Cooking for One? 5 Unexpectedly Affordable Dinner Ideas

We all know the hardships of cooking and eating alone. It can be hard to make an effort to cook a full meal and eat it gracefully, sitting at a table with a napkin and a fork. But the rewards are great; some of my favorite cooking memories were formed in my tiny solo kitchen. And there are other advantages as well: Luxury dinners that we think of as expensive are actually quite economical when cooking for just one. Here are five of my own favorites.

When I was living alone and learning how to cook, I often veered towards the rice, beans, and noodles. I was on a budget and being careful with my grocery shopping in particular. But then one night I was shopping for dinner, ravenously hungry. I wanted something quick and easy, and the huge scallops in the seafood case stopped me in my tracks. I thought of them as expensive restaurant food, and their $15/pound price always put me off.

But then suddenly I realized the obvious; for just one person, I would only need a scant half pound. Maybe even just a quarter pound. I bought a quarter pound of scallops for less than $4 and went home and seared them in three minutes flat. They were one of the best suppers I could remember eating.

After that I looked at other luxury foods I wouldn't ordinarily buy — fresh wild salmon, steak, and expensive mushrooms. Because you need so little of them for a modest single serving, all prove quite economical for just one person. Here are my favorites:

  1. Bay or Sea Scallops - Like I said above, this quick-cooking seafood is one of my favorite dinners for one (or two). Here's a guide to buying, cleaning and cooking scallops, and a recipe for scallops with a vegetable puree (pictured above), and another for scallops with fennel and tomato.
  2. Steak - Steak is another quick yet luxurious meal for one. Don't let those $22/pound prices scare you off. Just buy a small piece or a 1/2-pound steak, and cook it quickly in the oven (instructions here). Slice and eat half for dinner, then eat the other half cold for lunch on a salad the next day.
  3. Wild Mushrooms - Wild mushrooms can come with scary price tags. I love porcini mushrooms and morels, but if you're cooking for a crowd those $30/pound prices will eat up your paycheck fast. When cooking for one, though, a few ounces is plenty to flavor a meal richly and not break the bank. I love David Tanis' wild mushroom ragout (pictured above), which could be sized down considerably to feed just one.
  4. Fish, Salmon, and Smoked Salmon - Nearly any good piece of fish will be quick and easy to cook. And those prices (whoa there, wild salmon!) can be pretty steep, but a small piece for one really shouldn't set you back. Quick fish recipes like this Ginger and Cilantro Baked Tilapia and Salmon and Couscous with Cilantro Vinaigrette are satisfying dinners that take almost no time to make after work. Also think about smoked salmon, which can be very economical and a total treat when you purchase just a couple ounces.
  5. Prepared Foods from the Grocery Case - This is a bit more general, but every now and then I like to pick up one of those bacon-wrapped filets at Whole Foods, or a quarter-pound of a fancy stuffed salmon. These prepared items can be little dinner luxuries, when purchased from a really good market. And they don't break the bank when you're buying just one.

What are some of your favorite meals for one? Are there any special treats you splurge on when you eat alone, instead of with your partner, spouse or roommates?

Related: Solo Eating: Tips on Cooking for One

(Images: Faith Durand; Christopher Hirsheimer/Artisan Books)

(Originally published April 18, 2011)