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.
Folks, this soup is magical. It’s simple to the point of being questionable—just chicken broth, rice, eggs, and a lemon. But that’s the beauty of it. Rice simmers in the broth, then the hot liquid tempers beaten egg yolks. It all cooks together until the soup suddenly thickens and brightens. That’s it. I love how humble and warming it is, how the lemon kind of crashes through. I craved it on one of our first cool nights in NYC last week, and I’m sure it’ll be in my regular rotation as the days get chilly.
Most recipes you’ll find start with eight or nine cups of broth, six eggs, a cup of rice. My favorite version comes from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. After Gourmet magazine closed, she spent a year in upstate New York cooking her way to finding peace with it all. This soup was soothing for her then, and it is for me now. I hope she doesn’t mind that I scaled down her recipe to serve one.
I love poached chicken for this—it’s tender and falls apart in big, pleasing shreds. I cooked a couple breasts on Sunday using this method from the Kitchn and used them in lunches and dinners all week long.
Also, don’t toss those egg whites! Bulk up your next scramble or beat to soft peaks and fold into pancake batter for extra fluffy cakes.
A super simple, bright, comforting soup for one. This Greek classic uses just broth, rice, lemon, and eggs. I like to stir in shredded cooked chicken breast and top with parsley or scallion. You could sauté a few veggies in the pot before simmering the broth if you like. This recipe is adapted from Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year.
1½cupsunsalted chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth
3tbspdry white rice
½cupshredded cooked chicken breast
salt and pepper to taste
Bring stock and water to a boil in a large pot with the lid on. Regular broth or stock would be a little too salty here… if you can’t find unsalted stock or low-sodium broth, up your ratio of water to broth. Once it reaches a boil, add rice, reduce heat slightly, and simmer with the lid on until the rice is tender, about 12 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks and the juice of ½ lemon in a bowl and beat well with a whisk to combine. When the rice is cooked, take a ladle full of the stock mixture and very slowly stream it into the bowl with the egg yolk mixture, whisking constantly until combined. Add this mixture in a slow stream back to the pot with the remaining stock mixture, whisking constantly. Simmer about 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally. It will thicken slightly, but not as much as a custard.
Stir in shredded chicken and simmer about 1 minute more to warm through. Remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with parsley leaves or a little chopped green onion.
“Is there enough of an idea there?” It’s something I’ve asked of so many recipes as a food editor over the years. If a dish felt too simple, too basic, did people really need a recipe for it? If they didn’t, was it worth giving it space on the page? Any simple recipe needed something to make it compelling, to make readers want to try it even if they never actually did.
Early on, this felt a bit hypocritical. It was nothing like how I cooked at home. I loved simply cooked veggies with a pat of butter, a squeeze of lemon. I lived for a plate of random ingredients in their simplest form. If I needed to develop recipes for work, I had to fight every instinct to take out ingredients, use fewer pots and pans, and strip a cooking method down to its most essential parts. To just let a tomato be a tomato.
Eating and cooking simply is actually kind of daring. In a social media sea of three-page recipes and twelve-ingredient grain bowls, it takes guts to say, “I had sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and an egg for dinner.” For years I felt like it wasn’t really cooking, wasn’t really worth sharing, wasn’t a voice people needed to hear. There wasn’t enough of an idea there.
The thing is, as much as I’m inspired by the incredible food I see in my feed, I also need the visual reminder that it’s okay to keep it simple. And maybe other single cooks who think all cooking involves big batches, long ingredient lists, and lots of cleanup need this reminder too.
For me, cooking simply is about letting ingredients stand on their own rather than trying to transform them, of taking the quickest, un-fussiest route whenever possible. It’s often a “this plus that” assembling of components that you don’t think will make a complete meal until they meet each other on the plate. (A recent favorite: stir-fried broccoli, cold tofu, a soft-boiled egg, and rice noodles with TJ’s chili-onion crunch.) Cooking simply is skipping that fourth spice or third vegetable when you don’t have it or don’t want to bother. It’s not bland or boring, but minimal and thoughtful.
Once I owned this kind of simplicity as my personal cooking style, the ideas poured from me. I filled a notebook, created a hefty Google Drive, and started a blog. Keeping it simple isn’t just enough of an idea, it’s thewhole idea. And I’m just getting started.
The weight of the world is crushing. You’ve been living in isolation for months, cooking every meal and washing up afterward. It’s too hot to turn on the stove. You’re out of inspiration, having shopped nowhere but your neighborhood store, having dined nowhere but your own home. Even if you love it, cooking for one can lose its appeal… especially now.
What I’ve realized is that cooking for myself is not an all or nothing proposition. It’s not about committing to a certain number of home-cooked meals over a certain number of days. It’s not about creating a gram-worthy plate every night. Cooking for one is about showing kindness to yourself in whatever way you need on any given evening, whether that’s preparing a thoughtful meal or not cooking at all.
The most important thing is that you get to choose. You shouldn’t be stuck with random snacks when you really want an exciting, satisfying meal. You shouldn’t be locked into a meal plan when you don’t feel like making that day’s scheduled dish. You shouldn’t have to eat the same leftovers three nights in a row when you really want something new. No lack of cooking skills, fear of food waste, or feeling that you don’t deserve more should stand between you and what you really want to eat.
And when you just can’t bear to cook, order takeout. Pile the random foods from your fridge onto a plate. Pop some popcorn. Just take the guilt out of the equation for tonight. Depending on your mood, you can choose something totally different tomorrow.
Some of my favorite can’t-bear-to-cook dinners: – A soft-boiled egg, tomatoes, cucumber, Greek yogurt topped with olive oil, and a little smoked salmon – Frozen veggie dumplings steamed with veggies over microwaveable brown rice. – A mile-high cheese sandwich
– A couple slices of prosciutto, walnuts, sliced cheese, apples wedges, and celery sticks
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 Nashville, TN. I’m also passionate about helping single cooks of all skill levels find confidence and joy in cooking for one. Learn more.