Advice for the reluctant solo chef
I was a bit surprised the first time someone told me she didn’t like cooking for just herself. I hadn’t learned to use a stove until I studied abroad in Italy (2000-2001), but from then until I met my husband 10 years later I had cooked for myself (alone) almost exclusively. It never seemed weird or lonely to me, it was just my life as a student.
It wasn’t until I launched Summer Tomato and started publicly writing about the importance of cooking Real Food at home that I started to get complaints from single people that they didn’t have the motivation to cook for themselves. They could see the value of cooking for a significant other or a family, but it seemed like too much hassle to dirty pans and plates for a solo dinner.
It made sense when I thought about it, but I couldn’t really relate to the problem since at the time I was still a student and virtually all of the advice on this site was based on my experiences cooking for myself. If anything I expected busy parents to complain, not single people.
Now that I’ve lived with my husband for over three years, I can certainly see the pleasure that comes from cooking for and nurturing another person you care about. My dinner experiences are far richer now that they are “our” dinner experiences, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.
But I won’t lie, I do not prefer cooking for two over cooking for one. Not by a long shot.
I’m not talking about eating alone versus eating with someone. I do prefer company and conversation over Twitter and TED talks (these were my default dinner companions while single). I’m talking about the amount of time and energy it takes to prep, cook and clean up a one pot meal versus a multi-component meal. I’m talking about all the extra shopping and planning that is necessary to get more than double the number of calories on the table each night.
By now I’ve got my home cooking habit down pretty good. I get most of my meats and veggies for the week at the farmers market, then supplement a few days a week with shopping trips to my local Whole Foods on my commute home from the gym. Kevin is very appreciative and helpful, and usually volunteers to man the grill and/or do the dishes to take some of the load off of me.
But it was a huge adjustment for me to get used to having to buy and process so much more food than before. I realized pretty early that my normal pile of lentils (or eggs) and greens wasn’t enough food for someone with 50% more body mass than I have. I needed to learn to incorporate more animal protein and other calorie sources into our meals just to be sure he wouldn’t go out for a slice of pizza after dinner.
Cooking for two is so much more of a production than cooking for one that I also had to get used to going out for dinner slightly more often than I would prefer. Even though we can usually get dinner on the table in 30-60 minutes, lack of time, energy or the state of our kitchen are occasionally enough for us to opt out and visit one of our local, healthy restaurants instead. (I just realized while writing this that working on my pot, pan and cutting board cleaning habits would probably be a good idea).
As you can imagine, I’ve had to make several adjustments in my own healthstyle for these new demands to not have a negative impact on my health. Kevin and I have been able to make it work, but it took some trial and error and I have no illusions about how much more work dinner is now compared to when I lived and cooked alone.
Just last night I was reminded of how easy and delicious a 5-minute plate of cabbage and eggs can be on a rainy winter night when my husband is out for a work event. And I was able to cook, eat and clean so efficiently I had time to write an entire blog post before 8pm.
The secret to making cooking alone worth it is having a handful of simple, tasty, one-pothome court recipes that you can always rely on. Ideally they’ll only dirty one knife and cutting board, one pan, one pair of tongs, one plate and one fork. If you rinse them immediately after cooking, your kitchen should stay spotless. Easy peasy.
If loneliness is an issue while you eat, don’t feel the need to relegate yourself to radio silence for the sake of mindful eating. Yes, removing distractions can help you focus on your food, enjoy it more and eat less, but there’s no need to torture yourself. (I do try to get at least one technology-free meal in a day, but it’s rarely dinner). Whatever your preferred dinner activity make sure it’s something you really enjoy that doesn’t require active responses from you (like email). And don’t forget to chew.
These days I relish my dinners alone and use them as an opportunity to indulge in some leisure education like TED talks, CreativeLive or audiobooks. I use my (abundant!) extra free time after dinner to catch up with work or friends.
Although I don’t have as many alone nights now as I used to, I definitely view them as more of a relaxing break than a jail sentence.