“What’s for dinner?” Those three simple words can stir up lots of feelings when you’re cooking for one. Maybe you dread it because you feel it’s a lot of work for just you. Or it’s simply a matter of not really knowing what to cook.

Sound familiar? If it does, you’re definitely not alone. But cooking for one is a great opportunity. When you cook for yourself, you’re in the driver’s seat and can choose whatever you like without worrying about someone else’s tastes. And you can make sure it’s healthy because, after all, who better to take care of yourself than you?

To help choose the best options when cooking for one, here are four ground rules:

  • Keep it simple
  • Watch portions
  • Make your freezer your friend
  • Take the guilt out of take-out

Keep It Simple

This is my favorite motto. If your recipe has more than eight ingredients and takes over an hour to prepare, well, that’s not simple. Think of your plate as a pie-chart, divided into quarters. You’ll balance it with lean protein, whole grains, and vegetables. Start by broiling a piece of fish or chicken with a touch of olive oil, fresh lemon, and your favorite spices or herbs—that’s one-quarter of the plate. Add a whole grain like brown rice (look for the new fast-cooking, microwaveable rice in pouches) or whole-wheat couscous, which cooks in just five minutes—that’s the second quarter. Then steam or microwave almost any veggie—green beans, asparagus, or broccoli, for example—and fill the other half of your plate with it. You now have a perfectly simple, healthy dinner in less than 30 minutes. And if you choose a medium-sized plate instead of a biggie, your meal will look all the more bountiful.

Watch Portions

Remember, even with healthy food, size matters. And if you’re cooking for one, keep it that way—don’t start eating for two. It’s okay to cook extras, which can make the next day’s meal prep easier, but be sure to use them as leftovers only. A single portion of lean meat, poultry or fish is 3.5 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards. A single portion of grains is about ½ cup. (You might want to measure this at first—it’s less than you think.) A serving of cooked vegetables is usually about ½ cup, too, but there are no restrictions here, unless you tend to go crazy adding butter or oil to your veggies. I always recommend starting the meal with a green salad and having a piece of fresh fruit for dessert.

Your Freezer is your Friend

To help keep it simple and worry less about fresh veggies and fruit spoiling, it’s okay to buy frozen. I personally love veggies that come in ready-to-steam bags. You don’t even need to even cut them up—just pop them in a microwave and in minutes they’re ready to eat. With fish, meat or poultry you’ll probably buy more than one serving at a time, so it’s fine to wrap and freeze single-serve portions and just defrost and cook them as needed.  And if you’re feeling completely unmotivated about cooking, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional frozen dinner. Just read the nutrition fact label closely and keep saturated fats, sodium and sugar to a minimum.  Even with frozen entrees, I suggest adding a side of veggies and green salad, since most of my patients complain that a frozen dinner doesn’t fill them up.

Take the Guilt Out of Take-Out

Ordering from your favorite take-out place or picking up food from the prepared section at your market doesn’t mean settling for something unhealthy, and it sure can make life easier. For take-out orders, specify how you want your food prepared. Opt for steamed, broiled or grilled entrees, and don’t forget to ask for veggies. Also request brown rice instead of white, or baked potato instead of mashed. And if anything comes with sauce, have it on the side. If you’re choosing prepared foods from your local supermarket, be sure to create a well-balanced meal. And as I mentioned, watch those portions. Learn to ask questions about how a dish is prepared, and if a lot of fat—butter, cream, cheese—is used, choose another item. I tell my patients that if the veggies are glistening, pass on them—it probably means that too much oil was used. And remember, if the serving is large, you don’t need to finish everything. Take for lunch the next day.

Cooking for one shouldn’t be stressful, but enjoyable. Take the time to relax and enjoy preparing and eating your food. Think of it as your personal time to de-stress from the day, to treat yourself right and to nourish your body. Before you know it, preparing food for yourself won’t be a chore at all, and you’ll enjoy the freedom and adventure of it!

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  • Dr Pat Allen May 21, 2010 at 7:31 am

    I can highly recommend a wonderful new cookbook that came out this year, “The Pleasures of Cooking for One” by Judith Jones.

    Her blog http://www.judithjonescooks.com is a great one for musings that range from the heyday of cooking with James Beard to a new appreciation for home cooking.

    Keri is right about the need to treat oneself with the same care that one would give to dinner guests. Judith Jones takes this concept to an entirely new level with fabulous menus and just the right proportions.

    We have learned that older women who live alone often become nutritionally deprived since they lose interest in just cooking for one. A good way to prevent this is learning to cook for yourself with joy and pleasure before you get to that stage. No one wants to end up with the unnecessary diagnosis of “tea and toast syndrome”.

    “”The Pleasures of Cooking for One” can be found at book stores currently and as always on Amazon.com!

    Reply