Cheap, easy, good: How to manage cooking for one

Some food for thought to keep your solo meals healthy, affordable

March 16, 2010|by Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | special to b | b free daily

If cooking for one has you in a carryout rut, it's time to take control of your kitchen, your wallet and your health. So throw away the TV dinners, diet shakes and leftover pizza.

Make room for fresh, versatile ingredients with easy-to-cook recipes and time-saving tips to get the culinary juices flowing.

After all, cooking for one doesn't have to be a bore. It all comes down to planning and organization.

How we eat

Lin Oliver, 27, of Fells Point says she strives to cook healthful meals at home four nights a week but still ends up eating out often. Lack of time is the biggest hurdle, she says.

"I try to cook. I'm trying to be healthy and do the right thing," Oliver said. "But there's a time limit. You work, you exercise and sometimes don't feel like [cooking]."

Her best time-beater is picking up a piece of salmon and fixing a bag of steamed vegetables as a side.

Likewise, Claudia Towles, 30, who owns aMuse Toys, says running a business often leaves her with little time. Her secret: Indian food. She'll make sauces ahead of time, then store them in the refrigerator to pull out and transform weeknight dinners. "There's a lot of great sauces with Indian food and that cuts down on the cooking time," Towles said. A rice cooker helps finish the meal.

A 2008 study titled How Gen Y Eats found a love of complex flavors; an appreciation for hybrid cuisines and flavors; an interest in buying local, organic and fair trade; and ingrained healthful eating.

But for a generation that grew up comfortable with convenience foods, there's a difference between appreciating food and preparing it.

"Our take is they don't know how to cook very well," said Kara Nielsen, a trend analyst for the California-based Center for Culinary Development. "The quandary is, they have a very broad palate and are interested in eating foods from around the world."

Cuisine within reach

So here's how to get started. Beth Laverick, marketing specialist and community liaison with Whole Foods in Harbor East, recommends you plan over the weekend for the week ahead.

"Time is a major factor. If you don't plan properly, it's really hard to cook and get meals on the table," Laverick said.

On Sundays she cleans and slices: green peppers, onions, cucumbers, carrots or broccoli. Then she's ready for whatever dishes she has planned.

"I feel a lot of people despise cutting up veggies. This gets it out of the way," said Laverick, 28 and a new mother. "I'm always looking for something quick, affordable and healthy."

At Whole Foods, Laverick's Shopping on a Shoestring tour takes shoppers around the store, pointing out places they can save while using healthful recipes. Her tips: Buy in the bulk section, choose store brands and go with in-season produce.

Although it's easy to convert recipes down to one serving (yes, there's an app for that), don't be turned off by recipes that serve four, say experts. You can use leftovers for lunches, freeze single servings for another day or convert what's left into a different dinner the next night.

Take chicken. Buy and roast a chicken one night, then use leftovers for soup, chicken cacciatore or chicken salad.

Aviva Goldfarb, cookbook author and founder of The Six O'Clock Scramble online meal-planning service, suggests trying flank steak, salad and rice one night, then using the leftover steak for tacos the next.

The biggest impediment she hears about is deciding what to fix every day. Her tips: Keep it simple, stay organized and prepare a weekly menu.

"Otherwise it's going to be too daunting at the end of the workday to try and plan and cook," said Goldfarb, a Chevy Chase resident.

She also suggests planting a container herb garden to save money.

Joy of cooking

One trick to getting Gen Y cooking is international cuisine, Nielsen said.

Nancy Longo, who offers cooking classes at her Pierpoint Restaurant in Fells Point, said lessons with an international flair such as Thai or Italian are booked as soon as they're listed.

"Younger people have been much more exposed to international foods, and that's the reason they want to come," said Longo. At her classes, Longo discusses how to break down a recipe -- whether it's reworking the portions for a dinner party or scaling it down for one serving. "I tell people: A recipe is just a blueprint for a starting process. It's not etched in stone."

And cooking for one can be fun and fulfilling, says Judith Jones, author of "The Pleasures of Cooking For One."

Jones, who has edited cookbooks by chefs such as Julia Child and James Beard, says that when you cook for yourself, you're constantly learning.

"It's very creative. If you make a mess, only you know it and you learn from it," Jones said.

She suggests visiting specialty and farmers' markets, where buying one tomato or a single broccoli floret is welcomed.

But most of all, she wants everyone to experience the pleasure of cooking. "Grabbing a bite is not a way to live," she said. "I don't want to sound preachy, but I think people are missing out on one of the great pleasures of life."

Now that you know how to plan healthy meals, we've provided quick recipes and a must-have pantry list over at the b blog. Click here to check them out.

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