Cooking for Two: Tips for Empty Nesters

by Reader Contributors

Cooking Tips for Empty Nesters photo

It can be hard to adjust to cooking less once you become empty nesters. Our readers share their tips for cooking two.

Gary,
My husband and I are empty nesters since our youngest went off to college last fall. I’ve found it hard to cook for just the two of us. Most of my recipes are from when we had the kids living at home. Sometimes it’s hard to get motivated to cook when it’s just the two of us.

What do other people do when they’re just cooking for two?
Melissa

Cooking Tips for Empty Nesters

Obviously we have a lot of readers who are empty nesters. Who better to give tips for cooking for two? Here are the many submissions we received when we reached out asking for cooking tips and advice for empty nesters.

Freeze Individual Portions

This is an easy one. I make the usual large batches of food and then freeze individual portions. That way, when I have a day I don’t want to cook, I just thaw and heat something from the freezer. It is less expensive, tastes better, and is more nutritious than frozen meals I might buy from the store.
April

Think Big!

Rather than scaling down recipes, make the full recipe or even double it and freeze the extra in appropriate meal-size portions for ready-to-heat dinners that you will be thankful to have on hand on busy nights. Many dishes freeze very well, such as lasagna and other baked pastas, soups, stews, and casseroles. Some can even be assembled and frozen without baking in advance. Then you simply pop it into the oven on the night you want to serve it. Remember that it’s just as easy to cook a large batch as a small amount, so make the most of your precious time in the kitchen.

The same idea goes for baking as well. Making banana bread? Don’t make just one loaf. Instead, make two while you’re at it and freeze. Cookies? Make the full batch, but bake just a few, freezing the rest of the dough for the next time you crave fresh cookies. How about breakfast treats like muffins, pancakes or waffles? Make a bunch and stash the rest for another day.

Portioning meat into smaller servings before freezing also helps singles and couples by making it easy to pull out a single chicken breast or a couple of hamburger patties as needed. A common complaint that I hear all too often is that it’s not worth the bother to cook for just one or two. How sad to believe that “only you” aren’t worth making a decent meal. Please consider yourself just as deserving as any beloved family member or dear friend. Wouldn’t you gladly prepare a meal for them? Of course, you would, so be equally kind to yourself.
Diva

You deserve a comfortable retirement.
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Adjust the Recipe Servings

There is a great website for recipes called Allrecipes.com. When you choose the recipe, click on the drop down menu for how many servings you want and it will calculate it for you. You can also save it to a recipe box to use again.
Donna

Would You Rather…

We eat a lot of leftovers! If I make a casserole or other dish that freezes well, I make the full recipe and freeze the extra in single portion sizes. Then on nights when I don’t want to cook, we each pick something from the freezer. If we want a pot roast or pork loin, I turn the leftovers into BBQ or tacos for another dinner. And, if we don’t finish the BBQ, it goes into the freezer. Most side dishes and many main dishes can simply be made in smaller half-batches.

As far as lack of motivation to cook when there are no kids to feed, I understand. I just try to remember that if I don’t cook, we will eat out. That costs more money and generally more calories than a home cooked meal. I want to be able to travel and the vacation fund grows faster when more meals are prepared at home. Plus, I find it easier to keep the waistline in check.
Colleen

Search Online for Numerous Cooking for Two Options

If you Google “Cooking for Two” and/or “Cooking for One,” you will find literally hundreds of sites that specialize in providing tasty meals that work for just one or two people. Many of them take advantage of conveniences like already-cut-up vegetables and a crockpot, so you don’t feel like you’re spending hours in the kitchen to produce such a small amount of food.

And if you still want to use your old recipes that fed an army of children, then simply divide them into small portions when finished and freeze so you can have a ready-to-eat meal on those days when you too tired to cook.
Kamia

This Is What I Do…

I’ve seldom cooked for two, but I often cook for one. Here are some things I do:

  • During the summer, I keep salad greens along with cut-up carrots, celery cabbage, peppers, etc. in a plastic container with a lid, so I don’t have to fix a salad every time. I just put the greens mixture in a serving bowl and add tomatoes, croutons, chopped hardboiled eggs, and dressing for an instant salad. It’s quick and easy.
  • I also may keep a container or two of something for a side dish, such as potato salad, tabouli, green beans, baked beans, etc. I just spoon it on the plate with meat and I’m good to go.
  • Ham slices can either be eaten with a hot meal or on a sandwich.
  • A filling lunch includes 2/3 cup of cottage cheese inside a hollowed-out tomato or with fruit salad (can be from a can).
  • I freeze foods in single servings.
  • I throw some spaghetti in a pot of boiling water. Then I add my favorite tomato sauce to browned ground meat. It’s not hard. A variation can be adding this and veggies to other kinds of pasta and topped with cheese for a casserole.
  • Grilled cheese sandwiches go well with a bowl of soup. Use your slow cooker or just open a can of your favorite flavor. Clam chowder and basil tomato are my favorite soups.
  • Baked potatoes in the microwave can be topped with meats as well as the traditional butter, sour cream, chives, bacon, etc.
  • Our local supermarket has some frozen meats in small packages that do well for one or two folks.
  • I keep fresh fruit around for healthy eating. I’m careful not to buy more than I can eat before it goes bad.
  • Biscuits can be cooked all at once and then cooled and put in a clear plastic zippered food storage bag. I take one or two out and reheat in microwave for the bread portion of my meal. This is also good for breakfast. The contents of one can will last a week.
  • Sometimes I make a regular-sized batch of a favorite recipe and then store the remainder in plastic containers. I freeze some for later and put the rest in the fridge and use within a few days.
  • Some supermarkets sell a single slice of pie in their bakery department. This makes a great dessert, and I don’t have to eat the same pie for the next two weeks.

Lynn B.

Have Quick Go-To Meals

As a single mom, when my son joined the Air Force, I went from cooking for two (and one of whom was a teen boy!) to cooking for myself. Talk about shock! I found two important coping methods for when I didn’t feel like cooking (which was too much of the time).

  1. Have a quick go-to meal. This is a meal that takes 15 minutes or less to fix and made with ingredients that are readily on hand. My two primary quick go-to meals were bacon and eggs and pasta with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and a bit of cheese. These meals would get me through those times when I didn’t feel like cooking or couldn’t think of what to cook or didn’t feel like going grocery shopping to replenish my fridge.
  2. When you do feel like cooking, cook the “normal” amount and freeze the rest. Trying to eat a pot of soup by myself would mean eating soup all week! Instead, I now make a pot of soup, eat it for dinner and lunch the next day, and then freeze portion sizes. When I don’t feel like cooking, I simply get out a container of frozen soup and heat. This can be done with all type of meals, not just soups.

Mary in Pennsylvania

Slow Cooker Sized Down

I’ve always been a big fan of a slow cooker, and when it became just the two of us, I bought a crockette and started scouring the internet for slow cooker recipes for two. They are already sized down and have worked out perfectly for just the two of us.
Sherry in Indiana

Look for Alternative Ways of Eating

My husband and I have tried many things, but keep coming back to this. We keep soups, bread, and sandwich meat on hand. We always have salad fixings.

We eat a main meal at the lunch hour. For me, that is a frozen entrée and a bowl of fruit that I fix just for me. He works where there is a good, cheap employee cafeteria.

At night, we have soup, sandwich, and salad. My sister uses the British approach (helps manage her blood sugar). They eat a hearty egg, sausage, and toast breakfast.

They have a light soup and sandwich lunch. They have high tea at 4pm (toasted cheese and fruit with coffee or tea). And then they eat a late supper about 8pm (scones and hot chocolate).

This is the time to experiment with alternate ways of eating that help you stay trim and healthy.
Van in AL

Enjoy Dessert Again

I have been cooking for the two of us for a number of years and use most of the suggestions that other readers have offered. They are all very workable. I also might make a pie or cake for a special occasion or holiday and freeze the leftover portions individually. They keep very well and portion control becomes easy. I pick up appropriate containers from a dollar store and never experience freezer burn. It is a great way to enjoy a special dessert once in a while.
Holly

Divide and Conquer

When we became “empty nesters,” I had a problem with cooking too large! My Mom gave me an answer.

Buy small glass casserole pans at garage sales, thrift stores, etc. When making a meal, make the “normal” amount and split as far as it will go into one- and two-serving dishes. My hubby works occasional nights and the singles get used when he’s away. I pull out a two-serving dish for both of us.

It’s so nice to have an assortment in the freezer. After adding veggies, bread, and fruit, supper is served.

I do have a warning. When heating up a cold (or frozen) glass dish, be sure to put it into cold oven and then turn on oven. Suddenly placing a frozen glass dish into a hot oven will break the dish.
Karen P.

Save on Lunches as Well

When cooking for 1 or 2, I rarely only cook that amount. I use the leftovers for work lunches the next day. Most recipes are written for 4 servings, which works out nicely for me and my boyfriend to have dinner and a lunch or two for me for that week.

I also invested in a small freezer. I live in a rather small apartment, but I’ve still managed to make room for it. I keep my microwave on top of it, so it does double-duty. It’s great for freezer-friendly recipes that make a lot of volume like batches of soup or chili that I can save for later.
Vanessa

Re-Purpose Leftovers

I am cooking for two these days after years of not having to cook at all (my husband was the chef, but his health doesn’t allow him to do it anymore). Since I also work full time, the time-saving and frugal thing to do is to prepare any recipe and then freeze the extra portions. I made a pot of chili today, and after a delicious meal, we have enough for tomorrow’s lunch and two more meals in the freezer.

You can also cook something one day, and re-purpose the leftovers the next. I cooked one pound of London broil on the grill last night for dinner and then chopped up about 1/2 pound of it to add to 1/2 pound of hamburger to make today’s pot of chili. You can turn leftover spaghetti sauce into hot dog chili just by adding some spices. Leftover chicken can go into soup or slice it for sandwiches or make chicken salad. My favorite thing to do with leftover chicken is to make enchiladas with it. Even a small meatloaf makes enough for great sandwiches the next day and what’s left freezes great. You not only save time, but have back up meals for when you’re sick or just tired.

Using square containers uses your freezer space better, or things like spaghetti sauce can be frozen in zipper bags. I went ahead and chopped the entire onion today and then spread the leftovers out on a plate in the freezer and bagged up the frozen pieces to use when I make spaghetti the next time.

When I was single, I used a divided plastic container to create TV dinners from the leftovers when I cooked. I usually took those to work for lunch, but they froze well, too.
Wendy

Reviewed February 2021

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