Employee & Community Health

Cooking for one or two: How to keep it healthy

11/27/2017 by Rose Prissel, MS, RDN, LD, and Michaeleen Burroughs, MS, RDN, LD

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If you're single or a two-person household, what's your go-to dinner? Cold cereal, grilled cheese and canned soup, microwave meals or something picked up at the deli on the way home? Sometimes preparing a meal - much less a healthy, balanced one - can seem like too much work. But with some basic know-how, you'll master healthy cooking for one or two in no time. 

Know your food groups

A healthy meal is a balance of proteins, fruits and vegetables, starches and fats. Let your plate be your guide when figuring out a good balance. Divide it into fours: 

  • One half for vegetables and fruit
  • One quarter for protein-rich foods
  • One quarter for starch

To make this balance healthy, choose whole-gran options for at least half of your grains, vary your veggies and fruits (eat the rainbow), get calcium-rich foods with low-fat dairy products and go lean with the protein. For more information, check out ChooseMyPlate.gov

But how much should be in each segment of your plate? Use these visual cues to serve up adequate, but not excessive, portions: 

  • Vegetable servings - size of a baseball
  • Fruit servings - size of a tennis ball
  • Carbohydrates or grain servings - size of a hockey puck
  • Protein or meat servings - size of a deck of cards
  • Fat servings - size of one or two dice

Make a plan

Start by finding recipes for foods you enjoy. Look for inspiration in cookbooks, magazines or online, including Mayo Clinic's recipes that serve 2. Some sources have menus already planned out, complete with shopping lists. That's a good place to start while you practice your healthy meal skills. Then, use the recipes and your "plate" to build a meal. Try to include a minimum of three different food groups at each meal. Be creative!

But don't stop there! Consult your calendar and see what at-home meals you'll need for the week and make a menu for each one. Posting your week's menus on the fridge, kitchen bulletin board or device may help you carry through with your healthy-eating plan - with less temptation to do carry out or reach for the cereal box. 

You'll notice that most recipes make more than one or two servings. That's your chance to "cook ahead" and put your "planned-overs" in the fridge or freezer for those times when you're too tired or busy to cook. They also make for easy, budget-friendly packed lunches. 

Adapt your shopping style

When cooking for a smaller household, shop the bulk bins, salad bar and deli counter. You can buy just the amount you need to limit waste. You might pay a little more per pound, but if you actually use what you buy, you'll save money in the end. If you do buy larger quantities, freeze them in smaller portions, split groceries with a friend or cook meals together with a friend or neighbor. 

Cook smarter, embrace your freezer

Try batch cooking, where you cook once for multiple meals. Here are a few ideas: 

  • Make a big batch of soup or chili and freeze in individual portions. 
  • Cook multiple servings of brown rice. Use some for that day's meal and freeze the rest for casseroles or stir fries. 
  • Make a meatloaf recipe and divide in half. Bake a meatloaf with one half, roll the other half into meatballs and freeze. 
  • Grill extra of chicken breasts for salads, casseroles or sandwiches. 
  • Make extra servings of pasta for a cold salad the next day. 
  • Make a roast in the crock-pot one day; slice up leftovers and freeze. 

Think beyond your stove

Some kitchen appliances are great for making smaller meals more efficiently than your full-sized kitchen range. Consider a toaster oven for baking chicken, fish or a small batch of cookies; indoor single-serving grill for quick-cooking burgers or chicken breasts; or a crock-pot for big-batch cooking. 

Get started!

To help spur healthy, doable meal ideas, here are some easy options for each food group. Start with fruits and veggies and build the rest of your meal around them: 

  • Easy fruits and veggies
    • Pre-washed, pre-cut fruits and veggies for stir-fry meals or vegetable-based salads
    • Read-to-eat salad bags or kits
    • Baby carrots
    • Salad bar items; use the individual ingredients, such as chopped celery, when making a recipe
    • Frozen - without sauces, sugar or salt
    • Steamer bags
    • Canned - in water or their own juice or without salt
    • Fruit cups - in water or own juice or unsweetened apple sauce
  • Easy proteins
    • Eggs. Think omelets or "breakfast for dinner." Keep hard boiled eggs in the fridge for deviled eggs, egg salad or just as is. 
    • Chicken breasts. Bake or grill extra and freeze individually, whole or chopped. 
    • Ground beef or turkey. Brown extra; package into smaller amounts for tacos, casseroles, spaghetti, salads, etc. 
    • Bacon. Cook extra sliced, crumble and freeze for salads or garnish on soups. 
    • Low-sodium tuna, canned in water. A quick option for salads and sandwiches. 
    • Frozen fish. It can be cooked quickly, for one meal and enjoyed cold the next day in a salad or warmed for fish tacos. 
    • Canned black, red, kidney, navy, butter beans and lentils. Think soups, stews, salads and burgers. 
  • Easy starches
    • Baked potatoes. Microwave and top with leftover chili or sauteed spinach and mushrooms. 
    • Whole-grain pasta, brown rice, barley, quinoa
    • Whole-grain bread, tortillas, crackers
    • Whole-grain cereals
    • Microwaveable rice pouches
    • Oatmeal. Try a recipe for overnight or baked oatmeal. 
  • Easy dairy
    • Natural cheese or string cheese
    • Yogurt
    • Cottage cheese
    • Skim or 1%/low-fat milk

Rose Prissel, MS, RDN, LD, is a dietitian at Mayo Clinic working in pediatric and adult nutrition, with a focus on preventive care, sports nutrition and weight management.

Michaeleen Burroughs, MS, RDN, LD, works with patients throughout Employee and Community Health (ECH). Her areas of interest are diabetes and child and adult weight management.