By Chris Woolston, M.S.
Cooking for a crowd can be a good way to earn compliments. Preparing a special meal for a date gives you a chance to show off your cooking skills. But you won't get showered with compliments when you cook for yourself, and motivation can be elusive, too. Small wonder single people don't always feel like putting a lot of effort into their meals. With no one else to feed, and with no one else to help finish leftovers, single people may be tempted to take the quick and easy route in the kitchen. A 2008 study found that unmarried men spent 60 percent more of their food budget on prepared meals than married men. The same study found that single women spent roughly a third of their food budget on commercially prepared food -- about the same percentage as married women.
On the other hand, cooking for one has its benefits. First of all, you don't have to please anyone but yourself. If you're trying to lose weight or eat more vegetables, you can enjoy your salad without having to watch your partner or housemate dig into mashed potatoes and a juicy steak. And you can try out new recipes that you plan to use at an upcoming dinner party without anyone complaining.
Of course, single people have at least one more reason to take their meals seriously. Just like everyone else, their health is closely tied to their diet. The drive-thru isn't exactly the fast track to good health, and frozen dinners tend to offer more convenience than real nutrition. Whether you're serving one person or 20, you'll have more control over your diet -- and you'll probably even save money -- if you make the meal yourself. With a little preparation and commitment, you can eat well -- even splendidly -- on your own.
Shopping for one
Grocery stores everywhere seem to conspire against single people. No matter where you shop, small packages often cost more per serving than larger packages of the same item. Single people generally can't take advantage of family-sized frozen dinners or 10-pound bags of potatoes, and forget about those gallon bottles of soy sauce sold at warehouse outlets. But there are some things that you can buy in bulk without worrying about it going to waste. Pasta, dried fruit, rice, cereals, and dried beans all keep very well, especially if you store them in an airtight container or a tightly sealed package. For other items, you'll just have to accept the fact that you're paying a premium for smaller portions. Still, it's better than buying more than you can use.
If you have a little extra room in your freezer, you can take advantage of family-pack prices for meat. Cook a whole chicken for tonight, and put the rest in the freezer. Don't freeze meat in the plastic and Styrofoam containers they come in unless you plan to eat it within a week or so. Those packages are designed to let in a little air, and air is the enemy of frozen foods. Use labeled freezer bags instead.
Fresh fruits and vegetables can also pose a special challenge for single shoppers. It's just too easy to let that head of lettuce or bunch of bananas spoil. You can cut down on waste by planning your meals ahead of time, buying your produce in smaller batches, and choosing at least a few varieties that keep well. After you've brought home your fruits and vegetables for the week, eat the things that perish quickly first. Once you've taken care of the spinach and the strawberries, you can eat the squash and apples.
A great way to keep yourself in fresh produce without being overwhelmed is to ask a friend or neighbor if they'd be interested in splitting a subscription to a CSA with you. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it's a way for people to pay a set price and get fresh produce delivered directly from area farms. If you ask around, you may find that someone you know is interested in trying a subscription, but has been concerned about being able to use everything in the delivery. Splitting the cost -- and what's in the box -- may be just the ticket. And having a CSA subscription can have an added benefit: You may find yourself experimenting with fruits and vegetables you've never tried before. You can search for a CSA farm in your area on the Local Harvest Web site at http://www.localharvest.org/csa/.
Many single-serving grocery items can be quickly transformed into a filling, nutritious meal. That can of vegetable soup may not seem like much, but add some extra kidney beans or frozen peas and you're getting somewhere. It also doesn't take much effort to add extra veggies -- like lightly steamed broccoli or fresh tomato slices -- on top of a frozen pizza.
Frozen vegetables are a great way to fill out a meal, but be sure to buy the veggies in bags instead of boxes. That way, you can just pour out what you need and tie up the bag to save the rest for later. You can also give yourself an extra boost of antioxidants by buying bags of frozen fruit, too, including blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, or sliced peaches to pour on your cereal.
If you're at a loss for ideas for small-but-tasty meals, consider buying a cookbook aimed at single people -- there are a lot out there. You might also want to expand your idea of a meal. A veggie and roast beef sandwich on wheat bread that takes five minutes to prepare can be every bit as nutritious as a huge casserole that needs to bake for an hour.
Cook once, eat often
Cooking one serving at a time can get tedious fast. Even though you're just one person, you can still save time and money by cooking in large batches. All sorts of meals can be divided up into smaller batches and put in the fridge or freezer until later. A few freezing tips: Use airtight containers, label everything with a date, and hold off on adding seasonings or toppings such as cheese, mayonnaise or sour cream until after the food has been thawed and reheated.
Equip your kitchen
If you have a well-equipped kitchen, you'll not only cut down on your prep time, but you'll enjoy the results more, too. You really don't need much: A small saucepan for soups and sauces; a larger one for pasta, stews, and chili; a skillet or wok for stir-fries and eggs; a baking sheet; a strainer or colander; a couple of sharp knives for peeling and chopping; two cutting boards (one for meat and one for everything else); a spatula; a wooden spoon, and a set of measuring cups and spoons is a great start. Consider getting a blender or food processor for extra convenience.
Take time to enjoy your food
You may be on your own, but you should still appreciate your food. Sit down at the table to enjoy your meals; you'll find that it's more satisfying than eating on the couch. Invite friends and family over to eat with you. And every now and then, challenge yourself to make a new dish. You might even want to sign up for a cooking class. Even if you are the only one who regularly enjoys your creations, you're worth it.
Utah State University. Do you have tips on cooking for one? 2004.
Montana State University. Cooking for one or two. 2002.
North Dakota State University. Cooking solo. 1993.
American Institute for Cancer Research. Cooking solo: Homemade for Health. 2008.
Kroshus E. Gender, marital status, and commercially prepared food expenditure. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. 2008. 40(6): 355-360.
Community Supported Agriculture. Local Harvest. http://www.localharvest.org/csa/