Tips for cooking healthy meals for one or two

For those with a busy schedule, eating on the run is commonplace. In recent decades, eating alone has become nearly as common as eating with friends and family. In fact during 2012, approximately 46% of all meals were eaten alone in the United States. For those who are more likely to eat alone (college students, older adults, or those with a busy school or work schedule) preparing a small meal may seem like a great deal of work. Oftentimes recipes serve at least four, require a variety of ingredients, and leave leftovers that may be wasted.Healthy cooking for one or two graphic

These problematic factors have led to the growing availability of fast foods, pre-packaged meals, and in-between meal snacks, which are marketed as cheaper and faster options for busy individuals and families. However, these easy, quick, and sometimes highly processed meals are often less healthy due to high levels of sodium (salt), sugar, and fat.

Colorado State University researcher and Extension specialist, Laura Bellows, graduate student, Reanna Moore, and A Gross., provide tips for preparing meals for one or two that are easy and enjoyable, by planning ahead and making meals simple.

Planning Ahead

The easiest way to prepare a meal for one or two is to plan ahead. It is important to keep a variety of staple foods on hand in order to be prepared with all necessary ingredients when cooking a meal. Planning ahead also includes cooking meals that can be frozen and reheated later, when there is limited time to prepare an entire meal.

At the grocery store:

  • Purchase dry items in bulk: Regularly consumed foods (such as cereal, oatmeal, rice, pasta, beans, and legumes) that are purchased in bulk, can be a cost-effective choice for many consumers. These dry food items can be easily divided into one or two servings.
  • Purchase fresh foods in small amounts: Foods such as dairy, meat, fruits, and vegetables should be purchased in small amounts so that the item can be consumed or frozen before it expires.
  • Purchase foods with a long shelf-life: Pre-packaged salad greens, frozen meat, canned vegetables (low sodium), and dried fruits, are healthy examples of items with a long shelf-life.
  • Purchase single-servings: Individually wrapped items will extend the life of certain foods and allow for portability (examples include cheese, milk, yogurt, and fruit). Though these items might initially be more expensive compared to bulk items, greater savings will be seen in the long run due to less wasted food.
  • Keep frequently used ingredients on hand: Herbs, spices, sauces, and condiments, are important ingredients to keep in the kitchen that can be used in many recipes.

At home:

  • Preserve foods by freezing, refrigerating, canning, or dehydrating: These methods are all effective at preserving foods, especially if an item cannot be eaten in a safe and reasonable amount of time.
  • Build your cookware collection: Have on hand a frying pan, or learn how to grill, broil, or roast different foods. These skills are valuable for making small meals with great flavor.
  • Plan leftovers accordingly: Plan leftovers so the only step is to simply re-heat the food item. Meals that make great leftovers include lasagna, enchiladas, or casserole, which can also be frozen for long periods of time.

Reducing Recipes

Most recipes have the potential to be cut in half or in thirds. Some ingredients, like an egg for example, are difficult to divide. If the recipe calls for a large egg, try using a small egg or just the egg white to cut the recipe in half. In some cases, it may be easier to make the entire recipe and freeze the rest for later. For easy references, see Table 2.

Table 2. Reducing Recipes*

Half of a Recipe

When the recipe calls for ____________, use _______:

  • 1/4 cup use 2 tablespoons
  • 1/3 cup use 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons
  • 1/2 cup use 1/4 cup
  • 2/3 cup use 1/3 cup
  • 3/4 cup use 6 tablespoons
  • 1 tablespoon use 1 1/2 teaspoon
  • 1 teaspoon use 1/2 teaspoon
  • 1/2 teaspoon use 1/4 teaspoon
  • 9x2x13-inch pan use Square 8 x 2-inch or Round 9 x 2-inch

Third of a Recipe

  • 1/4 cup use 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon
  • 1/3 cup use 1 tablespoon + 2 1/3 teaspoons
  • 1/2 cup use 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons

*Cooking times, temperature, pan size, and seasonings may vary when certain recipes are scaled. Closely monitor the food to determine whether any alterations are necessary

Information provided by Colorado State University Extension. For the full fact sheet, which includes more detailed information on healthy eating for one or two, visit

For delicious recipes, nutrition tips, and to find cooking and nutrition classes, go to the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center website. More great info is also available at the College of Health and Human Sciences Pinterest board.

Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center