Maybe this doesn’t happen in your house, but it does in mine: One member of our family works late or has sports practice or goes to an event and misses dinner. S/he must then forage for him/herself, alone in the kitchen, drawn as if by magic forces to cereal, chips, and the box of Thin Mints hidden in the freezer, eating directly from the container, shifting from box to bag, trying to get the satisfaction of having an actual meal, but in the end feeling slightly sick and entirely unsatisfied.
Familiar? OK; read on.
Occasional cooking for one is different from routinely having to prepare only one meal, solely for oneself. When there’s a routine, there’s a rhythm of shopping and prepping. Plus, there are actual cookbooks and meal delivery options dedicated to the cause. (If you’re the bookmarking type, there’s a wonderful 2017 round-up in bon appétit: “30 Healthy Recipes for One, Because You Don’t Need Anyone Else.“) (There is something sad about that title, though, isn’t there?)
When cooking for one person is the exception and not the rule, it’s somehow harder. The most important step, perhaps, is making a commitment to prepare something to eat, even if it’s a peanut butter sandwich. Sound ridiculous? Maybe it is; but it will be healthier, more satisfying, and less depressing.
Do not misunderstand here. Sometimes, for sure, a bowl of ice cream and glass of wine is just the ticket for a solo dinner. It feels downright rebellious and liberating, from time to time. But having a few other tricks in one’s repertoire is invaluable and also liberating, in a different way. There is power in preparing a meal, a feeling of accomplishment. This is not an unimportant consideration. Teach a child to make a fried egg or grilled cheese, and s/he will have newfound independence.
The go-to standards for solo cooking are, of course, eggs, chicken breasts, and salads. Eggs are the easiest option in most cases, particularly when the solo dinner is unplanned and using what’s on hand is a requirement. (Because who’s going to the store at 9 PM to get sumac and a can of chickpeas and a lemon and some kale to make an “impromptu” dinner for one? No one.)
Other options? African peanut soup or quick sesame noodles. White bean fritters, or white bean soup. Yes, all possible. Really.
I love to cook: The differentiator here is not time, but what is likely to be on hand. People who really enjoy cooking are more likely to have, for example, a variety of vinegars and oils in the pantry, a wider range of seasonings, and so on. Chicken paillards with red cabbage and onion slaw; avocado and arugula omelet; corn and chickpea bowl with miso-jalapeno tahini.
Weeknight reality: Cheese toast feels more indulgent than a cheese sandwich, and it’s almost as easy to prepare. Try it. If you have vegetables or fruit on hand, put some on the plate next to the toast to make the plate feel like an actual dinner (and because fiber is the magic food).
Need a miracle: If the siren call of cereal or potato chips or Thin Mints is too much to resist, then at least serve the food on a proper plate and sit at a table to eat. You’ll feel better, I promise.