If you follow cooking websites and magazines with any regularity, you’ll know that there is only one time of year when a spotlight is put on making meals for two: Valentine’s Day. As if the sole purpose of a small, intimate dinner is seduction, or that you and your significant other/roommate/family member spend the other 364 days of the year in a relationship with your local takeout. Well, I can say from experience that a list of recipes anchored by filet mignon and rose petal-garnished crème brûlée doesn’t get me very far in my two-person household after mid-February has passed.
The odds aren’t always in your favor when making home cooked meals for two: not only are the majority of recipes out there written to serve four to six, it can be a challenge to find ingredients that are portioned to fit your appetites, especially fresh ones. It seems that a lot of people resign themselves to eating out because of this: I know my fair share of singles and couples who feel like it’s not worth the effort to cook just for themselves or grow weary of the extra food they wind up with.
As an ardent home cook who shops for and makes dinner nearly every night of the week, I’m here to tell you that those sorts of excuses are based out of anxiety, rather than experience. Because with a little ingenuity and planning, small-scale cooking can not only be feasible, but also practical. Here’s what I’ve learned from years of not eating out and running a kitchen that feeds just two.
1. Get friendly with your butcher and fishmonger
Shopping the meat and seafood sections of your standard supermarket can be difficult when your idea of a “family-pack” isn’t exactly a jumbo-sized tray lined to the brim with chicken parts. If you head over to the meat and fish counter, however, or to a good butcher or fishmonger, no one is going to blink twice if you ask for only a half pound of ground meat or the smallest catch they’ve got. I love to pick up a smaller whole fish at my local seafood market and roast or steam it at home with lots of aromatics stuffed inside, like in this recipe with Thai-inspired flavors. Once it’s ready, just carve it into two filets and forget about having any leftovers. Get our Roasted Fish with Thai Pesto recipe.
2. Let the bulk bin section be your savior
Pantry items have a habit of sneaking their way to the back of the cupboard to collect dust when you cook in smaller portions (I’m looking at you, five pound bag of cornmeal). Luckily, a lot of health food-type stores offer priced-by-weight ingredients from bulk bins, which make it possible to buy only what you need. They’re useful for things like grains, flours, nuts, and dried fruits, especially the ones you’re not likely to use all that often. Some places even have similar self-serve stations for things like pasta, spices, snacks, and more. When making dishes like this wild rice salad, I make sure to do a little mental math to not only divide the recipe into a friendlier serving size, but also to figure out exactly how much of items like rice, almonds, and dried cranberries I should be gathering. Why buy a whole jar of nuts if all you need is a couple tablespoons? Get our Wild Rice and Edamame Salad recipe.
3. Think of multiple ways to cook one ingredient
There are some ingredients that there’s no way around buying in larger quantities than are fit for a single meal. So before shopping, I try to think of several ways to use them up. Take a bell pepper, for example. I might use only half of it to enhance a dish like our Chicken Cacciatore one night. But then the next, I’ll chop up the remainder with a few other seasonal veggies and put it in a sauté or stir fry. When I’m stumped, I’ll check out resources like The CHOW Blog, which is filled with great suggestions on all the ways to make use of specific foods (and you thought we write those listicles just for the heck of it?). Get our Corn, Bell Pepper, and Zucchini Sauté recipe.
4. Cook as often as possible
Since you inevitably will end up with extra ingredients, the only way to stop them from going bad is… to use them. Seriously, that half-finished can of beans isn’t going to stay edible forever. By cooking regularly and planning meals around what you already have, you can avoid the panic and guilt of letting things sit in your fridge for too long. Fitting meal prep into your regular schedule may seem daunting at times, but not if you’ve got an arsenal of quick and easy recipes in your back pocket. Pasta is a pretty reliable choice, as are stir frys. Or keep it simple with light and low-fuss recipes, like our Easy Chicken Teriyaki. Get our Easy Chicken Teriyaki recipe.
5. Brush up on your kitchen hacks
Part of keeping a kitchen for two is learning to cook more quickly, efficiently, and wisely. So it helps to have a few tricks under your belt that will help you make good use of and extend the life of your ingredients. You will, by necessity, become an expert on things like how to store that giant bunch of herbs or the best way to freeze meat for future use. To start, check out our favorite 47 Kitchen and Food Hacks That Will Change Your Life.
6. Seek out recipes that work better in small batches
Some recipes are practically meant to be eaten by just you and your plus one. You could easily spend the better part of an afternoon making things like meatballs or gnocchi from scratch when you’re feeding a larger group. But when you are just trying to fill a couple plates, that scooping and shaping becomes a whole lot less tiresome. Or take certain pan-fried dishes, like pad thai, which need all the cooking surface area they can get: if you try to cook more than one or two portions at once, you’ll end up overcrowding the pan, creating a liquidy, unevenly cooked jumble. But when you do it in small batches, it comes out perfectly seared and sauced each time. Get our Pad Thai recipe.
7. Become a master of leftovers
Sometimes, it just makes more sense to cook a recipe in its full size of four to six servings and take the extras to work the next day (or save it for another meal). Certain recipes are especially suited for day-after eating, like pastas, grain salads, and stews. Not only can they help you save some money, they might even turn into a conversation-starting form of show and tell (look what I made!) with your co-workers. This pasta with veggies and cheese is a great example of a dish that can do double duty. Get our Dill, Chickpea, and Feta Pasta Salad recipe.
8. Embrace the freeze
If you were to open up my freezer right now, you’d find four soups and curries I’ve made, three different kinds of uncooked meat, and a bag full of serrano peppers I got on the cheap. I think of the freezer as my lockbox for days when I don’t feel like grocery shopping or cooking, or for when I find great deals on large quantities of fresh ingredients that I simply can’t resist. It’s also my storage space for when I make more food than I can eat, which, despite my best calculations, still happens a lot. As a general rule, soups, sauces, meats, breads, and hardier produce tend to freeze freeze just fine. I’ll usually have something like this butternut squash soup stored away for those unexpected situations where it’s needed. Get our Roasted Butternut Squash Soup recipe.
9. Know your limits
There are certain dishes that are simply a challenge in smaller sizes. Pies and quiches, casseroles, and big roasts and cuts of meat are a few obvious ones (although I have successfully made things like lasagna in a nine by nine inch baking dish). Naturally large produce items, like cabbage, are a must-avoid, too, unless you don’t mind eating kimchi or sauerkraut on the regular. But for every prime rib roast you might miss out on, you can always compensate with a juicy rib eye steak. Come on, just take one look at this salsa-garnished chop and tell me you wouldn’t be proud to have it all to yourself. Get our Rib-Eye with Pineapple and Blue Cheese recipe.
Miki Kawasaki is a New York City–based food writer and graduate of Boston University's program in Gastronomy. Few things excite her more than a well-crafted sandwich or expertly spiced curry. If you ever run into her at a dinner party, make sure to hit her up for a few pieces of oddball culinary trivia.