Eating solo and still making own meals

September 06, 2006|By L. Joan Allen | L. Joan Allen,Special to The Sun

Michael Wagner freezes his leftover homemade pesto in ice-cube trays. Maria Serafini makes her signature turkey chili, then spoons leftovers over greens to make a taco salad. Janet Weber has a go-to, quick Thai red curry to serve with rice.

These local cooks have different approaches to a common problem - making food just for themselves. By cooking at all, they're swimming against the tide of long working hours and increasingly available single-portion convenience food that makes it less likely than ever for singles to make a meal from scratch.

Recent studies suggest that singles who cook on a regular basis are increasingly rare.

Singles who live alone make up nearly 27 percent of American households, up from 13 percent in 1960, says Thomas F. Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America, an information service for singles. That means about 30 million Americans are living - and often eating - alone, he says.

Most are not slaving over a hot stove, says Claudia Peters, vice president of communications at the Food Marketing Institute. She reports that 67 percent of adults living alone have a home-cooked meal just once a week.

Take Shana Bender, 30, a never-married acupuncturist living in Catonsville. When she runs out of groceries and doesn't feel like shopping, Bender says, "I'll go out to eat a lot, mostly to fast-food restaurants like McDonald's, because it's cheap and easy and there are so many everywhere."

Instead of cooking for her dates, Bender prefers it the other way around.

"When I was dating a guy, he would cook all the time," she says. "We broke up in February, and now I go to my sister Merrill's. She's the one who does the cooking."

In spite of the statistics, there are singles who cook for themselves because they want to know what they are eating and have more control over the ingredients. A 2005 study by the Mintel International Group, which monitors trends in the food world, found that concerns over the nation's high rate of obesity and diabetes were nudging some older single cooks back into the kitchen.

"Armed with the skills to cook and with concerns over health and diet, baby boomers, now aged 40 to 58 ... will gravitate to foods that are better for them, such as organics," the study says.

That's why Weber, 51, a divorced account supervisor at GKV Communications in Baltimore, has been cooking for herself about three times a week. "I want to have foods that are fresh and healthier," she says.

When it's hot outside, Weber, who lives in Federal Hill, likes to go out for lighter meals such as a fresh salad. But in colder weather, the Thai red curry, which can take on shrimp to make a heartier meal, comes together quickly.

"Another reason I cook for myself is so I'll have leftovers during the day, enough extra for lunch," Weber says. "I get tired of eating the same things from the same places. ... Bringing lunch gives me a variety."

Serafini, 35, a divorced Baltimore native who lives in Carney, says preparing healthful foods is high on her list. "I know what the contents and ingredients are and I can control what I cook from a health perspective," she says. "For example, I use olive oil and butter instead of hydrogenated oils. I'm really against them."

Serafini, an employee of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, says another reason for fixing meals at home every day is financial. She'll pop a Lean Cuisine spa meal in the microwave, open a can of tuna or broil a ground turkey patty and pair it with a fresh steamed vegetable to avoid paying for higher-priced takeout food.

Serafini says usually she fires up the oven or range three or four times a week, preparing one-pot meals that are easy to clean up, like beans and rice, baked chicken with olive oil and Sylvia's soul-food spices or her favorite, ground turkey chili.

"That's versatile," she says. "I can throw the chili on top of a bed of crisp lettuce and turn it into a taco salad, and steam a bag of spinach as a side dish."

Carol Sorgen, a 57-year-old divorced journalist, says she actually knows how to cook well but often doesn't because she'd rather do something else with free time. "I work so much - 70 hours a week - that it's just disruptive to stop at a certain point and prepare a meal," she says. "There are other things I'd rather do, such as read a book, catch up with friends on the phone or go out."

The Pikesville resident relies heavily on carryout for her meals, but still tries to make healthful choices. "I pick up mostly grilled or poached salmon and a salad or penne pasta and roasted vegetables from various rounds of gourmet takeouts." Sorgen says she does sneak in a hamburger from a fast-food chain at least once a week.

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