When things progressed to the state where I found myself cooking for one most of the time, I had to learn, all over again, some pretty basic strategies. First of all, I had to remind myself that I don’t like eating the same thing for dinner three or four days in a row. Then I had to relearn some basics about freezing leftovers for later.
One; freezing doesn’t improve anything, so don’t expect it to taste better than it did the first time around. It’ll most likely taste worse.
Two; it is impractical to plan to freeze all leftovers. Home freezers have a limited capacity and, sooner or later, you are going to have to eat that stuff. Also, you should judge the actual value of the foods you freeze to be sure they are worth the containers required to freeze them.
Three; if it isn’t clearly labeled, it will probably become garbage. Freezing changes the appearance of most foods– you probably won’t recognize it without a label.
I’ve always been fairly adept at recycling certain foods. Those cold boiled potatoes make super cottage fries, or scalloped potatoes, or can go into the clam chowder. Almost any leftover meat can be ground up and seasoned for sandwich filling (what is a ham salad sandwich, after all)? Or cubed for a pot-pie, for which there are unlimited possibilities.
The real challenge, I discovered, is how to buy in sizes and amounts that don’t produce waste by dint of simply being too much to use within a reasonable time. I had to learn that the big economy size is no longer for me. Even the standard family size gets tiresome before I can use it all. I decided that onions and potatoes, that I always bought in bags, were costing me more than buying them one or two at a time. Even if it didn’t cost so much to buy more and throw away a few, I don’t like the idea of buying them with plans to throw some out.
Bread, rolls, hamburger and hotdog buns have been another challenge. I seldom use an entire loaf of bread before it starts to develop blue freckles. One can use only so many croutons or bread crumbs, after all. And while I like those burgers and dogs, it’s seldom that I’ll eat eight before the buns are stale. I can always poke the extra meat in the freezer, but even if there’s room, breads simply don’t freeze well. Breads are so porous that they automatically lose moisture and flavor in the freezer (even just in the fridge.) If left wrapped while thawing, they will reabsorb at least some of that moisture. I wrap those buns (or several slices of bread), while still fresh, in individual sandwich bags, put them back in the original bag, and freeze what I don’t expect to use soon. They can be thawed one at a time as needed without subjecting the entire package to repeated freezing and thawing.
Eggs used to be so inexpensive that I never gave a second thought to throwing out a yolk if I only needed the white for a recipe (or vice versa). I like to coat some foods with a bound breading that requires a bit of beaten egg. When cooking for one, it usually requires less that half an egg to do this job. I found it not only economical, but convenient, to buy unfrozen egg substitute and freeze “egg cubes” in plastic ice cube trays (two tablespoons equal one-half of an egg.) These take little time to thaw if placed in a small dish set over warm water. When frozen, I dump them into a plastic zip bag for convenience.
Cake and cookie mixes can be divided in half or even quarters for smaller batches when there’s no one to feed the extra cookies or cake to. Those egg cubes come in handy there. Other dry staples such as rice and oatmeal will keep almost indefinitely if stored properly. Since the FDA permits the presence of a certain amount of foreign matter in most cereal products (and this includes insect eggs) I place these in the freezer overnight as soon as I bring them home, which kills any eggs present and prevents them from hatching. Keep these tightly sealed in jars with good lids (plastic bags aren’t as reliable) and you can keep them on the shelf at room temperature.
Lettuce and celery will last longer if stored, before washing, in plastic bags along with several damp paper towels. This will keep them crisp without over-hydrating. Mushrooms should not be washed before using and will keep longer if stored in plastic with a dry paper towel to absorb excess moisture which makes them slimy. Onions, celery and peppers can be chopped and frozen raw. Other vegetables should be scalded for three minutes, then chilled in ice water and drained, before freezing.