According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 27 percent of American households in 2006 were people living alone and 33 percent were two-person households. Here's one of life's mysteries: If 60 percent of American households are so small, why are zucchini sold in packages of four? • Cooking for a small household is fraught with challenges; most vexing is how to make it economically feasible, time-effective and healthful all at the same time. Consequently, singles, empty-nesters and other tiny households may see-saw between takeout, prepared frozen meals and leaning collectively over a saucepan and taking turns with the fork.
Sometimes small households need to redefine what constitutes a meal, says Nan Jensen, dietitian and family and consumer sciences program leader at Pinellas County Extension.
"People have preconceived notions about what a healthy meal is. Look for no-cook things: corn muffins served with apple and cheese slices, or baked tortilla chips paired with your own homemade salsa. Think of cold dishes during the summer so you don't have to heat up the kitchen, or one-dish meals."
The purchasing mantra for the small household should be "no waste." This means buying smaller quantities of foods that are easily portioned and frozen, or foods that have a substantial shelf life.
Steer clear of large and shorter-lived foods that aren't easily divided — that overripe beefsteak tomato or that huge head of delicate red leaf lettuce. Instead, head for grape or cherry tomatoes (they're smaller and more durable), hearts of romaine or a handful of loose mesclun mix (those big, resealable store-brand bags can be repacked with a smaller quantity).
You can get your grocer to work for you: It's perfectly acceptable to open packaged produce when you want one pepper and not four, and almost all butcher counters will repackage a smaller quantity of meat.
Keeping your refrigerator organized is the first step in avoiding waste. Knowing what you have in stock alleviates duplication and helps guide meal planning.
Portion chicken breasts, ground beef and other meats in individual storage bags before freezing (mark with the freeze date). In the refrigerator, meats keep longest on the bottom shelf in the back, and marinated meats will keep a day or two longer than plain. And as tempting as it is to wash all your fruits and vegetables when you bring them home from the store, most live a little longer if you wash them just before preparing. Most vegetables flourish when stored in the crisper loosely in plastic bags, perhaps with a paper towel thrown in to absorb excess moisture. (Always unband asparagus, broccoli and other veggies before storing to give individual stalks more breathing room.)
The key to successful cooking for the small household is to maximize your return on time spent in the kitchen. If you spend an hour making dinner, it should yield not only a delicious meal and leftovers, but extra sauce for another use, the base of a soup, a filling for an omelet or sandwich, etc.
If your cooking time is limited during the week, set some time aside on the weekend to make a couple of one-pot wonders to reheat. The time spent making your own tomato sauce on Sunday will be justified when you use it to top a pizza on Monday, accompany pasta on Wednesday and smother eggplant Parmesan on Friday.
Some foods are real chameleons: A root veggie puree one night, with the addition of chicken broth and a swirl of light cream, becomes a soup the next night, served with croutons and a green salad. Leftover rice can be gussied up as fried rice the next night; a restaurant's doggie bag of leftover ribeye becomes the anchor for homemade fajitas tomorrow.
Stephanie Tober, Palm Harbor resident and health nutrition consultant at Pinellas County Health Department, cooks for two. She suggests cooking a whole box of pasta, tossing it in oil and refrigerating, then each night sauteing veggies and adding in a handful of cooked pasta and a little cheese. She'll have a roast chicken one night, chicken quesadillas the next, and she insists that "cans of beans are our friend" and eggs are already individually portioned, versatile sources of protein.
What to make
The problem with cooking for a small posse is that often the effort yields a one-dimensional, monochromatic meal. Step back and think about providing something from each of the food groups with a variety of color, consistency and flavor.
Gulfport resident Marie-Louise Love, 86, has been a diabetic for 15 years, but manages to control it with oral medication because of careful attention to her diet. Living by herself, she has hit upon a solution for making quick and easy meals for one: She crafts her own TV dinners. Collecting the sectioned trays from store-bought dinners, she washes them and fills them with her own creations.
"I'll take a piece of baked dark-meat chicken, canned or fresh vegetables, sweet potatoes or corn," she explains. "I'll make three or four of the same thing and freeze them, then make three or four of something else. I probably have about a dozen meals in the freezer, six different kinds. Then I microwave the dinner."
Stews and soup recipes often yield four or more servings, two of which can be cooled and frozen in individual portions. Chili, slow-braised meats and casseroles all freeze well in leftover portions.
Most important, says Tober about cooking for one or two, "Have healthy, seasonal food in the house — and have a plan."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.