Just One Mouth to Feed and Proud of It! Grocery Shopping and Meal Preparation for Singles

Only one mouth to feed in your house? If you’re one of the 31 million people living by yourself in the United States you’re not alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 43% of Americans over age 18 are single. It’s more important than ever for those of us choosing the solo life to take control of our diet since there’s no one around to nag us about eating healthy. I was lucky to grow up in a household where my mom believed in getting a home cooked meal on the table for dinner and my dad demonstrated good eating habits by making breakfast every day.

But once you’ve “flown the coop” and have to feed yourself, grocery shopping and meal preparation can seem like frustrating tasks. I work in downtown Minneapolis, and when I first made the leap to living by myself, I ate lunch out every day. I quickly found that eating healthy was not compatible with skyway lunch options. But the grocery stores I visited growing up seemed daunting to someone who was only shopping for one. Did I really need a 12-pack of chicken thighs? What would I make with this huge bunch of carrots? Through trial and error, I came up with some tips and tricks to help me navigate the grocery store and plan nutritious meals. Here goes:

Check out grocery stores in your area and decide which ones work best for your tastes. I feel lucky to live in St. Louis Park where there are a multitude of options within ten minutes of my house. I’m a member at the Linden Hills Co-op and enjoy the extensive bulk section there.

“If you’re single, the Linden Hills Co-op bulk section is a great resource,” says Allie Mentzer, Linden Hills Co-op Marketing and Member Services Manager. “You can purchase many basic ingredients -- from quinoa to cumin -- in small amounts. So, you can treat your guests to your favorite culinary masterpiece, but when the party’s over, your pantry won’t be overflowing with ingredients you’re unlikely to use for everyday meals. Buy in bulk and your pantry will be smaller, but your wallet fatter.”

I’m also a big fan of Trader Joe’s for their array of single serve entrees and healthy snacks, and Whole Foods Market for their awesome salad bar. (Making a recipe that calls for one teaspoon of cilantro? You can get it at the salad bar instead of buying a whole bunch.) You’re judge and jury at the grocery store, so you can afford to be adventurous. Most stores will let you return something you don’t like if you have your receipt. Same thing goes for recipes: if your recipe calls for onions and you don't like onions, swap them out!

Even larger supermarkets are starting to carry items once reserved for specialty stores. No matter where you shop, take advantage of the deli -- it might be more expensive than making your own meal, but if you’re single and only want one serving you can save time and money (and reduce waste) by letting someone else do the cooking. Check out the ethnic foods section for quick meals too.

One thing I’ve learned the hard way is being honest with myself about how much I’m actually going to eat. At specialty stores like Whole Foods, it can be tempting to sample everything. But one of the great things about being single is the freedom and independence I enjoy -- if I can’t decide between two delicious salads, I can buy one and stop back later in the week to try the other one.

If you find shopping by yourself intimidating, go when the store is the least crowded. (I always like to get there as soon as they open in the morning.) If you visit at a non-peak time, you can often get cooking advice from employees or have the butcher individually package your meat selection for you (this can be harder to do when the store is crowded).

I prefer to shop at a store that bags my groceries; when I'm by myself, it’s a hassle to have to pay and pack all my purchases at the same time. And I always remember to bring my own bag -- how many extra plastic and paper bags can my one bedroom apartment hold? Invest in a good sized cloth bag that you can keep in your car and wash periodically to get rid of dirt and bacteria.

At home, remember that the freezer is your friend! Invest in containers and portion individually-sized entrees so you can get several meals out of everything you cook. Don’t fall into the freezer trap though -- I’ve found that three or four servings is my limit, and after that it gets boring to eat the same thing. If you do end up with a lot of extra food, give leftovers to friends and family. After all, who doesn’t love a home cooked meal?

Since you know your schedule, plan meals that use the most perishable items first. To avoid having to make a fast food pit stop on a busy day, I like to keep one ready-to-eat frozen meal on hand for a quick dinner (my favorite is fully cooked turkey meatballs with pasta sauce and parmesan cheese). When you’re single, you can redefine “meal.” Eggs for dinner? Why not? (They let you buy them individually at the Linden Hills Co-op!) As long as you like it, that’s all that matters.

If all of these tips seem overwhelming, start small. Groceries may seem expensive, and you’ll have to invest some time in planning and preparing food for yourself, but it will pay off in the long run because you’ll be saving money and eating healthier. I promise it gets easier once you have a system that works for you. Bon appétit!

Sarah Johnson is a local food enthusiast and volunteer for the Minneapolis-Tours Sister City Association, where she blogs about Slow Food, French cuisine and other topics. To learn more about this group, please visit their website.