Reader Question: How Single People Can Limit Waste and Save Money at the Supermarket

This week I received a question from a reader asking how to shop for food for one. Here is Emily’s question:

I would like to know if you have any advice or tips for being frugal with food when living alone. Most foods you buy in the grocery store are sized for 2-4 people. I don’t eat alone every night, but on the nights that I do, I find myself with a storage problem. I often find myself opening a jar of spaghetti sauce, using only part of it, and putting the rest in the fridge with the intention of using it up in the next few days. More often that not, what happens is I either forget about the sauce or don’t get around to using it, and eventually I have to throw it out because it’s unusable. This makes me feel bad for not only wasting food, but wasting money. I occasionally see single-serving portions of canned/jarred foods in the grocery store, but they aren’t very cost-effective.  Do you have any ideas for how to get my money’s worth from the grocery store, one serving at a time?

Thank you Emily for such a great question. I am glad to hear you are concerned about waste. This isn’t something on everyone’s mind.

When I lived on my own, I developed a few tricks for eating healthy and saving money on food which worked really well. Not only did I reduce waste but I also stayed within my food budget.

The grocery store can be a treasure trove of food opportunities for the single person. You just have to look. Here are my tips for solo cooking and dining:

Make Smoothies

Smoothies are, by design, single servings. Keep frozen fruit and yogurt on hand for a last-minute smoothie. They’re great for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack. I would have a smoothie every morning for breakfast and I still do to this day.

Go Soup Crazy

Canned soup is an easy meal for one. Some canned soups are better than others in flavor and nutrition though. Try to buy the ones with low sodium or no sodium. They are much better for you. Experiment, and find the ones you like and keep some in the pantry. You can embellish them by adding frozen or fresh veggies, or topping them with green onions, chives, or cilantro, etc.

Cook Pasta

Pasta is a perfect entree for singles. If you use fresh packaged pasta or tortellini/ravioli, boil what you need and freeze the rest. If you use dry pasta (try the new whole-wheat blends), boil as much as you need and store the rest in your pantry. Now if you don’t have a freezer, another option is to make two servings of pasta and have the leftovers for lunch the next day. Cold pasta salad makes a lovely lunch, or you can microwave leftover pasta for a hot lunch. For an easy sauce just a drizzle flavored olive oil and some balsamic vinegar on top. I personally love pasta salad because it is really quick to make, nutritious if I add some fresh chopped veggies,  and tastes delicious.

Munch on Greens

Those triple-washed bags of salad make salads a cinch but they aren’t always cost effective. Instead, buy heads of spinach or romaine salad greens for the most nutrition, then add any or all of the following:

  • Dried fruit.
  • Roasted nuts. Pine nuts, almonds, and pecans work well.
  • Fruit. Try fresh berries or pears, or a can of mandarin oranges. I personally love blackberries and strawberries.
  • Ready-to-go veggies like cherry or grape tomatoes; sugar snap peas; sliced, shredded or baby carrots. Or slice up some cucumber, zucchini, or bell pepper.
  • Canned beans (kidney, black, or garbanzo). Just rinse and sprinkle them on top. There are 8-ounce cans which are the perfect size for a single serving.
  • Water-packed tuna. Just open a can, drain the excess water, flake, and toss it in. I personally don’t eat meat but this is an option.
  • Light salad dressing. Keep bottled favorites in your refrigerator (they last a long time), or just drizzle a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the top. I like more simple flavoured dressings.

Load Up on Fruit

Fruit is very nutritious and always comes in a single serving amount. I love the portability of it. I constantly have fruit as a meal when I am at work and on the go. Things like apples, oranges, kiwis, and peaches last the longest so stock up on those if you are worried about things going bad. Just remember to store them in the fridge or they will ripen very fast.

Use Beans

I love beans. They come in one serving cans like I mentioned and they are so versatile. You can use beans in so many different ways. One of my favourite dishes is a vegetable curry with chickpeas, cauliflower, carrots, and potatoes with a dash of curry spices and some coconut milk.

Try Tofu

Even if you aren’t a vegetarian like me, tofu can be a great staple for the single person. Tofu comes in single serving bricks in various degrees of firmness. Silken tofu is great for making  soup, medium tofu is great for scrambling omelets, and firm is great in stirfrys. Plus, it absorbs any flavours you put with it which make it very versatile. My favourite thing though about tofu though is how cheap it is. If you look at price per ounce of protein, it is way cheaper compared to animal sources.

Buy Dried Whole Grains

The best thing about dried whole grains is that they last a really long time. You can store some in your cupboard for quick and ready access without the worry of them going bad. This is within reason of course – don’t go longer than 6 months before you buy fresh. I personally like quinoa, wheat berries, and buckwheat. You can use grains in things like cereals and baking but you can also use them in salads or casseroles. Like tofu, they are very versatile.  You can buy them in the bulk food section or the pre-packaged areas at the store. Go for the bulk section; it is often cheaper and you limit packaging which is great for mother nature.

As you can see, there are many ways to eat a variety of healthy foods as a single person without breaking the bank or generating a ton of waste. These are just a few things that I have found helped me save money and waste and still eat healthy when I was single. Even though I am now married, I still buy a lot of these things things for our meals. I definitely recommend giving them a try.

So fellow readers, what others things could Emily try? Do you have any tricks up your sleeve? 

PS: If you have a question, please submit it here.


Reader Question: How Single People Can Limit Waste and Save Money at the Supermarket — 22 Comments

  1. I have some more practical advice.

    But veggies with a steam. Broccoli and Lettuce can be “revived” if placed in a cup of water on the counter or in the fridge overnight so when it starts to get limp, cut off the end and toss it in some water. This way you can get variety of veggies without chucking everything out after a week because its not so awesome. You can also do this with green onion (just don’t cut off the stem.. just place it in water)

    As for pasta sauce, use what you need, then pour the rest into tupperware and place it in the freezer in proper serving sizes. The next time you use it just pop it into a pan to melt and heat, then add your cooked pasta.

    For fruit, go for items like grapes and berries and things that are small that you can freeze. use what you normally would, THEN freeze the items you wouldn’t normally get a chance to finish. The next week instead of buying more fruit, commit to smoothies *If your not a smoothie fan, make them with vanilla ice cream and a touch of milk with the frozen fruit and a splash of juice & then you will be!*

    The key is the freezer and having lots of tupperware styles so leftovers can be frozen instead of tossed out.

    • These are some great tricks. I have done some of these myself. I am a fan of freezers. They are a great way to preserve things. Not everyone has the room though for one.

      Thanks for the tip about the water for broccoli. I have done this with herbs and green onions but never with broccoli. I will definitely have to try it out.

  2. I wish I had a bigger freezer. Then I’d never leave home! These are great tips. I’m single for a week (family out of town while I have to stay for business) and I’ve already wasted so much food I feel horrible.

    • It is interesting what we notice if we just stop and look. I am hoping the last couple days have been a bit less wasteful.

      We invested in a second freezer a few years ago. It works great at preserving our garden harvest. We end up being able to feed ourselves all winter instead of feeling pressure to use it all up in fall.

  3. Freezing leftovers is a great idea, and it’s one of the food storage habits that I’ve stuck with for ages. Also, I like stocking up on dried food products such as brown rice and packaged soups. Canned meats like salmon have also served me well. As far as fruits go, I only buy certain fruits that I have an appetite for. Otherwise, they’ll just rot away in my fridge. My meats are usually precooked frozen bag products, and not the wrapped kind found in the meat section. These are perhaps not the most nutritious methods, but they are frugal.

  4. When shopping for 1 or 2, sometimes it’s easier to go to the store more often instead of trying to shop for an entire week or longer, at least until you get a good handle on how much of something you’ll eat or how fast you’ll finish it up. The good old tip of not shopping for groceries when you’re tired or hungry also helps a LOT. Leftovers are great to use for lunch the following day. Almost any main-dish recipe can be scaled down to a manageable size for smaller households. If you’re throwing out a lot of food now, it might be more cost-effective for you to spend a little more for smaller serving sizes that are actually eaten.

    • These are all great tips. We try to shop every two weeks but I can definitely see the advantage of going more often when you are on your own and don’t want to waste things. Shopping when hungry is also bad like you say. We always go after dinner when we are fed and satisfied.

  5. Put me in the freeze-what-you-don’t-use camp. When I come home from the supermarket with family sized packs of meat, I immediately portion them into sizes that make sense for a single person and place in freezer bags. The great thing about this is that if I’m pressed for time, I can place the bags of frozen meat in a pot of cold water and they’re thawed in no time.

  6. I don’t know how to portion control while cooking, so my best piece of advice is to get a set of that glass tupperware stuff with the locking lids at Costco, make a full portion of whatever you’re making, then put leftovers into the tupperware. Stick them in the fridge, eat leftovers until you’re sick of them, and then stick them in the freezer. Also, wash and chop veggies AS SOON as you get home from the grocery store. That way, you’ve put in the effort, and you’re less likely to forget about the cabbage you chopped. Also, it makes cooking easier.

  7. I think meal planning is instumental because you need to combine things so it doesn’t spoil before you use it. That is the number one problem for singles and many coouples too. Personally, I woudl prepare larger meals and freeze or use the leftovers ofr another meal.

  8. I think that cooking soups and stews is best – you can freeze them and always have healthy, frozen meals. When I was on my own the worst thing was that I often (far too often) didn’t fancy cooking for myself. That is when over-spending is likely.

  9. Soup/Stew in the winter, and frittata in the summer. I’m a new reader, recently living single and faced this very issue. You can throw all sorts of leftover veggies and meats into a frittata, you just need a few eggs. Pretty quick and does not make too much heat.

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