know this puts me at odds with most cooks. Leftovers are generally heralded as a boon—a promise that you won’t have to cook for the next several days, that dinner is just a plate and microwave nuke away. If that works for you, that’s fantastic. For me though (and I suspect other solo cooks), it’s a burden. Let me explain.
I resent what leftovers represent
When I first started searching for solutions for single cooks about 7 years ago, all I found were meal planners telling me to freeze giant batches of food, then ration and reheat for weeks. The message: Cooking is a terrible chore, especially if you’re only feeding yourself. Better to avoid it altogether by subsisting on the same dish for weeks. The subtext: Endless leftovers are your punishment for living alone.
I love to cook and resent the assumption that I don’t or shouldn’t because I don’t have others to feed. If solo cooks had more and better resources and the pressure was relaxed a bit, I bet they’d love to cook as well. Leftovers are a cop out, non-solution for what single cooks really need: scaled down recipes, streamlined steps, and new ways to use up ingredients.
Leftovers are rarely satisfying
No dish is really as good the third or fourth time it’s eaten. The textures, smells, colors, and flavors have been dulled beyond recognition at that point. You’re stuck eating the same boring dish because it would go to waste otherwise. You’ve avoided the terrible chore of cooking, but now eating has become the chore.
What makes a meal satisfying isn’t just how filling it is, but how much joy and excitement you get from eating it—easier with a hot, fresh, homemade meal. The fact that you took the time and effort to feed yourself well makes it even more satisfying. Endless leftovers rob you of that kind of satisfaction. It cuts you off from interacting with and enjoying your food.
Leftovers are risky
If you cook one serving and don’t really like it, you only have to eat it once. If you cook multiple servings, you’re stuck with it because you don’t want that food, money, and effort to go to waste. There’s always a chance a recipe won’t work or you won’t like the result. I’d rather halve or quarter a recipe and find different uses for the remaining ingredients than be stuck with a lot of something I didn’t really enjoy the first time.
Leftovers can’t keep up with my cravings
My cravings are frequent and fickle. I’ll be desperate for something for about a week, eat it once, then want something totally different the next day. Satisfying your cravings, however weird and random they are, is one of the best things about cooking for one. Seeing what others are cooking also makes me want to drop everything and try it myself, regardless of what I already had planned. Endless leftovers mean fewer chances to to learn, to experiment, to discover new techniques and flavors.
Again, I’m not opposed to all leftovers… A second serving has definitely come in handy for a hot lunch (the Asian Meatloaf from ATK’s Cooking for One cookbook, above). There are also times where I can’t bear to cook and wish I had something stashed away. For the most part though, I love cooking too much exchange the experience for a fast yet fairly disappointing meal. I’m worth more than that, and so are you.
I’m not a big fan of big-batch leftovers—the kind you make at the beginning of the week and reheat again and again. I get bored easily, and I feel like foods lose all their oomph after a second reheating. Soups are no exception. To me, the bigger the batch of soup, the more tasteless it becomes. It also seems to multiply in the pot no matter how much you intended to make. Chicken stock also isn’t that cheap at my store, so using the whole quart container for one recipe—especially one I might not like—seems a shame.
This tomato soup checks all the boxes for a solo-friendly recipe. (Okay, it makes enough for two, but the leftovers are rather wonderful for lunch on a chilly day.) It uses a whole can of diced tomatoes and not too much broth. Heavy cream seems to be the default lightener for puréed soups, but I don’t buy it because one: I’m lactose intolerant and two: I don’t know how I’d use up the rest of a carton. Instead, I use the Greek yogurt you probably have in your fridge right now. The result is richer, more vibrant, and more velvety than anything you can buy, and it’s ready in about 20 minutes.
If you don’t think warm, crusty, fresh-out-of-the oven bread is possible on a weeknight, this small batch soda bread will blow your mind. I adapted this one from The English Kitchen’s sweet version. Think of it as a fantastic upgrade to the usual grilled cheese, either for dunking in the soup or slathering with butter (I prefer the latter). I bet other flavor combos like Parmesan and prosciutto or walnut and rosemary would be delicious too. Or go sweet by adding a tablespoon of sugar, orange zest, and dried cranberries or golden raisins. It’s one of those back pocket bakes that keeps on giving, especially for the solo cook.
This recipe makes enough for two, or one dinner tonight and one fantastic lunch tomorrow. Don’t forget to split open each quadrant of soda bread and slather with butter.
Prep Time 25minutes
Cook Time 35minutes
Total Time 1hour
Cheddar-Scallion Soda Bread
⅛tspfreshly ground black pepper
½cupfreshly grated sharp Cheddar
2scallions, finely chopped
1garlic clove, minced
1(15 oz) can diced tomatoes
1cupunsalted chicken stock, broth, or water
3tbspwhole milk Greek yogurt
Preheat your oven to 425°F.
For the soda bread, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt, and pepper. Add butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your fingertips until the mixture is pebbly and the butter is well coated. Combine buttermilk and egg yolk in a glass measuring cup. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir with a fork to combine.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a disk that’s about ½-inch thick. Sprinkle a baking sheet lightly with flour and add dough. Using a sharp knife or a bench scraper, cut a cross into the dough, cutting almost through to the baking sheet. Bake for about 35 minutes or until the soda bread is crisp and golden brown.
For the soup, heat oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and sauté 3-4 minutes or until softened. Add the salt, oregano, smoked paprika, and garlic and sauté 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 30 seconds. Add the diced tomatoes and broth. Bring to a gentle simmer and let cook, partially covered, for 5 minutes.
Place yogurt in a small bowl. Add tomato mixture to a blender. Remove the center piece from the blender lid (to allow steam to escape) and secure the lid on the blender. Cover the opening with a kitchen towel. Blend the soup, gradually increasing the speed to medium, until smooth.
Add a ladle full of the soup to the bowl with the yogurt and stir until well-combined. Add the yogurt mixture back to the soup and blend a couple more seconds. Return soup to the Dutch oven and simmer over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Remove from heat. Season to taste. Stir in the baby spinach just until wilted, or add to your bowl and ladle the soup over it.
After over a decade with only a handful of cooking for one cookbooks, we finally got our first major work. Cooking for One by America’s Test Kitchen (ATK) isn’t a chef’s manifesto or a collections of scaled down recipes from sixty years ago. There’s no diet focus or convoluted premise. ATK actually understands the single cook. They know that we need flexibility, hate food waste, and that a great meal is the best form of self care. Cooking for One is modern, general, and accessible. It’s the well-considered, all-purpose cookbook I’ve been waiting for.
If there’s one word I’d use to describe ATK’s style, it’s rigor. A recipe is tested ten, twenty, forty times to get the best version of a dish. Every aspect of a method is pretty much talked to death, every measurable quality evaluated and evaluated again. They apply that same kind of rigor here, with so much material beyond the actual recipes. Front pages tell you exactly how to set up your pantry, how to improvise, how to use leftover ingredients. Each recipe tells you why it works with sidebars on substitutions and optional additions. No stone is left unturned here… They’ve thought of absolutely everything so you don’t have to.
Every type of dish is covered: You’ve got mains, sides, soups, salads, sandwiches, one-pan dinners, and desserts. There are also flavor enhancers like sauces and seasonings to ramp up simpler dishes. Recipes range from components (a salmon fillet or plain rice) to complete dishes so you can mix and match, riff as you like, or just pick a dish and go. Ingredients are easy enough to find and relatively inexpensive. The gems here are the techniques ATK has discovered for cooking smaller portions. The trick to a perfect single serving of white rice? Rinse the grains first, then let the cooked rice steam with a dish towel under the lid to catch extra moisture. How do you get one juicy, golden chicken breast? It’s a specific (though very easy) dance of lid off, lid on, a little liquid, and timing.
If you’re used to putting next to no effort into your meals, know that this book will ask more of you. As someone who usually wings it or takes the path of least resistance, that extra effort was usually worth the end result. ATK hacked dishes I’d never make because of the effort cleanup, and leftovers involved. I’m now making enchiladas or risotto on a weeknight without sweating a thing. I think this is one of the book’s biggest lessons: You deserve to eat well, and wanting a great meal for yourself is reason enough to do a little more in the kitchen.
A few quibbles: There were a couple times where the dish felt a little scant or incomplete considering the effort involved. It’s worth noting too that many recipes are pictured with the optional, “level up” elements that aren’t in the main recipes. Be sure to read these if you want to match what you see. Recipes aren’t very forgiving (a symptom of all that rigorous testing) so pay attention to heat levels, the thickness of veggies and proteins, etc.
Here’s a list of what I’ve made so far. I’ll continue to update this list as I cook more from the book.
Creamy Curried Cauliflower Soup: Took a bit of effort and made a lot, but couldn’t be a meal on its own. Supplemented with sautéed tofu and greens. Also thinned some yogurt with the blended soup instead of using cream.
Crispy-Skinned Salmon Fillet: The fillet was a little overcooked for my taste, so I shorted searing by a minute on each side the next time. Loved the crispy skin.
Crispy-Skinned Chicken Breast: Worked just as written. It’s really important to pound these to an even thickness or they won’t cook through.
Easy Cuban Black Beans: Great flavor. Used a red bell pepper instead of green. Got two meals out of this with all the trimmings (loved the plantain chips for scooping).
Glazed Meatloaf for One: I made both variations—the garlic-ginger with hoisin glaze and the classic with ketchup glaze. Used ground turkey instead of pork and made them a little bigger, so needed to cook for the full time. Really tasty.
Pan-Seared Boneless Chicken Breast: Worked perfectly.
Risotto Primavera: Took a long time. I felt like the method could have been hacked more somehow, like a no-stir, oven-baked method? Also missed the white wine!
Roasted Sweet Potato Wedges: These burned long before the suggested cook time, but maybe they weren’t cut thick enough? I’d cook at 400°F for 10-12 minutes per side instead.
Sweet Potato–Bacon Wrap: Felt pretty scant for the effort involved. I ate another meal after this.
Simple Ratatouille: I stirred in some thinly sliced zucchini and served over quinoa with a fried egg. Skipped the 1/8 teaspoon anchovy paste and it still tasted great.
Tex-Mex Cheese Enchiladas: Loved this so much I made it twice in one week, which is pretty rare for me. I added a little crumbled tofu to the filling. Worked just as written.
Is cooking really worth it, just for me? Yes, and it’s easier than you think. This is food for the busy, social, single cook, with hacks and use-it-up strategies that make the most of everything you buy. It’s solo cooking designed for real life, and it’s never been more delicious.
Hi, I’m Hannah. I’m a food writer, recipe developer, and content manager based in Brooklyn, NY. I’m also passionate about helping single cooks of all skill levels find confidence and joy in cooking for one. Learn more.