How you cook and how you eat go through many changes in the course of a lifetime.
As a teenager, you gobbled up a mountain of home cooking and were hungry again an hour later. Still, you kept your svelte frame.
As a young adult, you learned to cook for yourself. Or find someone to do it for you.
As a spouse and parent, you figured out how to prepare food for a family. And how to battle the creeping bulge by eating more healthfully yourself. When you hit your 50s, you just couldn't eat the way you used to. And, darn it, if there weren't health issues that forced the limitation of salt and fat. Quantities became smaller, too. Now, as an empty nester or newly single person, the rules have changed again, but, for many people, cooking for one, or even two, just isn't as fun.
There's something about making that big mess in the kitchen that doesn't have the payoff when the diner is me, myself and I. Perhaps you never really liked to cook anyway and now that the kids are gone, you don't feel you have to.
But you've got to eat, and nibbling badly isn't a good option. Nutrition is just as important to physical and mental well-being as we age as it is for a growing child. Nutritious food keeps us sharp and can increase resistance to illness and disease. For some, proper diet helps manage weight, which can keep the need for some medications at bay.
In short, a decent diet makes us feel better. That decent diet starts in your own kitchen.
LESSON NO. 1: SHARING IS CARING
Share what you cook with friends or start a cooking club with a fellow single cooks and rotate duties during the week.
Mary Ann Wesney cooked nearly all her life. She grew up in a family of 10, then went on to marry and raise four children. She made dinner every night and worked, too, as a registered nurse for a private practice in Columbus, Ohio. Pasta and CrockPot meals were in heavy rotation, along with anything else "quick and easy."
"We never ate out," says Wesney, 66 and living in a condo at Isla Del Sol in southern Pinellas County. The children, all in their 40s now, are on their own; Wesney's husband passed away three years ago.
But she is still cooking. She eats three meals a day — though less bread and fried foods than when she was younger — and hasn't scaled back much on what she prepares. Some things, like her favorite stuffed cabbage rolls, are hard to make in small amounts. "You can't just make a few of those," she says.
Wesney has found a way to fuel her love of cooking even though she's now a party of one. Her friends at Isla Del Sol are regular recipients of the fruits of her labor. If she's making a pot of soup, she'll divide the bounty among a few people. If she sees some friends by the pool, she'll invite them for dinner. And she freezes food for another day.
On those nights when it's just her, she sits down to a good dinner with a good book. Or sets up a TV tray in the bedroom off the kitchen — "the coziest room in the house" — and eats by the light of the TV news.
LESSON NO. 2: YES, YOU'RE WORTH IT
Look at downsized cooking as an opportunity to prepare and try new foods that have always intrigued you but your family wouldn't eat. Goat cheese and fig salad, anyone?
Legendary Knopf editor Judith Jones — she worked with Julia Child and James Beard — knows something about the joys of single servings. Her recent book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, tells the story of how she was unsure she would ever want to cook again after her husband died in 1996. She found, though, that cooking was a way to honor her husband, and something that they loved to do together: eat.
Pleasures is a book for experienced cooks with sophisticated tastes, though anyone can take away a few tips from Jones. More than recipes, the lessons here are about thinking enough of yourself to bake a piece of chicken or make a small casserole rather than ripping into a TV dinner.
In the book's introduction, Jones tries to head off the criticism at the pass. She knows that some readers will say cooking for one is too much trouble and too expensive. And the leftovers, who wants a freezer packed with individual portions of chili?
Jones suggests you look at it this way: After an entire adulthood of cooking for others, you have only yourself to please. In one way, that's very freeing.
"There's no need to be a perfectionist, trying to win applause from your guests. If a sauce curdles, you'll eat it anyway. And you'll learn from your mistakes," she writes.
LESSON NO. 3: A LIFETIME COOK
You don't have to cook seven nights a week to eat well. Cook two dishes and have leftovers for a couple of meals. Lunch at a restaurant could result in a to-go container fit for dinner. Maybe you're eating at church one night or a family member invites you over.
Margaret Pruitt of St. Petersburg has been a cookie baker since she was a young girl. And at 88 she still bakes birthday cakes for friends and family — her own and her extended family at First United Methodist Church.
As a wife and mother of two daughters, she cooked dinner every night. Pork chops with creole sauce. Sweet and sour pork. Chicken breasts wrapped in bacon. And then there's the Columbia restaurant bean soup. She has been making it for about 50 years, having gotten the recipe from a place mat at the original Ybor City restaurant.
Her daughters have been on their own for decades and her husband passed away five years ago. Pruitt is still cooking though. Maybe not as often, but just as much. Rather than scale down recipes, she makes the full amount. She gives some away, invites people over or eats leftovers.
She's not too keen on Judith Jones' notion of making single servings, especially since she has a soft spot for the hundreds of recipes tucked here and there. "Sometimes when you change the amounts, they don't work out," Pruitt says. So she roasts an entire chicken or prepares soup that serves eight.
Oh, she has got plenty of friends that have given up on their pots and pans, and eat their meals from a microwaved box. But frozen dinners aren't the same as a home-cooked meal, in taste or nutrition.
"You don't eat very well when you eat like that," she says.
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The truth is, if you hated to cook when you had family at home, you may not enjoy it much as a single person. But if you did enjoy it, don't give up because of all that fuss for a single portion. Plenty of recipes serve two or four. Just enough for a good meal, and then some.
Times lifestyles editor Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@sptimes or (727) 893-8586.