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Cooking Tips

A Beginner’s Guide to Cooking for One

How to set yourself up for success in the kitchen and cook what you want, how you want.

Published July 17, 2020.

Indulging in the delight of dining alone is one of life’s greatest pleasures. If you're one of the 36 million Americans who live alone or one of the countless others who cook for themselves for other reasons, you'll love our cookbook Cooking for One, which has more than 160 perfectly portioned recipes, along with approachable tips that will help you become a smarter, more confident, and less wasteful cook.

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Nicole Konstantinakos

Whether you live on your own or share a household with others whose schedules, eating habits, or dietary choices differ from your own, preparing satisfying, budget-conscious, perfectly portioned, unfussy meals for one can bring great pleasure and pride. 

We spent nine months (!) developing a whole cookbook dedicated to solo dining, Cooking for One, and along the way we came up with a list of top tips, strategies, and hacks. Whether you’re new to cooking just for yourself, or you’re tired of reverse engineering big-batch recipes to work for you, these tips will help set yourself up for success, improve your efficiency, and inspire your creativity on your cooking-for-one adventures.

Solo dining never tasted so good

Cooking for One

More than 160 perfectly portioned, easy-to-execute recipes, flexible ingredient lists, and ideas for improvising to your taste.
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Consider a smaller skillet.

When developing recipes for single proteins, such as Crispy-Skinned Chicken, we quickly discovered that reaching for a 12-inch skillet isn’t the smartest decision. The large surface area of the pan overheats and starts to smoke well before your dinner is ready. Instead, opt for a skillet that is closer in size to what you’re cooking.

Using a smaller skillet also means you should be using a smaller burner size. Reacquaint yourself with the smaller burner on your stove and always match the burner you use to the size of your pan (or skillet). Read more about The Best Cooking Gear for the Solo Cook.

Create and maintain a robust pantry.

Pantry staples

A well-stocked pantry is a repository of endless possibilities in the kitchen and we found it to be especially critical to the success of the for-one cook. It can be a source of inspiration when the urge to improvise strikes, and it can save the day when you need to feed yourself with an empty refrigerator. (Hello, Lemony Spaghetti with Garlic and Pine Nuts!) You can also use your pantry to add heft to meals or tailor them to your tastes. Get more details about our pantry recommendations in this article.

Say goodbye to sad leftovers.

There’s a time and place for leftovers but no one always wants to eat the same meal three days in a row. We made sure to include plenty of recipes that make just the right amount for one serving in our book, but we think that sometimes it’s worth making enough for another meal. The key is in knowing how to store and reheat your food so that it will be just as good on day two.

  • Store garnishes separately (nuts, herbs, croutons, etc.). The same holds true for cheeses and anything you don’t want to heat up (like raw vegetables).
  • Season with more than just salt and pepper to dramatically elevate your leftovers. Refresh your leftovers with oil, salt, and vinegar (or lemon or lime) after reheating. 
  • Soups, stews, and the like often benefit from the addition of a little water (or broth if you’ve got it) before reheating to return them to the right consistency. Just be sure to season before eating.
  • Save dressings or vinaigrettes for the day of. If you’re making a salad for dinner, make extra vinaigrette and pack it up in its own container to toss with a salad for lunch the next day.
  • Some things just aren’t the same reheated. Instead of trying to reheat a leftover piece of salmon fillet or chicken breast, try flaking or shredding it over grains, add a green, and give it a drizzle of vinaigrette for a whole dish.

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Rediscover your favorites.

It can be hard to scale down a recipe to a serving size better suited to one person, and it’s frustrating to be left making more than you need (or want) for one meal. Flipping through our book, you’ll find your favorites already scaled so the work is done for you. Do you love a classic comfort-food staple, like Stovetop Spinach Macaroni and Cheese? Is Simple Ratatouille more your jam? Perhaps you’d rather dig into a luscious plate of Creamy Mashed Potatoes? Whichever you prefer, master a few basics and you’re on your way to becoming a more confident solo cook.

Rethink your plate.

Simple Ratatouille for OneCuban Black Beans for One
From left: Simple Ratatouille for One and Cuban Black Beans for One

When you’re cooking for yourself, a meal doesn’t always have to be about the protein. Side dishes, with a little bulking up, can be the star of the show. When in doubt, put an egg on it! We took creative liberties with most of the side dishes you’ll find in Cooking for One to give you inspiration for how to turn any dish into an entree.

Flexibility is the name of the game.

As your cooking repertoire and confidence grow, so will your pantry—and your imagination! Think of a recipe as a template, not a strict, prescriptive mandate. Don’t hesitate to swap one herb for another, one nut for another, or one cooking oil for another. We embraced this idea in Cooking for One so fully that every recipe includes a section we called “Kitchen Improv” where we list suggestions for making each recipe your own. If you’d like to read more, check out our article, Yes, You Can Stir-Fry in Olive Oil (and Other Advice for Becoming a More Improvisational Solo Cook).

At the end of the day, when cooking for yourself, you’re in charge. Strike the right balance of inspiration, organization, practice, and flexibility, and there’ll be nary a chef’s table you’d rather eat at than your own. When you’re ready to dive into more detail, check out our book!

Want more info on cooking for one? Check out this collection of time-saving tips and other helpful resources, and our Cooking for One cookbook.

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