Cooking for one: without waste or tv dinners
A story published today in the Reno Gazette Journal suggests that cooking for one can be a frustrating experience for many singles.
The world of food is built with multiples in mind. Family-size and jumbopack products squat on supermarket shelves. Restaurants routinely stash singles in Siberia, otherwise known as the worst tables in the house. And cookbooks, with their four- and eight-serving recipes, appear to assume that most Americans still sit down to traditional repasts.
The thing is, most Americans don’t. According to the 2000 census, more than 50 percent of Americans live in one- or two-person households. Right now, 27 percent of the population lives alone— more than the percentage of married couples with children. In fact, singles are the fastest growing group in America.
Yet, despite the growing numbers, singles are forced to get creative when cooking in or dining out. Most people will live alone at some point in their lives — and everyone has to eat. Armed with a strategy, dining alone can be just as satisfying, and cost effective, as eating with other people.
As California chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein said of solo sustenance, “I believe that I deserve a great meal, a glass of excellent wine, and the time to relax and enjoy my own company.”
A problem of size
Size matters to singles. Many food products simply aren’t available in small enough quantities for single diners. The result? Food, especially meat and produce, perishes before it can get used—and leftovers, squirreled away in the back of the fridge, begin to mutate as they attempt to escape their Tupperware cages.
“My food gets bad really fast,” said 23-year old nursing student Rianna Allen of Reno, echoing a common single complaint. “If you’re going to make turkey burgers and vegetables, you have to thaw out the whole package. On Saturday, I have turkey and vegetables, and by Wednesday, I’m sick of the leftovers. I don’t want to waste, but I need variety in what I eat or I won’t eat healthily.”
Allen’s solution to her dilemma has been to diversify. She buys only non-perishables from discount retailers like Winco. Produce comes from smaller supermarkets where items like salad-in-a-bag are sold in single-friendly sizes. And she makes use of healthy prepared foods.
“I would rather eat six small meals a day, so I’ll go to Wild Oats and order something small from the food counter,” Allen said. “I’ll even go to the deli counter at a supermarket, although that sometimes feels strange. You’ll say, ‘I want just a quarter pound of the Pepperidge turkey breast,’ and the people behind the counter will say, ‘That’s it?’ You kind of feel like you’re putting them out.”
Ruby Robinson of Reno, a divorcée in her early 60s, shares Allen’s need for a variety of foods. Meats and other perishables do several tours of duty in her kitchen.
“If I make a chicken dish, I’ll eat one piece that night and put the rest in the fridge,” Robinson said. “If I don’t reheat one of the pieces the next night, I’ll cut it up to make chicken salad. I can also freeze some pieces and use it later with pasta or soup. Red potatoes, I can roast them and use them the next day in potato salad.”
Getting a routine
When he first lived alone, Brett Martinez didn’t make the mistake many singles do. He didn’t buy and prepare too much food trying to shop and cook like mom did. In fact, he didn’t cook at all — “just things like TV dinners.” But when he finally picked up a pan at home, the 22-year-old relied on what he’d learned in his culinary studies and in his work as a line cook at Macaroni Grill.
“Freshness is important, so I buy just enough for the week,” Martinez said. “I keep an eye on the expiration date of food. If it’s getting close, I’ll make a point of making a meal out of it. I hate to throw food away.”
Martinez purchases single packs of steaks. A single steak goes in the fridge; the rest get individually bagged and stored in the freezer. When he cooks one steak, another moves from the freezer to the fridge, and so on until the steaks are gone. Portions of fish, shrimp and other seafood receive the same treatment.
Martinez also grabs produce in small amounts — “only one or two things, like two apples” — and uses it the “day of” or as soon as possible. Spaghetti, lasagnas, casseroles and other dishes get prepared carefully— just enough for leftovers, but not so much that Martinez gets bored or the food spoils.
Developing a shopping and cooking routine helps Martinez eat affordably and healthily. And, he said, a routine disproves the myth that it’s less expensive for single people to eat out than eat in.
“You go out to eat, you spend fifteen, twenty bucks,” he said. “That’s four meals right there. Fast food is cheaper, but not that much, and it’s not good for you. Besides, who wants to always be running to Taco Bell?”
Solo dining doesn’t just mean savvy shopping, singles reported. It also means being savvy about serving sizes. In other words, they said, cooking for yourself always incorporates the possibility of miscooking and miseating.
“Now that I live alone, I find myself eating late at night, and that’s a problem,” Allen said. “That’s one way people gain weight. Because I don’t have to worry about anyone else, I kind of function at my own rate. It takes a lot of effort to eat dinner at a good time.”
For Robinson, living single doesn’t just mean the lack of a built-in meal companion. It also means a lack of oversight.
“You don’t have someone saying, ‘You sure you want to eat that?’ There’s no one to tell you that you can’t eat the whole thing of Häagen-Dazs, so you do. There’s no one telling you that you can’t go back in the middle of the night to the fridge.”
How to temper this freedom? Be aware of portion sizes. Put leftovers in storage containers at the same time you serve your meal — this cuts down on the temptation to nibble. And, Goldstein recommended, make an appointment to have dinner at the same time every night: set the table, turn on some music, turn off the television and light a candle.