Experts Offer Advice on Meal Planning for Single People
A message to all of you out there who are eating alone:
You're not alone.
Since launching "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" and the weekly "Lean and Fit" nutrition newsletter, I've received many requests for information about cooking for one.
It's a hot topic: Recognizing that not all cooks are preparing meals for extended clans, several major cooking magazines, from Cooking Light to Martha Stewart's Everyday Food, regularly feature recipes and tips for singleton chefs. The Post's Food section is in the game, too, offering varied perspectives on the phenomenon (plus great recipes) in its "Cooking for One" column.
If the term "cooking for one" conjures an image of a lone bachelor slumped in front of the TV eating a microwave burrito, the range of options for those cooking only for themselves is at least as broad as that for those preparing meals for many.
Still, preparing meals for one can be daunting, particularly for working people who might feel too zonked by the time they get home to think about cooking, much less preparing a nutritious dinner. But even the busiest young professional or the set-in-her-ways senior can, with a bit of thought and planning, put together meals that nourish without requiring much effort or culinary skill.
Here's a roundup -- based on conversations with Marisa Moore, an Atlanta dietitian speaking on behalf of the American Dietetic Association; Tula Karras, deputy director of nutrition and diet for Self magazine; and (via e-mail) Deb Puchalla, editor in chief of Everyday Food -- of the peculiar challenges of cooking for oneself and strategies for addressing them.
Challenge: Getting fresh food without having it go bad by week's end.
· Embrace frozen food: "Fresh is great," Moore says, "but don't be afraid to buy frozen produce. It's always available, and it might actually help you eat more fruits and vegetables."
· Buy meats such as chicken breasts in bulk and freeze single-meal portions. "The freezer is your friend," Karras says.
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· Shop small. Karras says buying individual portions -- Birdseye's single-serving veggie packs, Bertolli's pasta sauce in a pouch -- may cost a bit more, but you'll save in the long run if this helps you avoid tossing food out. Plus, she adds, "Anything you buy at the grocery store is going to be cheaper than takeout or eating out."
· Try bagged salads. Or buy small portions from the grocery store's salad bar. Add beans, leftover chicken, whatever you have on hand to rev up the taste and nutrition.
· Pace yourself: "Start the week with what's most perishable, such as spinach and other leafy greens, fresh herbs and fruits like berries, and work your way through heartier produce like peppers, broccoli, cauliflower and melons, and onto carrots, onions, potatoes, apples and other items that last more than a week," Puchalla says.
· Give limp veggies a new lease on life. When shopping, "think about vegetables that multi-task," Karras says. "Choose those that can be eaten raw or cooked, in sandwiches, salads and stir-fries. Then you'll have more options to use them every day. And when produce does start to wilt," Karras continues, "think about dishes that will revive them. Make a primavera sauce with vegetables that are a little weak, or use them in a stir fry or soup."
· "Learn to love your leftovers," Karras says. "Roast a whole chicken, then use it in a pasta dish one evening, a salad another, and top a pizza with it another night," she advises. (The November issue of Self has a feature on how to shop and eat healthily for a week.)
Challenge: Getting the right mix of nutrients.
· Don't eat your meal out of pots and pans. "Put it on a plate, not only so you're eating consciously but so you can make sure that you're eating a balanced combination of whole grains, produce and lean protein," Puchalla says.
· Pack in the protein. Moore says it's important, especially for seniors, to be conscious of squeezing as much protein and other nutrients as possible into their meals, especially if they're eating fewer or smaller ones. "Try an omelet with frozen broccoli or spinach," she suggests. "It's quick, cheap and easy."
· Buy whole fruits such as pears and apples, but only what you'll actually eat in a week. "Mother Nature grows them in single-serving portions for you," Karras says.
· Augment frozen dinners. "It's a reality for a lot of us to rely on frozen meals," Karras says, "But try to choose those that have 350 calories or less, which is not a meal for most people. Then supplement them with something fresh: salad, fruit, six ounces of low-fat yogurt, rounding out the calories in a really healthy way."
· When choosing frozen meals, look for those that deliver at least three grams of protein and 1.5 grams of fiber and no more than 1.5 grams of saturated fat per 100 calories, Karras advises. She recommends Kashi, Amy's and Lean Cuisine's Spa Cuisine line, which features whole grains.
Challenge: Finding time to cook -- and clean up.
· To avoid spending time every evening slaving over the stove and cleaning up, consolidate: Cook a lot at once and freeze individual portions, Moore suggests. Chili is a good option, she says: "It's hard to make a single serving of chili, but it freezes very well and can stay in the freezer for two or three months. Just remember to label the package with the date and what the food is." Pasta with sauce can be cooked in bulk and frozen in batches, too, she says.
· Make your kitchen work for you. "You may not be living alone forever, but for the time being you might want to invest in a few appliances designed for singletons," Karras says. "Get a Cuisinart mini food processor, a mini salad spinner and a small frying pan," she suggests.
· Be prepared. "Keep good-quality pantry staples on hand," Puchalla says. "Extra-virgin olive oil, different sorts of vinegars like balsamic and champagne, a well-stocked spice rack; different types of rice (arborio is creamy and perfect for risotto; jasmine lends itself to Asian dishes; brown for fiber). You're much more likely to cook for yourself if you have items on hand rather than running to the store meal by meal."
Challenge: Making food fun.
· "Think about your dinner as if you were [serving it to] a friend," Karras suggests. You don't have to put out the fine china (unless you want to!), but cloth napkins and a thoughtfully prepared meal are the least you can do for yourself.
· Adjust your attitude: "Instead of thinking, 'Oh, I'm eating alone,' take advantage of the opportunity," Karras says. "You don't have anybody else's tastes to take into consideration, so experiment." Want to dabble in vegetarian dining? Try seaweed salad? Put peanut butter on your pasta? Nobody has to know.
· Don't forget dessert. "If you want to make a cake," Moore advises, "decide beforehand who you want to share it with." Eat your serving and take the rest to the office or share it with a friend, she suggests. For tasty and healthful single-serving desserts, she says, try topping thin, Swedish-style ginger cookies (six have about 120 to 140 calories) with fruit and low-fat whipped topping. Or crumble the cookies over frozen yogurt.
Check out today's Checkup blog, in which Jennifer chats with Washington Post Food Editor Joe Yonan about cooking for one. Sign up for our weekly Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http:/