Frugal Food Spending for One: A Case Study

This week, my wife is visiting her sisters and my children are visiting their grandparents, which leaves me at home alone. I’m using that time to work, take care of a long checklist of tasks, catch up with some old friends, and have a few really long uninterrupted blocks of times for some hobbies.

This was also a great opportunity for me to actually examine the costs of food preparation for a single person because, well, for nine days at least, I’m basically living like a single person. For one grocery cycle, I’m only concerned about preparing meals for myself, not for anyone else.

My question, then, is how can I prepare frugal meals for myself? What exactly would I, with years of practice in cutting costs, do to make meal planning as inexpensive as possible?

My plan was simple. I’m spending the whole week trying to eat as I believe I would if I were truly single again. This means eating a healthy diet, focusing on foods I like, and keeping costs low and meal preparation efforts low, too.

It’s important to note that I don’t want to rely on eating out or convenience foods much if at all. Many single people get into a routine of eating a lot of convenient foods or eating out frequently because they don’t believe the effort of preparing food at home and cleaning up afterwards is “worth it” for a meal for themselves.

According to the USDA data, a single male ages 19-50 should be able to eat for a week on $43.10 using the “thrifty” meal plan – their inexpensive estimate. Their “liberal” estimate is $85.30 (I honestly look at that number and think, “For me? For a week? Seriously?”).

My goal, then, is to have meals I like that are easily prepared for a full week for $43, with the only thing I’m relying on that I already have are small amounts of spices in the cupboard. I’m also assuming I already have adequate containers to store items in the fridge and equipment for cooking basic meals. That $40 buys everything else.

I start where I always do, with meal planning.

The Make-Ahead Strategy

If I were single, what I would often do is make several meals at once when I was preparing a meal and then put the leftovers in individual containers for meals later in the week (if I put them in the fridge) or in the future (if I put containers in the freezer). This would be a pretty routine thing for me.

So, for example, I might make a pot of soup that’s big enough for four meals for me. I’d eat one when it was finished, put another one in a container for the fridge for a meal in a day or two, and put two more in the freezer.

What that would mean is that after a while, I’d partially be relying on meals from the freezer for my meals for the week, allowing me a lot more variety in terms of meals. However, for this week alone, I’ll probably just eat all of the meals I prepare and store them all in the fridge. I might store a few in the freezer if I don’t end up eating them, but the intent is to eat everything I make this week.

Thus, my plan is to make one hot breakfast that I can split into four personal meals, storing three of them, and then have a simple or cold breakfast the other three days. For the other 14 meals throughout the week, I’m essentially preparing four meals for a full-sized family, then dividing those up into individual meal containers and eating them later in the week.

Meal Planning

Thus, my actual meal plan might look like this, assuming I buy groceries on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday evening: Prepare meal A, eat meal A, set aside three individual containers of meal A for later in the week.

Sunday morning: Prepare hot breakfast, eat hot breakfast, set aside three individual containers of hot breakfast for later in the week.
Sunday lunch: Meal A container
Sunday dinner: Prepare meal B, eat meal B, set aside three individual containers of meal B for later in the week.

Monday morning: Cold breakfast
Monday lunch: Meal B container
Monday dinner: Prepare meal C, eat meal C, set aside three individual containers of meal C for later in the week.

Tuesday morning: Hot breakfast container
Tuesday lunch: Meal C container
Tuesday dinner: Meal A container

Wednesday morning: Cold breakfast
Wednesday lunch: Meal B container
Wednesday dinner: Prepare meal D, eat meal D, set aside three individual containers of meal D for later in the week.

Thursday morning: Hot breakfast container
Thursday lunch: Meal D container
Thursday dinner: Meal C container

Friday morning: Cold breakfast
Thursday lunch: Meal A container
Thursday dinner: Meal D container

Saturday morning: Hot breakfast container
Saturday lunch: Meal B container
Saturday dinner: Meal C container

At this point, I still have a meal D container to stow away in the freezer for later. I can also obviously move around the meal containers to my personal preference.

The Specific Meals

So, for all five of those meals I prepare, I’m going to want meals that reheat well and ideally freeze well, as well as meals that I can prepare easily that I like. Ideally, the meals are inexpensive as well. When figuring out the specific meals, I do as I always do even with my full family here, which is look at the grocery store flyer and somewhat base my choices on what’s on sale.

What you actually choose for each meal is a matter of personal preference, of course, but here’s what I chose for this week.

My hot breakfast was a basic vegetarian egg casserole, similar to this recipe from Kitchen Addiction. I used a flash-frozen mix of chopped onions and green peppers that is sold at my local store to cut down on the chopping time and I changed some of the other ingredients to fit my personal tastes. The total cost of this meal was about $6 in ingredients.

My cold breakfast is a box of my favorite breakfast cereal and some almond milk. Easy enough. This covered three meals and cost about $6.50, but left some leftovers for the next week.

Meal “A” is a slow cooker full of vegetarian chili. I actually prepared this for my inexpensive game day knowing that there would be plenty left over, and I was right. The cost for this was about $2 in ingredients by my estimation.

Meal “B” is a spaghetti bake. I actually just made a very simple pot of spaghetti, using a full box of pasta and a jar of pasta sauce, and ate a normal spaghetti meal with some steamed and seasoned vegetables on the side. I then took the leftover pasta, put it in a casserole pan, added some of the leftover cheese from the breakfast casserole to the top, and baked it. Then, I quartered that casserole for four separate meal containers. The cost of this was about $6, mostly for the sauce (as I’m kind of picky about pasta sauce).

Meal “C” is a stir fry meal served over rice. I basically bought some typical stir fry vegetables – onions, bell peppers, carrots, broccoli, and peas – and stir fried them, adding a sauce I like and serving it all over cooked rice. I made enough to prepare three easily reheatable containers of it for future meals. The total cost of this meal was about $7.

Meal “D” was a personal favorite of mine, what I call a “vegetarian Reuben.” It’s basically a grilled sandwich on rye bread with sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing, gruyere cheese, and a fried egg instead of the corned beef. I love love love these sandwiches and this was definitely my unhealthy and expensive meal for the week. The total cost for ingredients here was about $9, but there were a lot of things left over for the future.

I also bought a lot of on-sale low cost fresh fruits and a few bags of flash frozen vegetables, adding up to another $11 but actually leaving me with leftovers.

My total grocery bill was about $47.50. This was a little higher than my $43.10 target, but it also involves a lot of leftovers for the following week. I won’t have to buy cereal or almond milk, there will be some fruit left over, there will be at least one meal in the freezer, there are many leftover ingredients that I could use for meal prep in the future, and this is actually stretching for 22 meals, not just 21.


With many of these meals, I’m going to want super healthy and convenient foods on the side. I basically eat some sort of fruit with every meal, often an apple or a banana or a pear, so I’ll buy some fresh fruit at the store as well. I noted this above.

I also bought a few bags of flash frozen vegetables, which are really easy to steam. I season them thoroughly depending on what flavors I want – again, not really hard.

For beverages, I mostly drink water, so there’s no need to buy any beverages. I do drink black coffee most mornings, but I actually have a lot of beans already on hand, so I didn’t count this.

How Did This Actually Work Out?

Here are some notes on the experience.

As I write this, I’ve already prepared all of the meals and I just have a series of meal containers in the fridge. I enjoyed all of the meals and they all seem to reheat well (I don’t know this for sure about the reuben sandwiches, but I usually reheat sandwiches in the oven rather than the microwave and many have turned out fine over the years).

Almost every meal I’ve eaten has been accompanied by a fruit on the side, either a clementine, an apple, or a banana. Some of the meals have also had steamed vegetables on the side, often seasoned with just sea salt and black pepper.

All of my lunches are “hot,” which isn’t probably something I would do all the time if I was doing this. Quite often, my lunches would be a very simple peanut butter and banana sandwich, because peanut butter and banana sandwiches are amazing. Not doing this actually inflated the cost of the week, because I could have cut this down to three prepared meals very easily.

For that matter, it would be easy to just prepare a bunch of peanut butter sandwiches, individually package them in reusable containers, and keep them in the fridge, if I wanted to do that.

Having meals in the fridge in containers is super convenient. I grab them, pop them in the microwave, and they’re ready to eat in just a couple of minutes. Since they’re all things I like, I don’t really get tired of them, either.

My favorite reusable meal containers, by the way, are these Glasslock meal containers. They’re just great. We also have a number of Rubbermaid containers picked up here and there. I’ve used other containers in the past and they’ve often ended up cracking and warping and becoming unusable.

If I did this system with the same exact three to five meals every week, it would get kind of boring. This system works great, but it requires a large pool of meals to draw from, something I’ll get back to in a minute.

In theory, if I were single for the foreseeable future, I would use this system but prepare a lot of meals in the first few weeks. I’d probably make 15 “quadruple” meals in the first two weeks or so. After that, I’d be in “maintenance” mode, where I only make four a week as described above, but the “meal container” meals would have far more variety because I’d have a wide variety of them in the freezer.

So, the first two weeks might involve two weekends where I make four “quadruple” meals, saving one container of each in the fridge for use later in the week and freezing two. I’d also attempt to make “quadruple” meals during the week as much as I could (probably four times a week, doing things like soup in the slow cooker) and then saving one container of each in the fridge for later in the week and freezing two.

So, if I make eight meals a week for two weeks and freeze two containers from each of those meals, I’d have 32 containers in the freezer, two containers for each of 16 meals.

After that, I could just use that plan of “make a quadruple meal, save one in the fridge, freeze two” for four meals a week. I’d also pull meals out of the freezer throughout the week and have a ton of choice for those.

The nice thing about this system is the flexibility. If I end up going to lunch with someone and we’re brown-bagging, I just take a container along with me. If I go out, I just have an extra container in the fridge. If I go out for dinner one night, no problem – there are always meals at home waiting for me. It’s really flexible around what I want to do.

Additional Meal Ideas

I have a lot of experience with “meal prep days,” as Sarah and I have both made lots and lots of extra meals for the purpose of using them later in the week or just freezing them. A good “meal prep” meal is one that you’re happy to eat now and later and one that reheats well and survives freezing well.

Here are some things that really pass the test. They’re meals I like that are easy to divide into individual portion, freeze well, and reheat reheat well.

Stir fry reheats really well and offers a ton of variety. You can season it with curry or with soy sauce or with any number of other sauces. You can vary the vegetables a lot. You can add meat if you wish (or tofu). This is a great choice for regular use.

Soups without noodles are fantastic. The only bad part of reheating soups is that noodles just turn to mush and some grain-based ingredients (like barley) aren’t the best, but the vegetables and meat and liquid all reheat really well. I particularly like reheated chili – I usually think it’s better the second time around. I also really like blended soups.

Burritos They’re easy to individually package and reheat fairly well, though I prefer to reheat them in the oven or in a skillet rather than in the microwave. If you must use the microwave, wrap them in a paper towel.

Casseroles Most casseroles freeze well, even ones with pasta in them such as lasagna. The lower proportion of liquid (as compared to soups) seems to be a big factor in this.

Rice and beans Seasoned rice and beans (with or without a meat of some kind) tend to reheat very well. They tend to taste a little different than the initial meal and usually warrant the addition of hot sauce upon reheating, in my experience.

Hamburgers or black bean burgers freeze well after being cooked without changing quality or texture significantly. I’m referring, of course, to just the patty; you’ll want to assemble the full sandwich when reheating.

Those categories alone provide tons of room for meals that freeze well. In general, the only thing I’m really wary of freezing are flour-based items that are wet, such as pasta, as they can often end up with a bad texture. Having said that, casseroles with pasta often turn out well.

Final Thoughts

You absolutely can eat an inexpensive, varied, and tasty diet at a low price if you’re a single person. The trick is to prepare family-sized meals that reheat well so that you don’t have to go to the kitchen to prepare a complex meal for one person every single night; rather, you can rely on “convenience” meals that you’ve made yourself. (That isn’t to say you might not occasionally eat a convenience meal, but that it doesn’t – and probably shouldn’t – have to be the back bone of your diet.)

Don’t avoid the kitchen if you’re single. Rather, embrace it. Make meals you love without worrying about anyone else, and then package them so they’re convenient to eat again in the future. You’ll make many meals super convenient and save a ton of money, too.

Good luck!

Read more by Trent Hamm

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.