Increase in single-person households promotes food preparation changes

Cooking for one or two may require recipe adjustments and new strategies for using leftovers.

A couple prepares a meal in a kitchen.
A growing number of households are filled with one to two people. The author shares tips on cooking less and wasting less. photo
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“What do you guys eat, anyway?” my older daughter remarked. “I don’t have any leftovers to eat when I come home for lunch.”

I thought about the pan of meatballs, bowl of mashed potatoes and container of white chili in the refrigerator. I guess she was not thrilled with her choices.

“Yes, we have leftovers in the fridge,” I replied matter-of-factly.

Her “job” is to let our dogs outside at noon and grab a quick lunch.

Maybe my husband and I have become a lot better about cooking for two since we became empty nesters. Our refrigerator is not nearly as full as it used to be.


I guess we need to cook for three instead of two. A “little bird” shows up to our nest at noon every day.

We spent many years cooking for our family of five. We would cook enough to allow for leftovers to save some money on buying lunches for us adults.

Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service
Julie Garden-Robinson, NDSU Extension Service

To read more of Julie Garden-Robinson's Prairie Fare, click here.

I eat leftovers (“planned-overs”) nearly every day for lunch.

I often have presented to adults about cooking for one or two. The U.S. number of single-person households has changed a lot in the past 60 years.

According to a report released in 2022, 37.9 million households were inhabited by one person. That equals 29% of households.


In 1960, single-person households comprised just 13% of all households.

Regardless of whether you are cooking for a household with one or eight, we all need variety in our diet to stay well-nourished. See for more information about nutrition and health.

Choose recipes that fit with your tastes and time requirements. You don’t need to throw out your favorite family recipes. You can adapt many of them to fit your current household size.

Try these tips to help adjust your recipes:

  • Choose recipes that are easy to divide mathematically. In recipes calling for three eggs, use two eggs and remove 2 to 4 tablespoons of liquid (if present) from the recipe.
  • If a recipe calls for a can of beans or soup, and you would like to divide the recipe in half, use what you need and either refrigerate or freeze the remaining food. Label the container with the contents and date.
  • Add seasonings gradually. Sometimes you may need to add more (or less) of the spice to reach the desired flavor.
  • Check for doneness of halved recipes five to 10 minutes sooner than the original recipe.

Family-sized packages can post a challenge.


For example, if you are not sure what to do with the family-sized bags of bread, pull out some of the slices, leaving only what you can eat in a few days, and freeze the rest. If frozen seems “stale” to you, try toasting it or making grilled cheese sandwiches. Smaller portions of bread are available but they are not necessarily half the cost of the full-sized loaf.

These quick-and-easy tips can liven up your menus and use planned-overs to your advantage.

  • Use planned-over macaroni to make pasta salad or quick casseroles. Add planned-over vegetables or meat.
  • Make minipizzas by topping English muffins with planned-over spaghetti sauce, vegetables and shredded cheese.
  • Add chopped onions, mushrooms, peppers and cooked meat to canned spaghetti sauce. Serve spaghetti sauce over noodles one day, then add kidney beans and chili seasoning for another meal.
  • Top a microwave-baked potato with planned-over chili and cheese.
  • Mix chopped yellow squash, green peas and grated carrots with a prepared rice mix.
  • Spice up canned tomato soup by adding chopped green onion, celery and some garlic powder.
  • Keep notes of what you like, so you can try it again.

How about some chili? It freezes well and includes fiber-rich beans and lots of flavorful ingredients. Enjoy leftover chili as is or top baked potatoes or macaroni.

Comfort food often is associated with foods that provide emotional comfort or nostalgic feelings.

Make Your Own Chili Mix

  • 1 pound kidney beans (or assorted dry edible beans)
  • 3 tablespoons chili powder
  • 2 tablespoons dehydrated onions
  • 1 tablespoon garlic salt (reduced sodium)
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)

To reduce sodium, substitute garlic powder for some of the garlic salt. Pour the kidney beans into a clean quart-sized jar. In a small bowl, mix the remaining ingredients. Pour mixture into a clear sandwich bag and place it on top of the beans. Cover the jar tightly with a lid and store in a cool, dry place.

To make the chili, follow these instructions:

  • 1 container chili mix
  • 10 cups water (for soaking beans)
  • 1 (8-ounce) can reduced-sodium tomato sauce
  • 1 (24-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 pound lean ground beef or turkey
  • 6 cups water (for cooking beans)

Remove bag of seasoning from jar or other container and rinse beans. In a stockpot, bring 10 cups of water to a boil. Add beans and return to a boil for two to three minutes. Cover and set aside at room temperature for one hour. Drain and rinse the beans. Fill a pot with 6 cups of water and add the beans. Cook beans until soft, about one hour. Simmer gently with lid tilted. Brown meat; drain and add to the beans with tomatoes and sauce. Add seasonings, stir and simmer, covered, for one hour. Add a little more water if needed to thin the broth.

Makes eight servings. Each serving (made with lean beef) has 350 calories, 7 grams (g) fat, 41 g carbohydrate, 17 g fiber and 730 milligrams sodium.

Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson .

Julie Garden-Robinson writes a weekly column called "Prairie Fare," where she shares from her knowledge of food and nutrition from her role with the North Dakota State University Extension.
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