There comes a moment, usually halfway between the office and home each night, when the relief of being finished with work for the day gives way to the dread of the question that can no longer be ignored: What's for dinner?
For some of us in our late 20s and living on our own, it's a vexing question, and one we're not equipped to deal with. We're not that far removed from the days when Mom always had the answer: chicken, salmon, spaghetti, pork chops and, always and only on Fridays, pizza.
Growing up, the biggest food decision I ever had to make was whether I wanted French or Italian dressing on my salad. (And I even had trouble with that.)
The joy -- and the curse -- of being an adult is you can eat whatever you want. There are at once too many and not enough choices. I could eat McDonald's every night if I wanted, yet the idea of eating McDonald's even once makes me nauseous. There are sub shops and pizza places, but that never seems balanced enough.
And so it is that I often find myself in the aisles of my grocery store in Hampden. It is a terrific store, and recently expanded, so the produce section is enormous. The employees are friendly, and the store is neat and clean. I really do love this store. There's only one problem: There's nothing to eat there.
Go in any weeknight between 6 and 7, and you'll see us: scores of seemingly unattached people, young and old, carrying our empty little baskets, wandering the aisles, staring at the salad bar, flirting with the frozen food, stuck in place, indecisive, wondering if we will ever find dinner.
I feel a kinship with these people -- the woman in the brown suit whom I first notice at the salad bar and later see at the butcher counter, still empty-handed; the man in the blue tie who picks up a tuna pita and puts it down, picks up a turkey sub and puts it down.
It's like we're part of a club -- the single eaters' club -- that meets every evening by the bagged salads. It's an anonymous club, of course. We don't know each others' names, and we certainly don't speak, but we know we're in this together. The Clash was right: We're all lost in the supermarket.
Sometimes I peek in someone else's basket, just to see if they found something I missed. They never have.
Even though supermarkets are supposed to be catering more to single eaters, I haven't noticed much of an effort, except in the marketing. I'm always enticed by the "Good Food to Go" sign, but the section contains only prepackaged sandwiches, uncooked pizzas and pizza slices turned orange from sitting under a heat lamp too long.
The hot food bar, which, according to the sign, is open from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., is totally empty by 6:30, all the trays removed. The salad bar is nice enough but doesn't seem to have the makings of a full meal.
Not far away is a section called "Heat & Serve Quick Meals." This sounds perfect. But there is nothing quick about the offerings here. There is a tub of Old El Paso ground beef for making tacos -- but no taco shells or fixings. There are also tubs of Country Crock side dishes -- mashed potatoes, chicken with rice and such. But the containers are enormous. I look at the servings per container on one: 5!
Then there are the chicken breasts, which come in packages of four and are tasteless, anyway. Reliable sources inform me there are actually people who marinate a chicken breast for hours before cooking. Just do it overnight, they say, or before you leave for work. It's so easy! But I could never do such a thing, requiring, as it does, actually giving thought to dinner before I am ready to eat dinner.
I move on to the "Quick Meal Solutions" section of the grocery store. Again, this looks promising. Yet the section contains only Lunchables and packages of hot dogs. Sure, that could be a quick meal solution -- if I were 8.
Inevitably, I find myself in the frozen food aisle, with meals that attempt to rival what you'd find in a nice restaurant. Stouffers, for instance, now offers "lime marinated and grilled chicken breast strips in a corn and tomato salsa with Spanish rice and chile baked beans."
I'm not sure I want my microwave dinners to try so hard.
Sometimes, you think, you'll just make do with what you have at home. A bowl of Chex. Some macaroni and cheese. A bit of yogurt. But to leave the grocery store empty-handed is to admit defeat. You've come so far. You've spent half an hour in this store, packed to the ceiling with food. Surely, you can find something to eat.
And so, one night recently, there it was, at the end of the frozen food aisle: a new offering from Stouffers, something called Corner Bistro. I picked up the Southwest-Style Chicken Panini, intrigued by its claim to "grill in the microwave," thanks to its Revolutionary Grillingt Tray.
It was just a sandwich, but it seemed worth trying. And I've always wanted to be part of a revolution. I also picked up a bag of Dole Field Greens salad, but I skipped the dressing aisle. I had Italian at home.