when i was 21 and got my first real apartment, i remember distinctly spending exactly $7 on my very first real grown up groceries. as i recall, the grocery list read a little bit like this: a loaf of cheap bread, a package of off brand bologna, 1/4 lb of american cheese, a box of margarine, and the balance in ramen and lipton instant noodles. i ate a lot of starch that first year, and enough salt to… um… do something that would require a whole pantload of salt. needless to say, i gained about 15 pounds and was an all around big bloaty (and worefully malnourished) sack. charming!
i suppose the majority of the blame for these poor dietary choices can be squarely placed on my parents for being the health conscious hippies that they were. not quite vegetarian, but certainly lacking in the “meat & potatoes” department, i was raised on a steady diet of fruits & veggies, whole grains, and low fat high quality protein (even tofu!). as a result of this, i now require regular vegetables in order to live, and have a strong dislike for soda and anything that is overly sweet. but flashing back to 1999, i was ready to lead a rebellion against this fascist vegetable regime, and went on a processed food binge that would last about a year (and would terminate with enrollment in weight watchers and sincere apologies to my parents for deviating so far from their wise and healthy teachings).
but even once i woke up from my MSG soaked nightmare diet, i was still heavily constrained by the boundaries of both my budget (namely, my $22,000 a year temp job with no benefits), and my singlehood. let’s face it, save for a sad nod toward the lean cuisine area of the freezer section, the eating universe barely acknowledges the “dining alone” contingent. even if your mom does give you a really tragic “cooking for one” cookbook for christmas, it still wants you to go to the grocery store and purchase all sorts of ingredients, conveniently bundled for families of 5. so what’s a broke single girl (or boy) to do?
1. stockpile: however minimal the cabinet space in your teeny overpriced studio apartment, save some serious real estate for things like pasta, rice, and canned goods. this shit is great for meal components, can usually be obtained for free or super cheap with coupons, and comes in wicked handy when you have to choose between paying your electric bill and going to the grocery store. pro tip- they make tupperware for FUCKING EVERYTHING, including dry-goods storage. once you break open the factory seal, keep your stockpile from getting stale or funny tasting by entombing it in something with a lid that seals (don’t forget to burp!).
2. bulk up & hit the deli: not only do things tend to be cheaper in bulk (no pesky packaging to crap up the works), but you can also get as little or as much as you want. yeah, it’s totally street legal to buy 6 walnuts or ask for a single slice of cheese. pro tip- you can even beg for assorted deli cheese ends for super duper cheap.
3. become one with the freezer: frozen bread changed my life. it meant i could buy whole bags of hamburger buns, artisan bagels, and family sized loaves of sandwich bread… just toss it in a freezer bag before it gets stale, and eat it piece at a time for a good month or so before it gets all weird (longer if you’re not too discriminating about bread taste). also a good trick- if it’s about to go bad, try tossing it in the freezer. this works particularly great with almost questionable fruit & ready to expire yogurt for future smoothie consumption. pro tip- freeze the 3/4 of leftover pasta sauce in the jar in individual portions (small tupperware and ice cube trays work best) instead of letting it grow mold friends in the back of your fridge.
4. multitask: produce is a killer for singles, because it tends to rot away into brown liquid in the crisper drawer before it can all be used. careful meal planning is tantamount here. want to buy a whole head of lettuce? schedule tacos, burgers, & some sort of fancy salad all for the same week to use it up. pro tip- if you just want lettuce once a week, skip the produce section entirely and grab a few leaves at the salad bar (whole foods is particularly good for this).
5. cook ahead: it’s a complete fallacy that freezer cooking is only good for wholesome midwestern families of 8. if there’s a perishable ingredient that you’ve been craving or there’s an amazing deal that you can’t pass up, make yourself a couple of batches of whatever and freeze the overage. that way you can have single size frozen meals that don’t come in a patronizing little red box. pro tip- cupcakes and unbaked cookie dough balls freeze really well. have yourself some home baked dessert on a one at a time basis (also extremely helpful for diet control).