Cooking for One on a Budget: Tips and Recipes to Save Time and Money

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Simple and savvy tips for cooking for one on a budget, including meal planning and prep, smart shopping, easy recipes, freezing, and more.

woman cooking for one by making toast with ricotta cheese

With recipes, meal plans, and money-saving tips often geared toward family cooking, it can be hard to find ideas when cooking for one.

On top of that, it can be hard to find the motivation to cook when you’re only accountable to yourself.

Speaking from experience, it’s easier to slap some peanut butter on a few crackers between Netflix episodes when you’re tired than to cook and then clean up a full meal. And if you’ve purchased ingredients with the best of intentions, your hard-earned cash can end up in the trash.

On the upside, cooking for one is the ultimate gastronomical indulgence.

You can eat what you want when you want.

Like to eat late? You have no one bugging you because they’re hungry. Like to eat chicken livers with peanut butter? Who’s there to complain about your taste in food?

This article explores a variety of ways to make cooking for one both easy and affordable with kitchen staple ideas that are almost as convenient as takeaway, but a lot cheaper.

Flexible Meal Planning and Smart Shopping Hacks

Meal planning might feel like a hassle when it’s just you, but a little planning goes a long way in avoiding food waste and meals with odd food combinations from whatever you can find in the fridge (we’ve all been there).

The best meal plans are flexible, and this is especially true if you work long or variable hours or want to say yes to a friend’s after-work invitation. 

Rather than a meal plan that dictates what you eat on a specific day, a flexible meal plan lists easy dinner ideas based on the ingredients you have on hand. That way, what you have gets eaten before it goes bad. 

A flexible meal plan also includes a list of easy meals or frozen options for nights you don’t feel like cooking.

Shopping Tips

When shopping, it’s useful to look for food that can be easily portioned into single serves. Frozen fish portions or a tray of chicken thighs that can be frozen separately are good examples.

Check out the deli section for smaller quantities of food, including deli meats, fish, fresh chicken, and cheeses. By buying smaller amounts at the deli counter, you can reduce waste.

Another way to reduce waste is to buy foods like flour or grains from a bulk food store so you can get just the amount you need. Store in an airtight container to keep pests out and the food fresh for longer.

To save money, stock up on things like individual tinned tuna, tinned beans, frozen meals, and other single-serve ingredients when they are on sale or half-price.

Making the Most of Your Freezer

You can maximise bulk savings by portioning larger packets of food into meal-size amounts and freezing them. 

A tray of chicken breasts can be pre-cut into slices for a quick stir-fry, curry, individual pot pie, or chicken pasta, to name just a few ideas (see below for more). 

You can freeze a loaf of bread, a bag of grated cheese, or a tray of lamb cutlets all in smaller serves.

A variety of frozen vegetables are also useful to have on hand. As nutritious as fresh vegetables, frozen veg gives you flexibility without worrying that leftover veggies are going mouldy in the crisper. 

In addition to freezing fresh ingredients, you can batch-cook budget-friendly meals like stews, soups, and curries for a quick defrost when you don’t feel like cooking. The great thing about these dishes is that they taste even better as leftovers!

Baked items can also be frozen for quick and easy treats. Baked items to freeze include sweet or savoury muffins, cookie dough (either in a log or in single portions), or slices of banana bread.

That sounds like a lot for a tiny freezer, but when you freeze items in zip-lock bags, and stack your freezer carefully, you can fit a lot in, and the freezer runs more economically that way.

For quick and easy protein meals, shred store-bought BBQ (rotisserie) chicken or slow-cooked beef or pork and freeze in individual portions. Great for pasta, pizzas, burritos, nachos, toast toppers, or served in gravy with a side of veg.

Meal Prep For Easy Weeknight Meals

Meal prepping for the week is hugely popular at the moment. It’s a great way to have a week’s worth of home-cooked meals ready to reheat in the microwave on busy nights.

The idea is to cook a bunch of vegetables, a grain like rice, and portions of protein, like marinated chicken, and then portion it all out into individual containers like these glass ones on Amazon.

There are a bunch of ideas on Instagram, as well as a bazillion recipes online. If you have the Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription, there are also a tonne of recipe eBooks you can read as part of that subscription (the first month is free to try, cancel any time, and you can read the books via the Kindle app). 

Meal swap with friends. My mum uses this strategy —she makes a family-size meal, portions it, and swaps it with friends, who also do the same. That way, they all cook one meal and end up with four different meals.

Small Appliances That Simplify Meals For One

A few choice small appliances can save you time, electricity, and hassle when making small meals. Below are the ones I find the most useful, but you don’t need all of them, especially if you don’t have a lot of space in your kitchen. The ones you find the most convenient will depend on what you cook. 

  • A microwave is handy for quickly steaming vegetables, defrosting meat, making single-serve mug cakes, and heating the odd microwave meal when you don’t have the time or energy to cook. 
  • An air fryer is great for roasting vegetables, cooking single portions of meat or fish, baking small cakes, and just about anything you would normally cook in the oven, but using a fraction of the electricity. It’s also usually faster than cooking in a large oven. You can cook a whole meal at once by placing a mixture of vegetables and meat into the air fryer, similar to this tray bake, but in smaller portions.
  • A sandwich/panini press can make more than just toasties. We cook just about everything in ours, from steak and vegetables to eggs and bacon, fish and chicken, and toasties, of course. Because you’re cooking from both top and bottom, you can have a complete meal on the table in under 10 minutes. One of my favourite quick meals is a couple of meat skewers with one or two store-bought side salads. 
  • A rice cooker is great if you eat a lot of rice. It’s also a versatile appliance that cooks a wide variety of meals that aren’t just rice – even the most basic model.
  • A toaster for cooking toast. Toast topped with a variety of toppings is the perfect quick and easy meal that’s satisfying and budget-friendly. Think avocado toast, fried egg, tinned tuna, baked beans, grilled cheese, cream cheese and roast capsicum, bruschetta, pizza toppings… the list goes on. 

Pantry, Fridge, and Freezer Staples For Quick and Easy Single Dinners

The items you stock in your kitchen will depend on personal preference. The basics, like flour and cooking oil, are the same whether you’re cooking for one or ten. 

What is different are the amounts. Large portions of food can go stale or go bad before you have time to use them, so it’s important to only stock the minimum you will need (see also the shopping tips section above).

For example, rather than three types of grains and flour, maybe only plain flour (can also be used in sauces for thickening), baking powder (can turn plain flour into self-raising), oats (for breakfast and baking) and one type of dried pasta. 

However, a few specific items are especially useful for making a quick, single-serving meal.

Pantry Staples

  • 200ml long-life cream and milk of choice
  • Individual tinned tuna
  • Ramen or instant noodles
  • Individual rice portions
  • Small tins of beans, baked beans, and lentils
  • Pasta
  • Long shelf-life vegetables like onions, carrots, potatoes, etc.
  • Nut butter
  • Crackers, Cruskits, Vitabrits etc.
  • Tortillas

Fridge Staples

  • Eggs (so many easy meals can be made from the humble egg, but one of my faves is a veggie omelette)
  • Tofu
  • Grated or block cheese (can also be frozen)
  • marinated vegetables and cheese like feta (lasts longer). Marinated veg might include olives, sun-dried tomatoes, capsicum, eggplant, zucchini, artichoke hearts etc. 
  • Single-serve dips
  • plain yoghurt (can be used in cooking, sauces, marinades, smoothies, as well as eaten as is)

Freezer Staples

Apart from freezing leftovers or batch cooking so you have some easy meals to thaw and reheat, here are some other items that make quick and easy meals for one while reducing cost and waste.

  • Frozen vegetables (stir-fry varieties, peas, corn, broccoli etc.)—you can even get frozen mashed potatoes, which is quick and you can make as much or as little as you need. With frozen vegetables, you don’t have to worry that your vegetables will go bad in the crisper.
  • Frozen fruit 
  • Fish portions
  • Portioned chicken breast or thigh
  • Kebabs/meat skewers
  • Veggie burgers
  • Bread (rather than wasting the loaf, bread can be frozen in ziplock bags – I freeze 6 slices at a time – great for toasties)
  • mini pizza bases
  • flavoured sausage like chorizo
  • bacon, portioned
  • portions of broth or stock
  • shredded rotisserie chicken, pork, or beef in portions.

15 Dinner Ideas for One

The following dinner ideas are budget-friendly and great if you need a lazy dinner for one. 

  • Stir-Fry Variations: Use frozen vegetables, pre-portioned chicken or tofu, soy sauce or purchased sauce and serve over instant rice or noodles.
  • Single-Serve Fish Bake: Bake frozen fish portions with vegetables and herbs in foil.
  • Vegetable Omelette: Use eggs with any available vegetables or marinated veggies; add cheese (maybe some marinated feta) and ham if desired.
  • Tuna Salad: mix with may and serve on toast with salad greens.
  • Pasta: Cook a single serving of pasta and top it with a portioned batch of sauce from the freezer (like bolognese), or cherry tomatoes, parmesan, and shredded meat from the freezer, or pesto and shredded meat, or tinned tuna and any vegetables (fresh, frozen, or marinated, like olives or sundried tomatoes).
  • Ramen Upgrade: Enhance instant noodles with frozen vegetables, egg or shredded meat or tinned tuna and some extra sauce like soy (my favourite is tonkatsu sauce).
  • Homemade pizza: top frozen mini pizza bases with sauce, cheese, and any toppings on hand like bacon, sausage, shredded meat, vegetables, marinated veg, and cheese. 
  • Burrito Bowl: Layer cooked rice (regular or instant), tinned beans, corn, and shredded BBQ chook (rotisserie chicken). Top with salsa, cheese, avocado or any of your favourite toppings.
  • Skewers and salad: So quick to make in the sandwich press, serve with homemade or store-bought salad or microwave steamed vegetables or roast vegetables.
  • Chicken and veg tray bake: Cut up mixed fresh vegetables (potato, sweet potato, squash, onion, carrots, beetroot, etc.) and toss with some oil, salt and pepper, and some garlic powder if you like. Bake for 10 minutes, then add some plain, marinated, or seasoned chicken thigh and any other vegetables (like broccoli, zucchini, etc). and cook until done. Make a single serve or extra for later in the week.
  • Quick Quesadilla: Fill half a tortilla with cheese and leftover vegetables (like roast veggies above) and maybe some shredded meat. Fold over and cook in a panini press. 
  • Snack Plate Dinner: Combine crackers, cheese, deli meats, and fresh (carrots, celery)  and marinated vegetables (like olives) for a no-cook dinner. Add a dip or salsa as a side.
  • Lamb Gyros: Cook a lamb steak or lamb skewer in the sandwich press. Finely slice and add to a tortilla or souvlaki bread with single-serve tzatziki, cucumber, tomato, red onion (optional), and lettuce. This is one of our fave meals to cook as a single serve when everyone is coming and going.
  • Chicken Fried Rice: To a packet of cooked instant rice, add shredded chicken, scrambled egg, frozen vegetables, and soy sauce and fry until ready. Alternatively, you can use bacon, ham, or fried tofu instead of the chicken.
  • Microwave Mug Cake: You can buy these in a box or whip up a simple one from scratch; here are 26 recipes to the spot.

Keep pesto, tomato paste, and curry pastes for longer by storing the jar upside down in the fridge. I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years, and jars of pastes, etc., last months in the fridge this way. Just ensure the lid is on properly. I store them in a little container so if there are any spills, they don’t go through the whole fridge.

More Easy Meals For One Person

Looking for even more ideas? 

Check out these recipe books written specifically about budget meals for one.

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  1. So much easier cooking for one, like only washing one plate, one fork and one knife.

    Plus l don’t eat large meals so really you just buy and cook the amount you need. Stops leftover waste.

    I also just keep a few things in the pantry and my challenge now and then is to use up those ingredients, even if l don’t feel like eating them – as l don’t want to waste the food or the money that was used to buy them.

    Great article Melissa. Good to know we single people aren’t forgotten.


    1. Jay Dann Walker says:

      Bravo!! and a humungous shipload of kudos toy, Melissa, for having taken the time and made the monumental effort (in research, planning, etc) to write this most instructive article.

      SO many good recipes are aimed at the “traditional” family of two adults and one.whatever children (not to forget the .073 dog and 0.64 cat) in the so-called “average” family. This is not meant to be a slight on families, but merely to point out that big recipes are for a lot of people, and not meant for us (and we are an increasingly number of Australians nowadays) who live alone, often on a restricted budget due to retirement, and have to plan carefully to budget for our food costs while striving to maintain good health in our old age. Speaking for myself here…

      PS1 I am mostly (about 90% I would say) vegetarian. Please do keep us in mind, more and more people are “off-meat” for health and pleasurable eating reasons. Especially we of the ‘duffer’ brigade. I write this well knowing that many of your recipes are sufficiently flexible that they can easily be adaptable to vegetarians. Good one!!

      PS2 15 dinner ideas for one are an added super good bonus to this most informative and well thought out article. It gave me some tips I had never ever considered in a lifetime of living, planning for my food and cooking time.

      PS3 Keep up the good work, please. You are a legend!!

      From DANN in Melbourne.

      (One of, I hope, a great many men who follow this most interesting web site, if they are at all clues about living life to the fullest!!)

  2. One of the tricks I relied on when I was living solo on a budget (with a crappy bar fridge & no freezer) was only buying versatile ingredients that could be used for a couple of different kinds of meals. Rocket & spinach can make a salad one night, then go in a pasta dish when they get a little tired. Tired lettuce is just tired lettuce.

  3. To make vegetables (including lettuce) last longer, I either store them in a water-filled container in the fridge and then change the water every few days (especially good with herbs, bean sprouts etc), OR wrap them in a dampened paper towel and store them in a zip-lock bag in the fridge (works with mushrooms, ginger, strawberries). Keeps them crisp and remarkably fresh for much, much longer.

    1. Learning how to blanch vegetables (to “blanch vegetables” means to prepare your vegetables for freezing) is HUGELY beneficial. It’s a little time consuming but when you’re single and you buy a whole head of broccoli/cauliflower or a bag or carrots or asparagus or whatever/etc., if you don’t freeze them you’re going to end up throwing half of your produce out at the end of the week (if you’re lucky enough to have them last a whole week). The blanching process preserves the vegetables quality and is the exact same process used in the bagged variety you find in the frozen food section of the grocery store. The quality is going to be just the same, if not better as YOU get to inspect the vegetables when you buy them, and you save SO MUCH money in comparison.

  4. Great tips! I forgot about less washing up!

  5. Bulk meat is the only way too go. Sausages @ $16 for two kilos, bag and freeze them, will last for many meals and impress even the most adept master of frugallity. Get bored of them, no problems! chop them up and cook them in a simmer sauce or bolognaise and presto! Inprovised curry or spaghetti!

    Great blog, really glad I stumbled upon it!

  6. Jay Dann Walker says:

    Oop – I wrote, “Bravo!! and a humungous shipload of kudos toy, Melissa.

    I meant “kudos to you” and not “kudos toy”. Darn Spellcheck undid me

    You are most definitely NOT a “kudos toy” by any meaning of the word…

    DANN in Melbourne