Does Cooking for One Mean Cooking for None?

Several of my friends live alone. The reasons for their solitary lifestyles vary, but what most of them have in common is an almost total disinterest in cooking meals for themselves.
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Several of my friends live alone. Some of them have done so most of their adult lives, others for only a few years because of divorce, death of a spouse, or empty nests. The reasons for their solitary lifestyles vary, but what most of them have in common is an almost total disinterest in cooking meals for themselves. A few use their ovens to store out-of-season clothes or income tax files, and almost all of them restrict their food preparation to opening containers and microwaving the food inside. Real meals that consist of a main course, salad and perhaps an appetizer or dessert are consumed only in restaurants, in other peoples' homes or when entertaining guests.

The nutrient intake of the solitary eater does not bear scrutiny. It would make a dietician's mother weep. I found that one of my greatest challenges in weight-loss counseling was motivating the solitary eater to spend time buying and preparing the foods on the diet. Invariably, I would be asked which microwavable meals could fit into the diet plan, because the dieter could not be bothered even with the simplest of meal preparation. Suggestions such as buying bagged vegetables that were already cleaned, pre-cooked chickens or sliced roast beef were viewed as just too much trouble. It was easier to order take-out or microwave something inside a cardboard box.

I used to fret over how to convince my clients that they would save calories and money if they could extract a few hours each week to go the market and then spend 10 to 15 minutes to prepare a meal. But then I realized that the problem wasn't merely lack of time, the tedium of food shopping or cooking. The real problem was that, whether it came from a box or was delivered by a butler, it would be eaten alone.

"Why bother cooking for one? I won't enjoy eating it alone," was the mantra I heard over and over again.

Eating is a social activity. It always has been, mainly because in the early ancient days finding food, whether by hunting or harvesting, was a communal activity, as was its preparation. Few people lived alone (I don't think there were caves for singles in those days) or ate alone. There are those who claim they set the table, light candles, use cloth napkins and nice china when they eat dinner, but I have never met anyone who does this. Most of my friends who eat alone frequently, or on the occasion when the other members of their house are away, manage to consume their dinner standing over the sink or stove or sitting in front of their computer, TV or even on their bed. If they do sit down at a dinner table, they tend not to linger once the meal is over. The niceties of a set table, candles and good china are saved for those times the meal is being shared with others.

A reluctance to cook and instead rely on take-out or cereal and milk has nutritional limitations. Few take-out menus that I have seen meet government standards for foods containing whole grain and nutrient-rich vegetables and fruits. And even seemingly healthy take-out foods like those offered by supermarkets such as Whole Foods may contain large amounts of fat. Oil is quietly added to cooked foods such as chicken, vegetables, potatoes and rice to keep them moist.

Ironically, it has never been easier to buy semi-or entirely-prepared foods and, with only minutes of effort, transform them into a nutritious meal. Supermarkets are full of food items that require only heating to make a main course, vegetables, a starch and dessert. The entire process will take less than 10 minutes, but since many solitary people still won't do it, other solutions are needed.

What about this?

Make lunch, not dinner, the major meal of the day. Sharing a meal at lunch is easy... Co-workers, friends, other at-home moms or workers can usually share 30 minutes time for mutual munching of a lunchtime meal. Restaurants offer complete meals, the price is considerably less than at dinner, and the service is designed to be quick. You may hate eating grilled chicken, stir-fry vegetables and rice alone at night, but eating the same meal in a lunchroom with your colleagues or while sitting on a park bench with a friend on a warm day will add the taste of companionship to the meal.

There is another good reason for making lunch your main meal. In my experience, lone eaters rarely make themselves breakfast, or if they do, it is often limited to a hot beverage and toast or cereal and milk. Hunger may arrive around lunchtime due to the sparse morning meal. A well-balanced lunch may provide the first substantial nourishment of the day. (It may be the only meal to provide a variety of nutrients if dinner, like breakfast, is limited to cereal and milk.)

So what do you do at dinnertime if you have eaten your main meal at lunch? Eat a dinner that feels all right being eaten alone, which could mean:

  • A bowl of vegetable soup, a roll and fresh fruit
  • Scrambled eggs with melted cheese and an English muffin, sliced tomatoes and red pepper
  • Oatmeal with chopped apples, apricots, raisins and handful of walnuts (All the fruit comes sliced and chopped in the supermarket.)
  • Pineapple cottage cheese layered with fresh strawberries and a banana topped with handful of granola
  • English muffin and jelly
  • Toaster waffles used as base of open sandwich. Top with sliced turkey or roast beef (from deli), red pepper slices and red onion. Add mustard and pickles as desired

All of these menu items can be eaten standing up, while walking around, at your desk, doing laundry, watching TV or reading. If you want to add candles, wine, a real plate and napkins, please do so. Bon appétit!

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

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