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How to grocery shop for one without wasting food and money

By Aaron Hutcherson Washington Post

Grocery shopping for a single person is hard. It’s something I’ve more or less had to do all of my adult life. When I lived with roommates, we would occasionally share things we cooked and would split kitchen staples, like oils and seasonings, but otherwise we focused on feeding ourselves when we made trips to the grocery store. Now that I’ve been living alone for the past few years, shopping just for myself has only become more challenging.

The issue with single households is that it’s easy to over-shop at the grocery store, which means wasted food and money – two things I hate. The problem is caused by the desire to enjoy a variety of foods, use loads of fresh ingredients, and not take up too much time and effort. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to have all three while still being friendly to the planet and your wallet. (Heck, sometimes it’s difficult to get to two.)

But not all is lost! You don’t need to just throw your hands up in despair and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for every meal. Here are my tips for intentionally and efficiently grocery shopping for one person, with delicious possibilities.

Know thyself

Some weeks, I have the best of intentions about what I think I’m going to eat. I dream of smoothies in the morning, salads at lunch, and something delicious and homemade for dinner. But in reality, most days I have a piece of fruit or granola bar in the morning (or skip breakfast entirely), am running too late to pack anything to bring for lunch, and resort to takeout or delivery for dinner because I’m too exhausted to lift a finger at the end of the workday. Throw in the recipe tests that become meals and my weekly eating schedule can be difficult to predict.

We need to be real with ourselves about what we actually eat each week. Here are some questions to get started: How often do you prepare your own food versus having someone else prepare it for you? Are leftovers okay for the week, or would you rather be one and done with your meals? If you freeze leftover food, will you remember to eat it down the road? Can you stick to a strict food plan, or do you need some level of flexibility built in?

Make a plan

Once you’ve answered those questions, you can start making a plan, which is paramount to the goal of cutting back on buying excess groceries. Start by picking just one or two dishes you plan to make that week – don’t forget to check how many servings they make – and look at the ingredients required for each. For the fresh ingredients, are you able to buy them in a quantity where you’ll use them up for the recipe, or will there be some part remaining, such as a half bunch of fresh herbs or a few stalks of celery? With that answer, you can think up ways to make use of those ingredients in other meals (within their expected life span) or make a note to yourself to repurpose them for later, such as drying the herbs to store in your spice cabinet or freezing the celery to eventually make stock.

Take inventory

Coinciding with making a plan, you need to know what ingredients you already have and which ones you need to consume imminently. Buying a new box of pasta only to discover four more sitting in your cupboard waiting to be cooked isn’t the end of the world. But avoiding overbuying is imperative with perishable items, such as the head of cabbage you’ve been meaning to do something with for weeks or the avocados on your counter that you’ve been carefully waiting to ripen for days. One trick to help you remember is to keep perishable things in clear eyesight. For refrigerated items, bring the produce to the front of the shelves and consider taking things out of drawers.

Stock up on pantry items

Having a well-stocked pantry will simplify your cooking and shopping, so it’s a good idea to buy as many shelf-stable items as make sense when you’re on a grocery run. There are the obvious things, such as rice, beans and pasta, but I’m also talking frozen seafood and vegetables; fermented things, such as kimchi and sauerkraut; and frozen meals, such as frozen pizza and dumplings. Knowing that you already have what you need to put together meals with minimal fresh ingredients gives you more flexibility when you don’t have many available.

Buy perishable goods in small quantities

For the most part, you want to limit how much bread, fresh produce, dairy, meat and seafood you purchase at once. And even still, the right storage and changing the types of certain items you purchase can have a large impact on how long they last. Unless you’re buying commercially baked bread that contains preservatives, your loaves will last only a couple of days at room temperature. (Though you can always freeze bread.) Lettuces and herbs can go bad quickly, particularly if you don’t store them properly. I don’t drink much milk, so I always purchase organic when it’s on my shopping list because it lasts much longer than nonorganic milk. Fresh meat should be cooked or frozen within a few days of purchasing, and I’d plan to use fresh seafood within one day. Though the family pack of chicken thighs might be more affordable, you’ll need to keep this timeline in mind.

Shop more frequently

If possible, try to make smaller, more frequent shopping trips. Making a couple of smaller trips each week to just get what you need is a great way to prevent you from buying too much. It’s when you try to “save time” and grocery shop for the next week or two that you can find yourself in trouble. More than once, I’ve loaded up on fresh fruit and vegetables with a plan to eat more healthfully, only to barely make a dent in them before they need to head to the compost bin.

Embrace and freeze leftovers

I know not everyone loves leftovers, but making recipes that lead to more meals later on can make grocery shopping – and life in general – so much easier. I’m all for simply reheating and eating the same meal three or so times over a few days. But if that’s not your speed, maybe portioning and freezing the meal to eat in a few weeks or months is more appetizing. Or you can also repurpose, say, a rotisserie chicken, batch of tomato sauce or pot of beans to use in curries, dips, quesadillas, shakshuka, salads, tacos, grain bowls and more. Enjoying a new, freshly prepared meal three times a day would be a joy, but it’s simply not practical for most of us. Leftovers can work wonders if you give them a chance.

To put all this advice into practice, let’s say you want to make Lamb Pita Sandwiches With Tzatziki this week. Featuring cinnamon- and garlic-scented lamb patties and cool, creamy tzatziki, this recipe is adapted from “The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook” by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, 2024), meaning you can eat one serving for dinner the night you make it and save the other for lunch later in the week.

It originally called for 12 ounces of ground lamb, which you could get from the meat counter or a butcher shop. But if you just go to the meat aisle, you’re more likely to find it sold in one-pound packages. In this instance, instead of freezing 4 ounces of lamb or trying to find another use for such a small amount, I modified the recipe to list a range so that you can just cook it all at once and each sandwich will get slightly more lamb.

You need only one cucumber total, part of which gets grated for the tzatziki and the rest of which gets sliced and stuffed into the pita. The remaining pitas can be use for more sandwiches, used as the base for pizzas or repurposed into chips. If you buy a large tub of yogurt, the rest can be eaten for breakfast, blended into smoothies, baked into cakes and used to marinate meats, just to name a few options. Any extra tomatoes and lettuce can easily be made into a salad (or stuffed into more pita sandwiches). And the rest of the recipe ingredients are pantry staples that you don’t need to think about.

With this jump-start on making a plan, give it a try and see how these tips work for you.

Lamb Pita Sandwiches With Tzatziki

Cinnamon- and garlic-scented lamb patties and cool, creamy tzatziki star in these pita sandwiches. This recipe is designed for two, but it can easily be scaled up to feed more. Adding lettuce, tomato and cucumber is just one way to assemble the sandwiches; other possibilities include hummus, harissa, baba ganoush, pickles, olives, feta and more.


One (6-ounce) cucumber

½ cup plain whole or low-fat Greek yogurt

1 teaspoon minced fresh mint or dill

2 garlic cloves, minced or finely grated, divided

¾ teaspoon fine salt, divided, plus more to taste

12 to 16 ounces ground lamb

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon neutral oil, such as canola or vegetable

Two (8-inch) pitas

Half romaine lettuce heart, thinly sliced

1 medium tomato, thinly sliced


Grate about two-thirds of the cucumber into a small bowl. (Thinly slice the rest and reserve for the sandwiches.) Add the yogurt, mint or dill, half of the garlic, and ¼ teaspoon of the salt, and stir to combine. Taste, and season with more salt, if desired. This is your tzatziki. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Break up the ground lamb into small pieces in a medium bowl, and add the cinnamon, pepper, remaining garlic and ½ teaspoon salt. Lightly mix with your hands until combined. Pinch off and shape the mixture into six to eight ½-inch-thick patties (about 2 ounces each).

Line a plate with towels and set it near your stove. In a large (12-inch) nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until just smoking. Add the patties and cook until well browned on the bottom, about 4 minutes. Flip the patties, reduce the heat to medium and cook until well browned on the other side, about 4 minutes. Transfer to the towel-lined plate.

Cut off the top 2 inches from each pita. Place the pitas on a plate, cover and microwave on HIGH until warm, about 30 seconds. (Alternatively, wrap in foil and place in a moderate oven, toaster oven or air fryer until warm.) Spread half of the tzatziki inside each pita, then fill each with half of the lettuce, sliced cucumber, tomato and the lamb patties. Serve warm.

Total time: 30 minutes

Yield: 2 servings (makes 2 sandwiches)

Storage: Refrigerate the lamb patties and tzatziki separately for up to 3 days.

Substitutions: Swap fresh herbs for ½ teaspoon dried herbs. Swap romaine for another crunchy lettuce.

Adapted from “The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook” by America’s Test Kitchen (America’s Test Kitchen, 2024). Tested by Aaron Hutcherson.