You are alone at dinner time--it's just you and your appetite. Maybe you take the easy way out and call for pizza delivery or stop by your favorite Chinese place on the way home. Maybe you pull together a meal from ingredients on hand: frozen entrees, pasta and sauce, breakfast for dinner. Or, maybe you just stand in front of the refrigerator and scarf leftovers right out of the container (after all, no one's looking).

You'd like to eat a fresh, made-from-scratch meal, but the thought of making a Serves One meal doesn't even occur to you since we live in a Serves Six world. I know because I've been there.

Not long ago, if I cooked, I made big meals and invited over friends or family. Fun, but a lot of work and actually quite expensive. When I was alone, it seemed impractical (not to mention somewhat depressing) to cook a single-serving meal for myself, so I made lasagna, vats of spaghetti sauce, soups and chili. I'd store and freeze the leftovers, thinking I'd be thankful on another night for the homemade grub. But truth be told, while it can be a godsend to have a meal already made, I got sick of eating the same thing over and over. And, more than once, I've tossed forgotten-about, freezer-burned fare, my spirits lifted only by the rediscovery of long-lost plastic containers.

I decided to try Cooking for One.

In the past month or so, I've tested various single-serving recipes and have made some great meals--for me, myself and I. And to my surprise, I got hooked. Here's the thing: it's not that hard. Cooking for one generally takes less time (not more). It never seems expensive, even when you're using pricey ingredients (only one mouth to feed). It's refreshing not to cater to others' likes and dislikes (leave out what you don't want, add more of what you love). And there are no leftovers--a good thing because chances are that tomorrow your boss will order on-the-house pizza for lunch or you'll receive a last-minute yet irresistible dinner invitation. If you're food-free, there's no need to worry about leftovers going bad. And if you end up home alone again craving another freshly made meal, it'll only take a few minutes for you to whip one up.

Whether once a week or once a month, it's a real treat to enjoy a homemade single-serving meal, perhaps paired with a glass of wine (thank God for my Vacu-Vin wine savers, which make it easy to open a whole bottle for just one glass and save the rest for another night). And, believe it or not, cooking for yourself is quite satisfying. All it requires is a quick trip to the supermarket to pick up a few fresh ingredients and a bit of time in the kitchen. Crank up the music or turn on a favorite TV show while you slice and dice and treat yourself right. It can actually be therapeutic, not to mention healthful and tasty.

Take the warm goat cheese salad I made a few weeks ago--so good, and so simple! Just buy some mixed greens and stick the cheese in the oven for a few minutes. Put the greens on a plate, add a handful of toasted nuts (pick your favorite), dried cranberries (if they're handy) and top with a freshly whisked vinaigrette. Did you know it takes just seconds (and only one tablespoon of olive oil, one teaspoon of vinegar and salt and freshly ground black pepper) to make the perfect amount of dressing for one salad? Pour over cheese and greens and enjoy. How could you not? This is restaurant-quality salad in your own home.

My first attempt at shellfish was fun and hit the spot. I stopped on the way home to pick up some mussels and clams, then steamed them in a bit of melted butter mixed with minced garlic and white wine. With my see-through pot and pan lids, I watched the shells open in a matter of minutes, during which time a friend called and asked what I was up to. I shared what I was making for dinner. "Really?" he asked with surprise (or was that envy?). "Yes. It's easy!" Then I said I had to go to enjoy my yummy shellfish steamer for one and my glass of wine, complete with toasted sourdough bread for dunking into that garlic-butter-wine broth.

Though cookbook culture mandates that most recipes serve four or six, there are plenty of places to find interesting meals for the solo cook. I didn't realize they existed until I searched for them. Sure, I'd seen a few dinner-for-two cookbooks (close) and knew people had handy cheat-sheets for dividing "normal" recipes into recipes for one. But a little digging revealed a number of single-serving recipe compilations in books and on the Web--and amazingly, a new cooking domain opened up for me.

With a cookbook devoted to nothing but cooking for one, it's easy to decide what to do for dinner on nights you end up home alone. And there's more than just dinner--you'll also find plenty of breakfasts, lunches and desserts for one. I like the practical advice in "Serves One" by Toni Lydecker and "Going Solo in the Kitchen" by Jane Doerfer.

And then there's the Internet. After a little searching I came across "The Living Alone" Web site, at www.eskimo.com/baubo/home/home.htm.

Julie Rampke, 35, in Washington state, created the site about two years ago as a resource for people starting out on their own (whatever the circumstance). She offers handy info for the solo cook as well as links to other Web pages where one can exchange recipes and talk online.

"Learning to cook for one is a lot of trial and error as far as ingredients and measurements go," Rampke wrote in an e-mail. But Rampke's done the hard part for us and even ranks her recipes by difficulty. Her cashew chicken salad is excellent--I say double it because you'll want seconds. Her spinach fettucini with apples, mixed with walnuts and gorgonzola is great. The pungent cheese, the sweet fruit and the nuts make a perfect combo. And you can't go wrong with her very simple salsa chicken: flatten, then fry a boneless chicken breast. When it's cooked, top it with your favorite salsa.

Other single-serving recipes sites are out there for those who like to search the Internet. On an America Online bulletin board titled "Cooking for One or Two," I clicked past many tuna casserole-type dishes before coming across "Salmon," which looked simple and full of fresh ingredients. A fellow cook and America Online subscriber (Stacey from Los Angeles, I found out later via e-mail) had posted it.

Enough talk--it's recipe time. Here are some of the simple and relatively quick single-serving recipes I've discovered and enjoyed. They're filled with quality ingredients and yield meals that seem luxurious, whether you decide to eat them at the table (which takes but two seconds to set for yourself) or in front of the TV (generally where I end up). Pull them out when you find yourself alone and when only a delicious, made-from-scratch meal will do.

Goat Cheese on Greens

(1 serving)

The combination of goat cheese, pecans and dried cranberries is quite nice, although you can experiment with various nuts and dried fruits. This recipe is from Toni Lydecker's "Serves One: Super Meals for Solo Cooks" (Lake Isle Press, 1998).

1 large slice (about 1 1/2 ounces) goat cheese with chives or mixed herbs

2 tablespoons Basic Vinaigrette made with white wine vinegar (see recipe below)

2 cups mesclun or mixed baby lettuces

6 toasted pecan or walnut halves

1 tablespoon dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Shape the goat cheese into a disk about 1 inch thick and place in a small ovenproof dish. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon vinaigrette.

Heat the cheese in the preheated oven until it softens slightly but does not lose its shape, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss the mesclun or mixed baby lettuces with the remaining vinaigrette and transfer to a serving plate. Place the goat cheese in the center of the salad and sprinkle with the pecans and cranberries. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 388 calories, 12 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 33 gm fat, 34 mg cholesterol, 11 gm saturated fat, 463 mg sodium, 3 gm dietary fiber

Basic Vinaigrette

(Makes enough for 1 salad)

The basic formula is 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vinegar (or other acidic component). And one salad may need a little more or a little less vinaigrette than another, depending on personal preference. Here's a straightforward recipe along with a few variations to get you started. From Toni Lydecker's "Serves One: Super Meals for Solo Cooks."

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon vinegar (balsamic, red or white wine, sherry, cider, herb-flavored, etc.)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Ad hoc method: Place whatever salad greens you are using in a large bowl, sprinkle with the oil and toss. Sprinkle with the vinegar and toss again. Season with the salt and pepper to taste and toss again. Serve immediately.

Premixed method: In a small jar or squeeze bottle, combine the oil, vinegar, salt and pepper to taste. Cover and shake vigorously. Drizzle over the salad and toss. Serve immediately.

Variations:

Mustard: Use balsamic vinegar and add a dab of Dijon-style prepared mustard.

Berry: Use raspberry vinegar.

Citrus: Substitute 1 to 2 teaspoons lemon, lime or orange juice for the vinegar.

Per serving (without lettuce): 125 calories, 0 gm protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 14 gm fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 2 gm saturated fat, 233 mg sodium, 0 gm dietary fiber

Shellfish Steamer

(1 serving)

This dish takes just 20 minutes to prepare. Serve it with crusty bread and a tossed green salad. From chef Pamela White at the Tides Inn by the Sea in Kennebunkport and published in "Serves One: Super Meals for Solo Cooks" by Toni Lydecker.

10 mussels

4 cherrystone or littleneck clams, scrubbed

1 tablespoon minced shallot or onion

1 small garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon butter, cut into bits

1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley, chervil or tarragon

1/2 cup dry white vermouth or white wine

Place the mussels and clams in a skillet or saucepan just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Sprinkle with the shallot or onion, garlic, butter and parsley, chervil or tarragon. Add the vermouth or white wine, cover and cook over medium-high heat. Steam the shellfish until they open, about 5 minutes (the mussels will open first). Discard any unopened shellfish.

Using tongs, transfer the shellfish to a large, shallow bowl. If desired, strain the broth. Pour the broth over the shellfish and serve.

Per serving: 505 calories, 55 gm protein, 19 gm carbohydrates, 13 gm fat, 143 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 1,110 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber

Spinach Fettucini With Apples

(1 serving)

Julie Rampke admits that the combination "sounds weird, but it's my absolutely favorite pasta dish." She suggests serving it with crusty bread and hard apple cider. From "Cooking for One: Julie's Recipes!" Web site (www.eskimo.com/baubo/home/home.htm).

1/4 pound dried spinach fettucini

1 small apple, peeled or unpeeled (use a cooking apple or your favorite eating one--whichever!) cut into 1/2-inch pieces

2 teaspoons butter

1/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped walnuts

Cook the fettucini according to package directions.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium heat, cook the apple in 1 teaspoon butter until warm but not soft, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat; set aside.

Drain the pasta, return it to the pan and toss with the remaining 1 teaspoon butter.

Add the apple, cheese and walnuts to the pasta and toss. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 789 calories, 26 gm protein, 109 gm carbohydrates, 29 gm fat, 47 mg cholesterol, 12 gm saturated fat, 480 mg sodium, 7 gm dietary fiber

Salmon Packet

(1 serving)

This quick, no clean-up recipe was posted on the AOL Cooking for One message board by Stacey Altman from Los Angeles. The dish can easily be multiplied in the event that unexpected guests arrive.

1 salmon fillet (about 6 ounces)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 lemon, thinly sliced

1/4 onion, thinly sliced

1/2 tomato, thinly sliced

Preheat a grill or oven to 350 degrees. Place the salmon fillet in the center of a large piece of aluminum foil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

In a small bowl stir together the butter, parsley and garlic. Spread the butter mixture over the salmon. Top with the slices of lemon, onion and tomato. Fold the aluminum foil tightly around the salmon fillet and grill or bake until cooked through, about 10 minutes per inch of thickness. Carefully unfold the foil and serve immediately.

Per serving: 379 calories, 35 gm protein, 8 gm carbohydrates, 23 gm fat, 126 mg cholesterol, 9 gm saturated fat, 315 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber

Cashew Chicken Salad Sandwich

(1 serving)

Serve the salad on a roll, croissant, pita or bread of choice. From the "Cooking for One: Julie's Recipes!" section of Julie's Rampke's Living Alone Web site.

1 cup cooked, chopped chicken breast

1 tablespoon thinly sliced grapes

1 tablespoon crumbled feta cheese

1 teaspoon minced celery

1/2 teaspoon dried onion flakes or 1 tablespoon minced onion

1/4 cup chopped cashews

1/2 teaspoon chopped parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/4 cup mayonnaise

In a small bowl, stir together all of the ingredients.

Per serving (without bread): 820 calories, 46 gm protein, 14 gm carbohydrates, 64 gm fat, 127 mg cholesterol, 11 gm saturated fat, 723 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber dinner tonight

Cookbooks for Flying Solo

"Going Solo in the Kitchen" by Jane Doerfer (Knopf, 1998, paperback, $14.95). This excellent resource offers ample practical advice on topics like shopping for one, how to store foods for optimal flavor and what freezes well vs. what doesn't. More than 350 solo-recipes include everything from chicken noodle soup to lamb chops with tarragon to warm chocolate sauce. Helpful suggestions and recipe variations will put the beginner at ease while keeping the interest of those with more cooking experience.

"The 15-Minute Single Gourmet: 100 Deliciously Simple Recipes for One" by Paulette Mitchell (IDG Books, 1996, paperback, $13.95). This book offers recipes that really can be whipped up within 15 minutes, from start to finish. Most of the recipes don't require numerous ingredients, yet we're not talking PB&J. Instead, you'll find recipes for dishes such as Plum-Glazed Chicken and Broiled Salmon with Lime-Ginger Marinade. Advance preparation tips offer ways you might save even more time.

"Cooking for Yourself" (Williams-Sonoma Lifestyles, Vol. 12, No. 20) by Janet Kessel Fletcher, Chuck Williams and Richard Eskite (Williams Sonoma, hardcover, $18.95). Definitely the coffee table book of the bunch. This one starts out with sections on creating a mood and choosing a setting, encouraging you to take your time and relish your moments alone. Sections on stocking your pantry, buying perishables and being well equipped cover the basics, followed by recipes that list both prep times and cooking times. Orecchiette with Broccoli and Pine Nuts, Swordfish with Tomato-Caper Sauce, Rosemary Lamb Chops with Scalloped Potatoes . . . enjoy.

"Serves One: Super Meals for Solo Cooks" by Toni Lydecker (Lake Isle, 1998, paperback, $14.95). This user-friendly book offers practical advice and easy-to-follow recipes (with numerous variation suggestions that will keep you from boredom). Lydecker knows when to suggest doubling a recipe. Basic Pizza Dough, for example, "makes enough dough for three single-portion pizzas--one to eat now and two for the freezer." Other common sense tips practical for the demands of real life are included in sections titled "For the freezer," "Time savers" and "Speedy snacks." A great addition to anyone's kitchen, this book makes simple yet sophisticated meals an attainable reality.