“What’s for dinner?” Those simple words can stir up lots of feelings when you’re cooking for only one person. Maybe you dread it because you feel it’s a lot of work for just yourself. Or it’s simply a matter of not really knowing what to cook.
Sounds familiar? If it does, you’re deﬁnitely not alone. But cooking for one is a great opportunity. When you cook for yourself, you’re in the driver’s seat and can choose whatever you like without worrying about someone else’s tastes. And you can make sure it’s healthy because, after all, who better to take care of you than yourself?
Even If You Just Cook for Yourself,
It’s Worth Making the Effort of Doing It Right
To help choose the best options when cooking for one, there are four ground rules: Keep it simple, watch portions, make your freezer your friend, and take the guilt out of take-out.
Keep it simple
This is my favorite motto. If your recipe has more than eight ingredients and takes over an hour to prepare, well, that’s not simple. Think of your plate as a pie chart, divided into quarters. You’ll balance it with lean protein, whole grains, and vegetables.
Start by broiling a piece of ﬁsh or chicken with a touch of olive oil, fresh lemon, and your favorite spices or herbs. That’s one quarter of the plate. Add a whole grain like brown rice (look for the new fast-cooking, microwaveable rice in pouches) or whole-wheat couscous that cooks in just ﬁve minutes. That’s the second quarter. Then steam or microwave almost any veggie – green beans, asparagus, or broccoli, for example – and fill the remaining half of your plate with it. You now have a perfectly simple, healthy dinner in less than 30 minutes. And if you choose a medium-sized plate instead of a big one, your meal will look all the more bountiful.
Remember, even with healthy food, size matters. And if you’re cooking for one, keep it that way. Don’t start eating for two. It’s okay to cook extras, which can make the next day’s meal prep even easier, but be sure to use them as leftovers only.
A single portion of lean meat, poultry or ﬁsh is 3.5 ounces, about the size of a deck of cards. A single portion of grains is about ½ cup. (You might want to measure this at first – it’s probably less than you think.) A serving of cooked vegetables is usually about ½ cup, too, but there are no restrictions here, unless you tend to go crazy adding butter or oil to your veggies. I always recommend starting the meal with a green salad and having a piece of fresh fruit for dessert.
Your freezer is your friend
To help keep it simple and worry less about fresh veggies and fruit spoiling, it’s okay to buy frozen. I personally love veggies that come in ready-to-steam bags. You don’t even need to cut them up – just pop them in a microwave and in minutes they’re ready to eat. With ﬁsh, meat or poultry you’ll probably buy more than one serving at a time, so it’s ﬁne to wrap and freeze single-serve portions and just defrost and cook them as needed. And if you’re feeling completely unmotivated about cooking, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional frozen dinner. Just read the Nutrition Facts label closely and keep saturated fats, sodium, and sugar to a minimum. Even with frozen entrees, I suggest adding a side serving of veggies or a green salad, since most of my patients complain that a frozen dinner doesn’t ﬁll them up.
Take the guilt out of take-out
Ordering from your favorite take-out place or picking up food from the prepared section at your market doesn’t mean settling for something unhealthy, and it sure can make life easier.
For take-out orders, specify how you want your food prepared. Opt for steamed, broiled or grilled entrees, and don’t forget to ask for veggies. Also request brown rice instead of white, or baked potato instead of mashed. And if anything comes with sauce, have it on the side.
If you’re choosing prepared foods from your local supermarket, be sure to create a well-balanced meal. And as I mentioned before, watch those portions. Learn to ask questions about how a dish is prepared, and if a lot of fat (butter, cream, cheese) is used, choose another item. I tell my patients that if the veggies are glistening, pass on them. It probably means that too much oil was used. And remember, if the serving is large, you don’t need to ﬁnish everything. Save some for lunch the next day.
Cooking for one shouldn’t be stressful but enjoyable. Take the time to relax and enjoy preparing and eating your food. Think of it as your personal time to de-stress from the day, to treat yourself right and to nourish your body. Before you know it, preparing food for yourself won’t be a chore at all, and you’ll enjoy the freedom and adventure of it!
Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a Registered Dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of “The Small Change Diet.” Gans’s expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio. Follow her on twitter @kerigans. For more information, please visit http://www.kerigansnutrition.com
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