Eating for One

Darla Carter


January 13, 2005

When people see Michelle Yeager's lithe, 110-pound frame, they assume she minds her P's and Q's when it comes to nutrition.

The 28-year-old math coach and cheerleader does try and, indeed, has some good habits.

But like many other single Americans, she eats out frequently instead of cooking healthy meals at home. She also is a self-described "picky eater" who hates vegetables.

At restaurants, "I see these people with these huge salads, and I don't like lettuce that pretty much takes out the salad thing," said Yeager, who works at Cochran Elementary School in Louisville.

"When I get some type of urge to cook, I'll get some recipe, and it will be this huge recipe meant for four people, and I'll eat maybe one serving of it, but then after that, it just sits there for a while and ends up getting thrown out."

Her experience is not uncommon among single people, especially the ones who live alone.

Singles' challenges

When it comes to nutrition, "individuals who live alone, whether they're young or they're older, they do have some specific challenges," said Melanie Polk, a nutrition education adviser to the American Institute for Cancer Research, which has released a healthy-cooking brochure for singles.

These obstacles include:

  Not knowing how to cook, in some cases.

  Not having the proper cooking aids, such as the right cookware, utensils and storage containers.

  The cost of grocery shopping and the challenge of finding food products that are small enough for a single person yet not too expensive.

  Being too busy to pay attention to diet and/or not putting enough stock into doing so.

  Having no obligation to sit down at a certain time for a meal.

  Lacking motivation to put a lot of effort into a meal for one.

"Some people, since it's just for them, they don't want to bother cooking," Polk said.

Marilyn Tanner, a 37-year-old dietitian who is single, speaks from experience when she says: "It's just not as fun to cook and bake for yourself."

But she does anyway and keeps her fridge stocked with fruits and vegetables because she knows the benefits of healthy meals and that eating out too much can lead to weight gain.

A large, multi-center study published in the Jan. 1 issue of the journal The Lancet found that young adults who ate at fast-food restaurants more than twice a week gained more weight and had greater insulin resistance in early middle age than those who ate out less than once a week.

Fuel for thought

Nutrition author Elizabeth Somer said America's nearly 96 million singles should be putting as much thought into their meals as people put into the type of fuel that goes into their cars.

"You wouldn't dream of putting sawdust into the gas tank of your car and expect your car to run well," said Somer, a dietitian and author of such books as "The Food and Mood Cookbook" (Owl Books, 2004). "If you put the nutritional equivalent of sawdust into your body, don't be surprised if you age faster.

"I'd rather pay 50 cents more for an apple now than $50,000 later for breast cancer," said Leah Silletto, who stood in front of her favorite store.

Photo by Pat McDonogh, The Courier-Journal

"You maintain a strong, vital, youthful body by maintaining it, just like you would maintain your car. I don't care if you don't have time or you don't have the energy. Do it anyway because the payoff is so remarkable" in terms of disease prevention and the way you feel.

Polk said, "When you change your eating habits, you also often will find that you're going to start taking off weight, slowly and consistently. Your clothes will feel better. You'll feel better. You'll look better."

Singles can get on the road to healthier eating habits with a little extra effort and a few tips from people in the know.

Taking control

The cancer institute's brochure, "Cooking Solo: Homemade for Health," focuses on planning, preparing and enjoying healthy meals at home instead of haphazardly grabbing food that's often unhealthy on the go.

"This brochure helps to motivate people to get into their own kitchen, depend more on their own homemade food," Polk said.

"We know that people who eat out at restaurants don't have as much control over what they eat. They can't control what exactly goes into the food, and the portion sizes in restaurants tend to be larger. ... We'd like to see more single people get back into the kitchen."

Yeager said she eats out a lot but that it tends to be better-quality fare than fast food, and she also divides her restaurant portions in half, something Tanner recommends.

"Usually the quantity of food that you're given ... is more like servings for two people instead of servings for one person," said Tanner, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman based in the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. "...You don't have to eat everything in front of you."

You are not alone

In addition to the brochure, there are books devoted to cooking for one and TV cooking shows for people who want to prepare meals fast and/or who have few culinary skills.

The cooking-challenged also can take classes from groups such as EarthSave Louisville, which offers a Healthy Beginnings course on vegetarian cooking.

Leah Silletto, who is single, went vegetarian more than two years ago for philosophical reasons and to be healthy. She said it can be expensive because she shops organic, but she thinks it's worth it.

"I would rather spend the money now on being healthy than maybe having to fight cancer or some other ramification in the future," said Silletto, a 29-year-old sales trainer and runner who lives in the Highlands. "I'd rather pay 50 cents more for an apple now than $50,000 later for breast cancer."

To keep from going over budget, she shops cash-only and avoids junk food. Ultimately, "I don't eat as much, so I think there's a benefit to that because I don't sit around eating Doritos all day long," she said.

Silletto cooks for herself because it's hard for her to find restaurants that meet her special needs, which include being lactose-intolerant.

Recipes for success

Some people assume that cooking healthy meals is labor-intensive and time-consuming. But it doesn't have to be, Polk said. "They just have to do a little planning and have the right kinds of ingredients in the house."

You could start out with one new recipe a week or a month and build from there, she said.

For those who wilt at the mention of cooking, there are healthy shortcuts, Somer said.

"You don't really even need to cook to eat well. With all the goodies out there, you could have a slice of whole-wheat bread and a couple slices of low-fat cheese and open up a bag of pre-cut lettuce and grab an apple."

Or with a little cooking, "you could throw a tortilla on the griddle and put some fat-free refried beans in it and some lettuce and salsa and have it with an orange and a banana and a glass of milk," Somer said. "You don't have to prepare gourmet in order to eat well."


Healthy eating tips for singles

The Courier-Journal

Whether at home or on the go, plan your meals instead of grabbing fast food on the run. Eat balanced meals and healthy snacks, such as fruit and nuts.

At home

  Learn to cook at least some simple meals for yourself. You have more control over home-cooked foods than restaurant meals.

  Eat a good breakfast. Skipping meals can lead to overeating.

  Invest in a good set of cookware and utensils.

  If you don't like to cook a lot or don't have time, reserve an hour or two on the weekend (or whenever is good for you) to make one or two recipes, then set aside servings for future use. Refrigerate or freeze servings in individual containers, then pull them out later for a quick homemade meal.

  Soups, stews and casseroles can go a long way.

  If you dislike eating alone, invite friends over to eat with you, perhaps once a week. Try potlucks. The group could rotate from house to house.

And out

  Order half-size portions in restaurants that serve them.

  Because restaurant portions often are oversized, consider eating half and taking the rest home.

  Expose yourself to new recipes. Sign up for a cooking class.


  Keep enough basic ingredients at home to assemble a good meal.

  Use healthy shortcuts, such as pre-cut vegetables, if pressed for time.

  Don't want that family-size package of meat? Ask the butcher to cut an individual portion for you.

  Don't bring junk food into the house, and avoid "TV dinners" that are high-fat and high-sodium.

  Share bags of fruit and other bulk items with friends and co-workers if you think the food will go bad before you have a chance to eat it all. You and a friend might be able to save money by shopping together.

Safety issues

  Don't know how long stuff will keep? Check out

  Protect yourself from foodborne diseases by, for example, washing your hands, utensils and kitchen surfaces with hot, soapy water whenever they come in contact with raw meat or poultry. For more food-safety tips: or call (888) 723-3366.

Grocery basics

  In-season produce, such as oranges, grapefruit, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, cabbage and greens.

  Whole grains, such as whole-wheat pastas and breads, bran cereal and brown rice.

  Dried beans, such as kidney and black beans.

  Soy from such products as tofu, soy milk, soy nuts and edamame.

  Fish canned, frozen or fresh.

  Lean meats and skinless poultry.

  Herbs and spices, such as ginger, nutmeg, basil, oregano, curry powder and chili powder.

  Olive, canola and flaxseed oils.

  Fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth

  Condiments, such as vinegar, mustard, salsa, Worcestershire sauce and reduced-sodium soy sauce.

  Low-fat dairy products.

Make a solo meal more enjoyable

  Set your table next to a window with a pleasing view.

  Use a colorful tablecloth, stylish dishes and eye-pleasing accents, such as flowers and candles.

  Play relaxing music.

Sources: American Institute for Cancer Research; dietitians Melanie Polk, Elizabeth Somer, Marilyn Tanner; Partnership for Food Safety Education; and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.



The Courier-Journal

By phone or online

  To get "Cooking Solo: Homemade for Health," a brochure of cooking tips and recipes for single people, call (800) 843-8114, Ext. 457, or go to .

  To get a recipe e-mailed to you each week, subscribe to Health-e-Recipes at

  To find tips for seniors: nutrition/Eating-for-one- oct-03.pdf

  EarthSave Louisville offers a Healthy Beginnings course on vegetarian cooking. The next session is expected to begin in mid-February. To sign up or get more information, send an e-mail to, call (502) 458-8515 or go to

  To get tips from the American Cancer Society on eating well and being active, call (800) 227-2345 or go to .

  The Food Network has shows, such as "How to Boil Water" and "30 Minute Meals," that appeal to people who have few cooking skills or who are pressed for time:

On the shelf

  "Healthy Cooking for Singles and Doubles" (Fitness Publications, 2001).

  "Solo Suppers: Simple Delicious Meals to Cook for Yourself" (Chronicle Books, 2003).

  "Going Solo in the Kitchen" (Knopf, 1998).

  "Small-Batch Baking" (Workman Publishing Co., 2004).