Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Last-Minute Little Dinners for One: Tips, Ideas, and 25 Recipes

A few months ago, our own Jaime posted a piece called Little Meals for One. It was a brief, well thought-out article all about simple, small-scale home cooking. I loved it, as did many readers who were looking for both inspiration and validation. (A spoonful of peanut butter IS TOO a meal, dangit.)

Because sometimes? You just want food in your mouthhole. You want it in a single portion, and you want it a.s.a.p. Why? Well, maybe you’re late coming home from the office. Maybe it’s a lazy Sunday afternoon in August, and you have no great urge to further heat your already-sweltering apartment with a 450ºF oven. Maybe you’re just really hungry, and whipping up a whole lasagna for one person seems totally freaking insane.

Unfortunately, quick, single-portion recipes are hard to come by, probably because it’s difficult to prepare most gourmet meals in smaller serving sizes. So, how do you do it? How do you make a convenient, speedy meal without resorting to A) expensive and unhealthy processed food, B) takeout, or C) licking crumbs off your kitchen floor?

Well, first, it’s good to keep tricks these in mind:
  • Keep your refrigerator, pantry, and freezer stocked with food easily portioned into small servings: eggs, cheese, pasta, etc.
  • When you buy bigger packages of food (meat, veggies, etc.), portion them off in smaller grab-and-go bags as soon as you arrive home from the supermarket.
  • Look for recipes where you broil, grill, steam, sauté, boil, and microwave. Avoid recipes where you roast, braise, soak, brine, or marinate.
  • Keep low-cost, high-impact condiments and ingredients handy. Stuff like soy sauce, capers, olives, roasted red peppers, parmesan, curry powder/sauce, Dijon mustard, and horseradish can lend big flavor to tiny dishes in a hurry.
  • Don’t limit yourself to traditional dinner cuisine. Breakfast and lunch foods taste just as good at 7pm.
  • Don’t limit yourself to traditional American cuisine. Soups, curries, and stir fries are healthier and just as fast as burgers and hot dogs.
  • Consider raw fruits and vegetables for side dishes. They’re healthy as all get out, and take zero time to prepare.
  • Load up your freezer to your heart’s content. Frozen meats and produce can be defrosted quickly and cooked even faster. Consider canned versions of certain foods, as well, but be discerning when it comes to both sodium content and taste.
  • Before you do anything, scan your fridge for ideas and ingredients. Bits and pieces can become ingredients in larger, more delicious meals.
  • Speaking of bits and pieces, consider using many smaller foods to create one large meal. Eggs, a piece of fruit, and a side of refried beans never killed anyone.
  • Most of all, K.I.S.S. (Keep it Simple, Sistah)
After that, it’s always a good idea to refer to the basics: a.k.a. Dinners You Learned to Make When You Were 12. Often, these are the easiest options because you already have the ingredients on hand AND you're familiar with the foods. Like:
  • Bagels (with low-fat cream cheese, lox, butter, PB&J, etc.)
  • Baked potatoes
  • Breads (with dips, cheese, veggies, or quick soups)
  • Chicken or turkey sausages
  • Cottage cheese
  • Couscous mixed with anything (chopped vegetables, beans, etc.)
  • Crackers with toppings of your choice
  • Eggs (omelets, scrambled, sandwiches, baked, etc.)
  • Fruit
  • Grilled or broiled chicken or pork tenders
  • Mashed black, pinto, or cannellini beans
  • Oatmeal (sweet or savory, a la Mark Bittman)
  • Pasta (with sauce, vegetables, cheese, etc.)
  • Pierogies (boiled/steamed)
  • Pizza bagels/English Muffin pizzas
  • Portobello mushrooms
  • Raw vegetables with simple dips (hummus, baba ghanouj, etc.)
  • Rice mixed with vegetables and/or salsa
  • Salads (vegetables, fruit, bean, or otherwise)
  • Sandwiches (hummus, PB&J, grilled cheese)
  • Shish kabobs (meat, veggies, or fruit broiled on a stick)
  • Smoothies
  • Steamed or sautéed veggies
  • Stir fry
  • Turkey burgers
  • Wraps and/or soft tacos
  • Yogurt
If those fail to float your boat, you might want to do a quick search for some recipes around the web, using the terms "Meals for one," "single serving," or "15 minutes or less." Here are some fast, simple, cheap, healthy suggestions from CHG. All of them can easily be rescaled to feed one person.
Sweet readers, how about you? What do you eat when you need something small, fast, and nutritionally sound? Do tell. Let's make this the biggest single meal list, ever.

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Jessie said...

My favorite dinner for one is (almost) instant nachos, two ways. I usually eat both versions with tortilla chips, which aren't the healthiest - but you could use something else or just dig in with a spoon.

Option A: Mix equal parts cottage cheese and salsa in a bowl, add cilantro if you like it. Eat. I do this one a lot... like, weekly.

Option B: Mix equal parts salsa and FF refried beans in a bowl, microwave for 90 seconds, stir in a little shredded cheese, microwave for 30 seconds, stir. Eat. mmmm, I had this last night.

Susan said...

You've got yogurt, but who could forget cold cereal?

And from your list, my extremely-lazy go-to meal is oatmeal. I love it.

Ambitious said...

Great list!!

My favorite single meals, mainly because I always seem to have these ingredients on hand:

-soba noodles with Korean red pepper paste, a hint of sugar, topped with some leftover salad.

-bowl of rice mixed with sesame oil, soy sauce and a fried egg on top. AMAZING!!! :)

Elizabeth said...

For a mid-day quickie meal I usually go for the yogurt with homemade granola and what ever fresh fruit I have in the house.

For dinners I find myself relying on eggs. One favorite is a big romaine salad with homemade croutons, some grated Parmesan and a poached egg on top. All the major food groups are represented and I eat it out of giant bowl.

The other fave is poached egg and spinach on toast.

Anonymous said...

I usually make 2 servings and eat one for lunch the next day. It's like bonus food (always good) and it takes no extra effort.

But a REALLY good single person meal is: take a chicken breast (with skin) put salt, and pepper on it and brown it (skin side down) in an oven safe skillet. Once the chicken is browned (not cooked) then place a few mushrooms, 2 shallots (or some red onion) in the skillet, cover in olive oil, and a sprinkle of rosemary. Pop the whole thing in the oven at 350 for 20-30 minutes. Take it out, remove everything from the pan, deglaze the pan with a quarter cup (or so) of white wine, pour that over the food. It is DELICIOUS!!

Andreas said...

My favourite quick dinners are:

- pasta with olive oil and ground chilis

- sautéd bell peppers with mie noodles and soy sauce

- spaghetti carbonara (without cream)

KMunoz said...

I usually make a pita pizza when I want something quick for myself. Spoon a little olive oil on a piece of pita bread, add some sauce, shredded mozzarella and pepperoni, sprinkle some seasonings (I like black pepper, crushed red pepper, oregano, basil and some parsley) and toss in the oven at 425 for about 10 minutes until the cheese is bubbly. Sometimes I add a side salad, but normally I like it all on its own. :)

Happy said...

For me, to eat alone. The quick, nutritional and healthy way, I will settle for fruits ad vegetables and 2 slices of whole grain bread.

Rachel said...

Wow! What a great list!

Ayme said...

I know this is an older post, but: a can of tuna, chopped tomatoes+cilantro+onion, loads of fresh lime juice, salt+pepper make for some tasty "instant ceviche." Scoop it up with tortilla chips, spread it on a tostada or eat right out of the bowl. Makes two servings; add tomatoes only to the portion you're going to eat right away or they make the mix watery.

Wendy said...

the uber fast? pasta with a splash of olive oil cut with maybe a teaspoon of tomato paste, and a ton of lemon pepper. really tangy, but it gets mellowed by the pasta.

Anonymous said...

My favorite go-to meal when I am alone for dinner is whole wheat or rainbow pasta with steamed broccoli and shrimp. I use the smaller shrimp and cut them in thirds so I feel like I'm getting a whole lot of them. Frozen broccoli is always in my freezer. I can buy the pasta in the bulk section so I only get what I need.

Add whatever seasonings you like right to the shrimp as you cook them. My recent favorite is low fat italian dressing but I've also done herb and butter, soy ginger, and olive oil with rice wine vinegar.

Mara said...

avocado on toast. lemon juice and red pepper help.

Anonymous said...

Roasted bread spread with a mixture of créme fráiche (2 tbsp), black roe caviar (1 tbsp) and a clove of crushed garlic then top with a handful of crayfish tails. I love this.

Anonymous said...

My favorite is boxed red beans and rice with pita bread. It is great for those who diet and is very filling.

Anonymous said...

pasta, pesto, sundried tomatoes topped off with cheese =)

quick, healthy & really yummy!!

Taylor Lautner's soon to be wife said...

This list is really helpful thanx! btw, a spoonful of pb is not a meal!

Anonymous said...

Ham, yummy, bake it have with side potatoes, veggie. Then the ideas are endless, salad, sandwich, soups (split pea, bean...) Have meals for days. Always bake whole chicken turkey and same thing enjoy

Anonymous said...

Don't forget crockpot. So easy, simple, can cook anything. Make night before. Put on in morning and walla delicous dinner when u get home.