I began cooking for myself regularly when I was a culinary student in Paris more than a decade ago. Back in those days, I lived in a tiny studio with a small refrigerator and very few cupboards. My pantry was compact and I shopped for most ingredients at the neighborhood farmers markets on an almost daily basis.
During this time, I learned two fundamental lessons for solo cooking:
1. It’s always best to buy small quantities of food so you avoid wasting ingredients.
2. When buying small quantities is not an option, properly storing food is key, as is stocking up on items with long shelf lives.
I've put together a list of the essentials I keep in my fridge and freezer. They go a long way when feeding just one mouth.
Fridge Essentials, and How to Use and Store Them:
Whether I need something to sustain me while cooking or just want something to nibble on while watching Netflix, these are a few of the things I keep on hand in the fridge—and they double as ingredients in my dinner recipes:
- Olives. Any kind will do but I usually go for Kalamata and some kind of Provence-herbed olive mix. Olives keep for about a month.
- Cheese. Parmigiano-Reggiano is an unmatched flavor enhancer and the rind is great in vegetable stocks. Bonus: It keeps for ages. I also use a lot of feta, which can be kept for a while if properly wrapped or completely covered in brine.
- Nuts. Various nuts go in salads, baked goods, and in my bag for snacking. Most nuts—and especially pine nuts, with their high fat content—are best refrigerated or frozen.
- Fruit. There are always apples and some kind of citrus in my fridge and, when the season arrives, berries. Remember to store fruits separately from vegetables—fruit produces the natural gas ethylene, which can cause vegetables to spoil quickly.
- White Wine. (Yes, this counts as a snack.) Consider it an emergency stash, if you will.
A few proteins.
Proteins can be tricky in terms of keeping well. Lentils and beans are great options. So are eggs, of course. Another life-saver is smoked salmon, which is great for sandwiches, salads, omelets, or pasta. Once opened, eat within five days.
These are the things that can be easily forgotten, left alone in a solo cook’s fridge until rendered inedible. The best way to avoid this sad fate is to use leftovers quickly or store them properly. Some ideas:
- Tofu. Once you open a package of tofu to use a portion, rinse the leftover tofu and store it in an airtight container with fresh water. Change the water every day or two and try to use the remaining tofu within one week. Eat cooked tofu within two days.
- Tomato Paste. Use the same method for leftovers as many people use for herbs: Spoon out a tablespoon or two and freeze it in an ice cube tray, covering with a drizzle of olive oil. Pop out the frozen cubes and store them in a plastic bag in the freezer. Then use a cube or two whenever you need tomato paste—they'll keep in the freezer for a couple weeks, while paste in the fridge will keep for just one week.
- Leftover seafood. Once cooked, place fish in an airtight container and use within three days. Go-to ways to use leftover cooked fish include salads, pasta and sandwiches. Fresh fish should be used within a day or two of purchase.
- Leftover meat. Wrap cooked meat tightly in plastic or place it in an airtight container and use it within three days. Quick options for using leftover cooked meat are similar to those for fish—try adding leftovers to pasta, salads or sandwiches. Uncooked meat should be used within two days.
- Cooked rice. Keep it in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two days and use leftovers in stir-fries or fried rice or salad.
The condiment shelf.
- Dijon mustard. This piquant mustard is great in vinaigrettes and, of course, on sandwiches. Plus, it lasts for months in the refrigerator.
- Tahini. Made from ground sesame seeds, this thick, velvety paste adds a creamy texture and savory flavor to dressings. It also keeps for months in the fridge.
- Capers. Capers provide a bit of umami to dishes like pasta, fish and omelets. I prefer capers packed in sea salt, but capers in brine are often easier to find. Both varieties keep for ages in the fridge.
Assorted basics, the building blocks of most of my meals.
- Butter. I keep butter in the fridge, but if you’re not using it often, store butter in the freezer for up to 6 months.
- Oils. Oils are perishable, so it’s important to buy small quantities and store them in the cupboard away from light and heat. Oils that you use only occasionally are best kept refrigerated. (Take them out before you begin cooking so they come to room temperature.) Toasted sesame oil, which I use in vinaigrettes and stir-fries, spoils easily, so keep it in the refrigerator.
- Stock. I often buy frozen chicken and beef stocks from neighborhood butcher shops and then keep them in the fridge.
- Onions and garlic. They figure into almost every dinner I make and have a permanent spot in my refrigerator. They keep well for about a month or, if cut, up to 5 days tightly wrapped in plastic.
- Vegetables. It’s good to have spinach, broccoli, or kale around for salads, soups, frittatas, and omelets. Cauliflower is another favorite because it lasts more than a week when stored in a plastic bag. The leafy greens stay fresh for about 4 to 5 days in the fridge.
- Fresh herbs. I like to have parsley, cilantro, and basil on hand regularly. They last for about a week in the refrigerator. Below are my tips for keeping them in the freezer if you ever have an abundance of herbs.
Freezer-for-One Food Storage Tips:
Save yourself a headache (and/or a smell test), and always write what you’re freezing as well as the date on the zip-top plastic bag you're storing it in.
- Packs of meat. If you buy a three- or six-pack of chicken or pork chops (or any meat, really), it’s ideal to wrap each piece in plastic wrap or place in a resealable plastic bag and store in the freezer for future single servings. Keep frozen no longer than 4 to 6 months.
- Sauces and stock. When you end up with a large leftover amount of sauce or stock that won’t be used in a day or two, measure it out in 2-tablespoon or 1/2-cup servings per resealable plastic bag and freeze for up to 2 months.
- Fresh herbs. Finely chop the herbs, place 1 tablespoon per compartment in an empty ice cube tray, cover with olive oil, and freeze. Once the herbs are frozen they can be removed from the ice tray and stored in a resealable plastic bag in the freezer for about two weeks.
- Cookie dough. I’m a cookie-on-demand person, so when I make cookie dough I bake a few cookies and then form the rest of the dough into a slice-and-bake roll, which stays stashed (tightly wrapped in plastic) in the freezer.
- Baguettes. When I come across superior baguettes, I buy several and cut them in half or in quarters, place them in resealable plastic bags, and freeze them. Then, when I want French bread, I take a piece out to toast in the oven.
What has your experience been cooking for one? Tell us about it—and about your 1-person-pantry staples—in the comments.
Klancy Miller is the author of Cooking Solo: The Joy of Cooking for Yourself, due out March 8, 2016 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.