The art of cooking for one

Table For One Resized

We recently had a fabulous lamb dinner at a friend’s place. She’s divorced, in her early 60s and lives on her own. “I love cooking,” she said, “just not for one.” I hear that a lot, so I asked her to help me come up with suggestions that might help other women in the same situation.

My friend — I’ll call her Ros — has three grown kids. As she says, she’s been in carer mode for most of her life, and cooking has been about looking after others. So the idea of looking after herself was foreign. It also felt a bit selfish.

Cooking for one, like every aspect of learning to live on her own, has taken time and effort.

Australian research on women who become widowed shows that their diets change, and not for the better. For example, they eat less variety and fewer vegetables.

But with Ros’s help, here are a few strategies for eating well as a single woman.

First, make the effort to find a few healthy meal ideas and simple recipes that you like and that rely on ingredients you tend to have on hand. Since many recipes are for at least four people, you’ll need to shrink those.

Next, make your eating environment a positive one. If you’re still living in the family home with the family dining table, every meal is a trip back to the past. If you’re going to stay in the house, consider selling or giving the table away and get yourself a smaller one.

Along the same lines, you might want to buy fresh tableware. Ros loves feminine plates and cups, so being single give her an opportunity to use them.

If your dinner set has large plates and bowls, get yourself smaller everyday ones to match your portion needs. You can still use the big plates for entertaining if you want to.

Create a pleasant table setting. Use a tablecloth or mat that you like, add a flower in a tiny vase, light a candle at night, put on music. This kind of ambience makes it easier to eat slowly and savour your food. (The photo is of Ros’s own table.)

Make meals. A risk when you live alone is that you graze rather than sitting down and eating a meal. The problem with grazing is that you lose track of what you eat and probably eat too quickly.

If you want to have a meal in front of Netflix or while reading a book, stay mindful of what you’re eating and how you’re eating. Try not to get so absorbed that your meal disappears without you having any memory of eating it.

Food is a great way of connecting with others and you don’t have to sacrifice that because you live alone.

For example, Ros has joined the Cooking for One Facebook group. It’s based in Houston, so the meals have an American slant, but it’s a source of ideas. And when you belong to a community of 4000, it’s a reminder that you’re not the only one cooking for yourself.

Be proactive about eating out with friends or family or inviting them to your place. If you’re not into cooking, ask them over for a cup of tea and use those gorgeous new cups. It’s the connection that counts.

Ros makes a point of dressing up and going out for Saturday breakfast at a local café and saying hello to people, even if it’s the barista. It makes her feel a part of her community.

Look for places to eat that serve healthy food in sensible portions. We met in a café and watched as a small woman — probably in her 70s and on her own — was served what looked like a toasted sandwich on a huge platter with extra slabs of toast and a pile of fat chips. Skip those places.

Make food shopping enjoyable. You don’t have to go to a sterile supermarket if you don’t want to. You also don’t have to buy five zucchinis swaddled in a kilometre of plastic wrap if you only want one. And buy the best quality you can afford. (Your local market might be another way to connect with your community and local suppliers.)

Ros is looking for good quality pre-prepared meals to buy. She has her late mum’s voice in her ear telling her that’s lazy, but it’s not. If it suits you, it’s sensible.

Each week can be a mix of cooking afresh, warming leftovers, eating something pre-prepared, eating out, or having people over to eat with you. It still takes forethought and planning, but that’s time well spent.

Like most things, how you navigate cooking for one comes down to your mindset. Make the most of it and make it work for you.

As Ros says, the truth is it’s actually rather nice not having to shop and cook for a family of five.

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