Cooking for one: how to make the most of your budget

Popular money-saving tactics such as buying in bulk and batch cooking have long been our go-to for eating well on a budget. However, if you’re cooking for one and don’t have freezer space for storage, you might find it hard to make varied meals with a short shopping list. But we have a plan...

We’ve come up with three new 7-day budget dinner plans, made especially for single-person households, students, and anyone else who often cooks for one. Each meal is a single serving (although quantities are easily multiplied), so you have a week’s worth of varied evening meals, which cost an average of £1.50.

Using common ingredients and no specialist kit, these dinners are easy to make but big on flavour. We’ve also designed these recipes with energy efficiency in mind: you'll notice some traditionally oven-baked dishes are made on the hob. In the few instances when the oven is used, we’ve spread the cost across multiple recipes.

Our budget meal plans were created by cookery writers Saskia Sidey and Justine Pattison. During the process, these seasoned cooks experienced first-hand just how tricky it is to stick to a tight budget when cooking for one.

The meal plans

Top tips from Saskia and Justine

One of the challenges both recipe developers cited was using the same produce across the week – which was crucial to stay on target financially – while making each meal feel distinct from the last.

Mix up staples and spices

“Using up an ingredient in several dishes without them feeling repetitive definitely required some creativity,” says Saskia. “I found that fresh vegetables were the most versatile kinds of items for doing this successfully – they can often be cooked in completely different ways and with different flavours.

“Cauliflower is especially versatile. It’s quite mild so it can take on flavours very well, and when I ran out of budget to include spinach in one of the pasta recipes, I realised its leaves – which usually get discarded – would work perfectly instead.

“Store cupboard spices are also your best friends when it comes to creating variety in your meals. Paprika, cumin and chilli flakes are great staples and I used them loads. With just those three spices you can make things from a lot of different cuisines: Italian, Indian, Mexican and Middle Eastern, for example. They’re really versatile.”

Shop in person

Shopping online can be convenient, but going to the shops in person (with our ready shopping list) is useful if a similar item is on offer or yellow-stickered. It’s also a good idea to hand-pick your ingredients, says Saskia.

“Sizes of fresh fruit and veg priced per item can vary quite dramatically while still being the same price. I realised when I ordered ingredients online that whoever is picking your produce isn’t going to take the time to choose the biggest items, so you can get a lot more for your money if you do it yourself.”

Buy just what you need

The local supermarket might usually be your go-to grocery shop, but it’s also worth checking out your nearest high street stores, says Justine – especially when you’re working with single portions.

“Things like meat and fish can be so expensive – but it’s not just about price, it’s also the fact they’re difficult to buy from a supermarket in smaller quantities. For anyone who's cooking just for one I’d definitely recommend looking in the local butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers – these are the kinds of places where you can buy things in singles and smaller quantities.

“When you’re able to buy meat in smaller quantities, a clever trick is to bulk meaty dishes out with more affordable ingredients. So if I was doing bolognese, for instance, I might add lentils and use less mince. Pulses are cheap and help dishes like this go further.”

Team up

Bulk buying can work for single-person households, if you can club in with others. “To make use of the value offered by bulk buying ingredients – like big bags of rice or spices, for instance – think about joining up with friends or other single households and share the cost. Even fresh ingredients such as chicken portions or chops can be bought in bigger packs and divided up.”

Minimise oven use

It's not just the cost of ingredients that Saskia and Justine took into account – rising energy prices also meant they were very conscious of what appliances they were using.

“I made a lot of my recipes for the budget meal plan hob-focused,” says Justine. “I adapted things that might go in the oven – like potato wedges – and worked out a way to do them on a hob instead, relatively quickly and efficiently.”

“I designed the meat-eaters meal plan so that you’re able to cook all the chicken thighs for the week in one go – which saves on oven usage – and then use them throughout the week, freezing any cooked thighs that you don’t need for a few days. It's always worth bearing in mind that cooked meat freezes really well. Often you can use it from frozen, but otherwise you can just thaw it overnight.”

If you do have access to freezer space, you can double up the recipes to make the cost of using the oven go over two weeks or more.

Appearances matter

Budget food can also look less appetising with fewer ingredients to add colour and texture. So, despite the tight budget, Saskia worked hard to avoid having to drop the extra touches that make a dish something you’d look forward to eating.

“I wanted things to be visually appealing and so I was thinking hard about colour and garnishes. Those are the things that can really make you happier when you're about to eat; you don't always just want to tuck into a bowl of beige. So prioritising things like that lemon wedge or sprinkling of herbs is important to brighten things up, add an extra layer of flavour and make you forget you’re even eating on a budget.”

How we priced our meal plans

Our meal plans for one were created on a strict ingredient budget of £10 for the week, which is on average £1.50 per dinner. And, as we wanted to make your food shop as practical as possible, we’ve costed these recipes slightly differently. Standard practice is to divide the cost of each ingredient by the number of potential servings, and then add all of those costs together.

Instead, we’ve based most of our costs on the smallest available pack size, meaning even if you don’t use a whole jar or packet, the entire cost is still included in the budget.

These costs are added to a store cupboard of common items like oil, salt, pasta and rice that you may buy regularly and use for several meals. These basics are costed according to the quantity you use. The items in this limited store cupboard tend to have long shelf lives, or are regularly purchased (bread, milk and potatoes).

We’ve also made sure each plan uses as much of each ingredient you buy as possible, not only to keep costs down but also avoid waste. So, while you can easily pick and choose which recipes you want to make from across all three, the plans work best when you follow a specific one for a whole week.

Originally published September 2022