Small meals can be a big problem

September 07, 2005|By Nichole Wright | Nichole Wright,SUN STAFF

After a night of marching up and down the football field at Hughes Stadium with a large brass tuba in hand, Morgan State University band member Kenan Shoulds returns to his East Baltimore apartment.

Sweaty, tired and hungry, he opens the refrigerator. Inside, his options are slim - lunchmeat and a leftover portion of Monterey chicken, mashed potatoes and vegetables. In the cupboard are countless packs of Top Ramen Noodles, but that was dinner earlier in the week. Exhausted, he decides to make the one-minute drive to McDonald's.

"I don't cook much, but when I do, it's usually with the [George] Foreman Grill," says Shoulds, a hospitality management major.

His dinner dilemma isn't unique. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 61.6 million households are composed of two or fewer individuals, an increase of nearly 38 percent in the past decade.

Often these singles and couples without children at home face the same problems - too few products in the grocery store suitable for small families and recipes designed to make dishes that serve four or more.

"You get tired of the same old things," says Anne Mackenzie, a widow who lives in Bel Air and a judge for the National Oyster Cook-Off. "I like to prepare things with salsa and flavor because when you get older, you need a lot more flavor." As baby boomers age and send their children off to college, a few food companies are taking note of the trend toward smaller households and offering smaller portions. This summer Taste of Home magazine introduced a new magazine, Cooking for 2, directed toward the small family.

For Tynisha Carroll, a single leasing consultant of Windsor Mill who admires cooking celebrity Nigella Lawson, one of the most difficult things about preparing food for a small number is buying ingredients that you may never use again.

"If there was a place where you could get just a little bit, or if somebody could send a tablespoon of something like oregano, it would help a lot," jokes Carroll.

Because quantities tend to be geared toward families, single people often end up paying more for groceries. A 2002 survey of consumer expenditures conducted by the Food Marketing Institute found that a person living alone spent about $60.10 per week, while a two-person household spent only about $20 more. That breaks down to about $40 per person per week. Additionally, according to market research firm Mintel, shoppers of these smaller households tend to buy more snack food items that they often substitute for meals.

Cooks who try to reduce recipes can come across other problems. How do you halve measurements such as 1/3 or 3/4 of a cup? And even if the dish is assembled properly, it may be difficult to guess the cooking time required.

To try to meet the needs of these new small families, Pillsbury has started to offer its frozen dinner rolls and biscuits in resealable bags to allow for easier portion control. And last fall, Pillsbury started an online newsletter also titled Cooking for Two that features recipes and shopping tips for smaller households.

"We've talked to consumers and we've held focus groups, and from them we learned that there really was not a lot being offered or a lot of information being provided for smaller households," says Marlene Johnson, the senior public relations manager at General Mills, the parent company of Pillsbury and the Green Giant brands.

"People don't like to waste food and they don't want leftovers. They want something convenient. Perfect Portions [General Mills' smaller-packaged biscuits and bread] and our e-newsletter are our response to these facts," Johnson says. "Cooking for Two is one of the most accessed links that we provide."

Like Johnson, Ann Kaiser, the managing editor at Taste of Home magazine, feels the decision to launch Cooking for 2, the fourth publication in the Taste of Home line, was a response to what people wanted.

"We kept getting letters and e-mails that praised the smaller-yield recipes that we would sometimes put in the original column. We didn't want to change the concept or focus of Taste of Home, so we came up with this magazine."

The magazine offers a large number of recipes that are submitted by readers and reworked into smaller portions by the company's test kitchen. Often these are recipes for spaghetti, chili, chicken and vegetarian dishes that are inexpensive, can be made from basic ingredients and reheat well. Additionally, the magazine features a tips page that offers suggestions for using up leftover meal ingredients.

"People in small households are looking for meat dishes and entrees," says Kaiser. "Side dishes are easy to prepare. Those that are into healthier lifestyles are looking for lighter recipes. Cooking for 2 offers suggestions for lightening up recipes, and more than half of the recipes in the magazine can be made in 30 minutes or less, with ingredients that are readily found in markets and households."

Tips for small households

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