Don't settle for leftovers or frozen dinners. With a little planning, you can enjoy healthy and delicious meals whether you're dining alone or with a companion.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Do you make time for healthy cooking when you're cooking for yourself? If not, you're selling yourself short. Find inspiration in these tips.

Instead of settling for leftovers and frozen dinners, try experimenting with these tips on healthy cooking for one or two:

  • Make a plan. Take time to jot down the week's menu and a shopping list. You'll find it makes your grocery shopping easier and ensures that you have everything you need when you're ready to cook.
  • Stock your pantry. Keep canned vegetables, beans and fruits on hand for quick and healthy additions to meals. Rinse regular canned vegetables and beans under cold running water to lower the salt content. Consider whole grains, such as brown or wild rice, quinoa, barley, and pasta. Dried foods are easily portioned for one.
  • Take advantage of your freezer. Buy in bulk and freeze into smaller quantities that you can thaw and cook for one or two meals. You may be surprised to learn that you can freeze foods, including breads, meats, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. Freezing keeps food fresh longer and helps prevent waste. For the best quality, freeze food while it's fresh.
  • Prepare one-dish meals. For quick and simple cooking, choose a dish that serves as the whole meal. Look for dishes that include items from several food groups, such as meats, whole grains, legumes and vegetables. Healthy examples include beef, barley and vegetable stew; chicken, vegetable and rice casserole; turkey and bean casserole; and vegetarian chili.
  • Cook a batch and freeze into single portions. For example, make a casserole or stew and freeze the extra into individual-size servings. Then take out only the amount of food you need. You will need to experiment so that you don't have more leftovers than you can use. Be sure to write the date and contents on packages and move older packages forward as you add food to your freezer.
  • Cook once, use twice. Plan meals so that you can use the extra food in new dishes. For example, cook rice as a side dish for one meal, then use the remainder in a casserole. Bake chicken for a meal and use the leftovers in sandwiches or soup, or toss with greens, dried fruit and nuts for a tasty salad. Or make a meatloaf mixture and bake some as a meatloaf and use the rest for meatballs that can be frozen and eaten later.
  • Shop with convenience in mind. You know there'll be days when you don't have the time or don't want to cook. So plan ahead and keep on hand ready-to-eat, low-fat, reduced-sodium canned soups and low-fat frozen meals or prepackaged single-serving foods. The latter can be pricey, so stock up when you find a sale.

Finding inspiration may be one of the biggest challenges when it comes to cooking for one. Fortunately, you can find a multitude of cookbooks about cooking for one or two people. Some even provide practical advice on such things as selecting healthy foods, planning menus, shopping and reading food labels.

Don't be afraid to mix things up and try a nutritious snack instead of a traditional meal when you're short on time or energy. For example, spread a brown rice cake with ricotta cheese and fresh strawberries or herbed goat cheese and sliced olives. Other snack-turned-meal ideas are corn muffins served with apple and cheese slices, or fat-free refried beans mixed with salsa, a small amount of low-fat sour cream and baked tortilla chips.

Finally, why not treat yourself to company from time to time? Invite friends or relatives over to sample some of your home cooking. Or start a cooking club — it's a great opportunity to try new recipes and have fun in the kitchen.

Sep. 25, 2014