Shopping for one: A dozen grocery hacks for living single

You can avoid more expensive, smaller servings and still not have your food spoil too quickly. 

Eric Vidal/Reuters/File
Customers visit the fruit and vegetables department of a Carrefour grocery store in Brussels.

We've seen a few different articles recently about how to shop for groceries when you live alone and cook for one. I'm pretty much an expert at bachelor cooking, so I read these with some interest, looking to see if there were any hacks they mentioned that I didn't know about. 

While I can't say I found anything that was new to me, I did feel that while they did a decent job of addressing the pitfalls of buying too much, there wasn't enough of a focus on how to shop frugally. Smaller packages that a singleton like myself might find more convenient often end up costing more. Other times, foods spoil too quickly when there aren't enough mouths around to eat them. So today I'm talking about how I plan my own grocery shopping list and explain how I keep my costs as low as possible.

The grocery shopping template at The Everygirl provides a pretty solid guideline for not buying more than you need that I mostly like, calling for two proteins, two vegetables, two fruits, "herb-du-jour", a dozen eggs, Greek yogurt, cheese, a grain, granola, and a "smart snack."

Here's how I would shop that list:

2 proteins: 2 pork chops, a bag of frozen chicken breasts
Pork chops are relatively inexpensive, and a bag of frozen chicken can last you more than a week.

4 vegetables: grape tomatoes, an onion, asparagus, fresh mushrooms
The Everygirl recommends two, but it's hard to imagine only choosing two from this list of four. And that's pared down to just my core basics. Others I commonly pick up include sweet and red potatoes, sweet mini peppers, bags of frozen corn and edamame. So I refuse to limit myself to two. My version calls for four vegetables, because we're eating fresh and cooking most meals from scratch. These four that I've chosen get thrown into literally everything I make.

2 fruits: strawberries, fresh cut pineapple
These are my two go-to fruits, especially the pineapple which can pull double duty cooked with pork or chicken. But I also tend to pick up a couple bananas (rarely more than 2), maybe some grapes or raspberries. Cherries go to the top of the list when they're in season.

Herb-du-jour: a basil plant
If you're going to buy fresh herbs, skip the fresh cut herbs. Instead, spring for a live plant, put it in a pot, stick it on your windowsill, snip off bits as needed. It'll provide a much better payoff for you than the little plastic boxes of cut herbs that wilt after three days.

A dozen eggs? Well, maybe a half dozen.
If I had no eggs in the house at all, I would go for a dozen. I like to take a dozen, hard boil half, and reserve the other six for cooking. They'll last awhile in the fridge. Otherwise, though, I'd pick up a half dozen if I needed any at all. I honestly don't know how any single person could go through a dozen eggs in a week, though a co-worker assures me that she more or less does, with eggs for breakfast every morning.

Plain Greek yogurt
A bowl of Greek yogurt with some honey, raspberries and granola has been a favorite breakfast lately, and it also works as an excellent substitute for sour cream. Anytime a food can pull double duty, it's a better option than one that can't.

Cheese: a shredded Mexican blend
This is my go-to cheese since it goes with literally everything. I have nothing special to say about it. It's just yummy. 

Grain: a big bag of rice
Pantry staple #1, right here. Buying bulk is best since it has a lower cost per ounce. I tend to prefer a jasmine or basmati since they have a shorter cooking time. If there's already rice in the pantry, however, maybe a box of pasta, or maybe I'm low on flour since I do a lot of baking.

Granola: ehh, maybe?
Calling out granola on this list feels weird to me since it's so specific and, frankly, limited in its uses. I've been putting granola on my yogurt this week, sure, but if we're discussing it as a grain-driven breakfast option, then I'm pretty sure that a box of cereal would be cheaper. It feels a lot like listing chocolate sprinkles as a must-have, and seriously, why?

Smart snack: ice cream popsicles
There are healthier snacks out there, sure, but let's all acknowledge that we love us some ice cream, okay? The nice thing about popsicles is that they satisfy an ice cream craving while keeping the calories in check since every portion is individually wrapped and thus harder to binge. It's much better for morale than blowing through a 2.5 serving pint of Ben & Jerry's in one sitting. I especially like frozen Greek yogurt ice cream pops, but they're crazy expensive, so I usually end up with a cheap box of a dozen very satisfying fudgsicles that come in around 100 calories each. I have no regrets about this.

Beverages: almond milk, orange juice, coffee
Liquid refreshment is conspicuously absent from The Everygirl's list and so I'm adding it. I'll go into my reasons for choosing a dairy alternative over real milk in bit. I like the fresh squeezed orange juice I can get at my local grocery story for about the same cost as a bottle of something processed and brand named. And for coffee, I like the store-brand coffee pods that are cheaper than k-cups and have a mesh filter that makes them more eco-friendly.

Looking at that list, I can do a heck of a lot with it. Some of those staples, like the eggs, grains, granola/cereal, cheese and ice cream pops, will last well beyond the week. I tend to eat fresh but keep everything as frugal as possible by looking carefully at pricing, understanding how to store excess, and cooking from scratch whenever possible.

These are some of my favorite tips when grocery shopping for one.

Buy according to price per ounce instead of by package size.

A lot of the single person grocery guides I've seen recommend buying smaller sizes, and they're so wrong it makes me crazy. Let's say you have a choice between two cans of crushed tomatoes. The larger can is almost invariably a better deal. To see why, always look at the shelf tag to find the price per ounce. Without fail, the smaller can costs more per ounce than the large one.

Even though the 1-liter bottle costs much less, the 10-pack is a better deal overall since it delivers more product per ounce.

And it's not like those extra cans are going to go bad! They'll be just fine hanging out in the back of your fridge until the next time you need them.

That half penny difference per ounce probably doesn't seem too exciting, but when you do this with everything you buy, multiplied over weeks and years, it really does start to add up. Plus, you're more likely to have the thing you need on hand next time rather than needing to go buy it.

Of course, if you're shopping and cooking for one, you're probably wondering what to do with the excess. Well, you have a freezer, right? Save it for later. If it's a good recipe, you'll probably make it again, and you'll have crushed tomatoes on hand.

Another example of this "more is cheaper" principle is celery. I used to buy little tubs of diced celery when I needed it in a recipe, because it was so much smaller than buying an actual bunch. I mean, what was I going to do with that much celery? But the cost of a bunch is well under $1, while that neat little tub was close to $2. And chopped celery actually freezes pretty well. A single bunch of celery can easily last me six months or more like that.

There are definitely exceptions to this rule, though. If it can't be frozen or isn't shelf stable, then you'll have to decide whether or not it's really wise to upsize whatever it is you're buying. If it's going to go bad before you use it all, then it's not worth it.

Buy pantry staples in bulk.

For non-perishables, you're not in a hurry to go through them, so you might as well take advantage of the lower price per ounce that sizing up grants you. This includes rice, pasta, sugar, flour, cereal, coffee, anything that will last on a shelf. For canned goods, it can still be worthwhile going big since just about everything can be stored or preserved somehow.

Stop buying milk.

Add a bag of powdered milk to your pantry instead of keeping milk in the fridge.

I've never been much of a milk drinker and I usually don't eat more than one bowl of cereal in a week, and so even the smallest container goes bad before I can use all of it. If that sounds familiar to you, then milk is a bad investment. Instead, I buy alternatives like soy milk or almond milk. It's more expensive per ounce than milk, but it doesn't go bad anywhere near as quickly.

The same goes for creamers. I'll generally buy a carton of coconut milk creamer over dairy creamer. Or lately I've been finding great deals on an almond milk creamer that's better than it probably has a right to be.

For recipes where I can't get away with substituting a dairy alternative, I keep a bag of powdered milk in the cupboard and make it as needed. Need a half cup of buttermilk? No problem. Mix up half a cup of milk, drop in a tablespoon of white vinegar, let it sit on the counter for a few minutes. Want to make a nice, milky hot chocolate? Put water in the kettle to boil and add a couple spoonfuls of powdered milk to your hot chocolate mix.

Another member of our team stashes individual coffee creamers for the same reason - they're shelf stable and give you just what you need for a recipe. And several friends recommended packs of mini shelf-stable milks that come in units as small as 8 oz. They don't start to spoil until they're opened. Shelf-stable brands include Fairlife and Parmalat.

The bottom line with milk - and with anything that spoils, really - is that you shouldn't only consider the price tag, or even the cost per ounce. What you really need to look at is the price per ounce consumed. When I look at it that way, milk becomes way more expensive than the fancy almond-coconut milk I've been favoring lately.

Make your own bread and tortillas.

It's cheaper, and easier than you think, to make flour tortillas at home, and they don't come in ridiculous stacks of too-many-to-use-before-they-dry-up.

Bread is another one of those things that I can't ever seem to get through before it goes stale or gets moldy. I've mostly cut it from my diet. If I want bread, I make my own, no bread machine required. This is my go-to recipe. If real maple syrup is out of your budget, it works just as well with honey instead. Homemade bread is much tastier than the store-bought stuff and since it's so good, I know I'll actually finish the loaf. If you're not up to the challenge, keep it in the occasional column and buy it from the bakery instead when you crave it. It's so much better.

Buy lots of root vegetables.

Carrots, potatoes and onions tend to be cheap and take a long time to go bad. That means I can buy a whole bunch of carrots, toss them in the fridge, and mostly not worry about needing to go through them very quickly. Skip the carrots that are already peeled. No baby carrots either, which are just regular carrots chopped and polished down to a 2-bite morsel. Buy the cheap bag of unpeeled full-size carrots. It's much cheaper, and peeling is fast and easy anyway.

Buy vegetables that you know you'll eat.

For me, this is generally asparagus, a handful of sweet mini peppers, and grape tomatoes. Asparagus is admittedly not cheap, but I know I'll eat the entire bunch, something that's not necessarily true for a less expensive head of broccoli. So for me it's worth the splurge.

If you eat a lot of salads, skip the pre-packaged tubs and bags in favor of the fresh-picked heads and bunches. Pick a green like spinach that can be cooked as well as eaten raw to get more versatility out of it.

With tomatoes, I always go with the grape or cherry variety. The problem with larger tomatoes is that once you cut into them they must be stored in the fridge and they start to go bad. Snack-size tomatoes, however, last a long time on a counter top, can be chopped up as needed when a recipe needs tomatoes, or stashed in box lunches.

Speaking of vegetables, never, ever use the crisper.

Seriously, the crisper drawer in my fridge is really just a black hole, a place for vegetables to be stored and promptly forgotten until I start wondering what that weird smell is. It's better to just keep fresh veggies on a shelf where I can see them. Putting them in the crisper is basically throwing money away.

Some frozen vegetables are worthwhile.

Most of the time, I'm not a big fan of frozen vegetables. Frozen corn and shelled edamame, however, are life savers. Both get tossed into random stir-fries on the regular. My box lunch today included a helping of frozen corn since I didn't have a cooked vegetable ready to go.

Applesauce snack packs are winners, too.

Applesauce is a healthy, low cost substitute for oil in baked goods.

Many frequent bakers already know that you can substitute applesauce for oil in many baked goods, but did you know that those cute little foil-topped snack packs are exactly 1/2 cup? You do now. They're pretty cheap, and I like that I don't have to open a whole big jar of applesauce when I only need a little bit for whatever I'm baking - which means it can linger in my cupboard for months. There's the added bonus of being able to throw one in a boxed lunch every once in awhile, too.

Make more than one grocery trip per week.

I'll stock up on non-perishables like rice and pasta, buy big bags to last a long time, butI tend to buy fresh produce on an as-needed basis, European market style. I'm extremely lucky to live within walking distance of two excellent grocery stores. Knowing that I can make that trip on a moment's notice means I'm less apt to buy more produce than I can use. If I'm thinking of roasted butternut squash for later this week, I can always pick it up tomorrow or the next day. It's not going to rot in my fridge when my late-week dinner plans change.

Stop buying single use ingredients.

My complaint about the granola on The Everygirl's shopping template is a perfect example. You put it on yogurt. What else do you do with it? Maybe you put it on ice cream. Which is often just frozenyogurt. Face it, while granola is delicious and I even happen to have some in my cupboard right now, it's a mostly one trick pony. Items with limited use potential are more likely to go bad before you've used it up.

This is also why I like the recommendation of Greek yogurt. Have it for breakfast (with or without granola!) Freeze it into popsicles! Put it on your tacos! It's more versatile than sour cream, so you'll use it up much faster and end up with less waste.

Bring your own bags and never buy more than you can fit into them.

Many times, I skip the shopping cart and just put my groceries directly into the reusable shopping bags I take with me. This is partly because I'm on foot and have to carry everything home, but it also keeps me from buying more than I need. I'm limited to what I can carry.

I will say that the one exception to the "it must fit into the bag" rule is toilet paper. When you're in the habit of buying those huge packs of 12 double rolls, they just don't fit in the bag, ever.

Four very important words: Single Serving Storage Containers

A recipe I want to make yields 6 servings? Say hello to tasty leftovers! But if you're on your own, don't make the mistake of storing those leftovers all together in large containers. Divvy them up amongst a few single serving containers that you can pull out as needed. It's an easy way to enforce portion control, perfectly sized to pop into your sack lunch tomorrow, and you can stick a few in the freezer, too.

A word about leftovers...

If you're making a chicken breast for dinner (or steak or pork for that matter), make two or three instead and stash them in the fridge - one for tomorrow's lunch, the other to be chopped up and added to salad or pasta. Keep fresh fruit on hand, and those little mini wheels of Babybel cheese. When you're single and cook with the intention of spectacular leftovers, you can wind up with some killer box lunches - and that ends up saving you from spending too much on lunches out, or from yet another drab sodium bomb of a frozen dinner. It's not so unusual for my box lunch to be a small steak grilled with a Moroccan spice rub and served with oven-roasted carrots, a handful of grape tomatoes, and a side of apple betty. Not is it fabulous, I also know it's healthier and cost me less than a Jimmy John's sandwich.

This article first appeared in Brad's Deals.

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