How to make healthy meals at home when you are eating alone.
After a hard day at work, few of us have the energy to stop at the market for fresh, healthy dinner ingredients and then whip up a three-course meal at home. Those who do are typically motivated less by their own needs and more by the needs of their hungry family members. But what about the single person who comes home to an empty house?
Well, unless you are Oprah Winfrey, who has the luxury of a personal chef, chances are you will resort to eating a frozen dinner in front of the television or settle for fast food from a nearby restaurant. After all, with no one there to prod you on to cook and clean up, who would blame you for taking the easy way out?
Cooking quick, healthy meals for one can be intimidating, especially if you do not consider yourself a wiz in the kitchen. But it is possible to make fast, fresh food right in the comfort of your own home. In fact, as a professional chef and a registered dietitian, I am often asked about my area of expertise, and I jokingly answer: “cuisine maison,” which in French means home cooking.
So how does a person cook healthy foods for one without spending a fortune? First off, you need to have at the ready the proper culinary tools, which are shown in “Basic Kitchen Equipment” on page 86.
Solo cooks also need to stock up on some culinary staples, such as the assorted dried herbs, spices and extracts listed in “Pantry Staples,” below.
When shopping for seasonings, it’s important to read labels so you can avoid high-sodium products, such as lemon pepper and seasoning salts. Other essential ingredients include all-purpose canola oil for cooking; olive oil for salad dressings; flour, sugar, baking soda, cornstarch and baking powder for baking; condiments, such as vinegar, mustard, catsup and low-fat mayo; rice and pasta; and canned beans, tomato products and tuna.
Once you are armed with the right tools and a stocked pantry, the next step is to learn how to use some of those intimidating herbs and spices. In 1973, Haw-thorn Books published one of the most influential guides in the culinary world: Elisabeth Rozin’s The Flavor-Principle Cookbook, which describes how easy it is to dress up a plain dish by simply adding a few different flavors. According to Rozin, “A flavor principle is the taste that results from a mixture of several flavoring ingredients that are used together frequently and consistently within a cuisine, a taste that can be abstracted and described apart from the basic foodstuffs the ingredients interact with.” For example, Japanese and Korean cuisines are similar in that both use a lot of soy sauce as a basic flavor; however, Japanese dishes traditionally feature sake and sugar, whereas Korean foods tend to rely more on garlic, brown sugar and sesame seeds. Mastering the flavor principles of various cuisines allows you to alter recipes to produce quick meals that are original, versatile and authentic—not to mention delicious!
Here are the flavor principles that form the basis of some popular ethnic cuisines:
Italian: olive oil, tomato and garlic
Japanese: soy sauce, sake and sugar
Korean: soy sauce, garlic, brown sugar and sesame seeds
Indonesian: soy sauce, garlic, molasses and chopped or ground peanuts
Chinese: soy sauce, sherry and ginger root
Near and Middle Eastern: lemon and parsley
Greek: lemon, oregano, dill and cinnamon
French: wine and herbs
Mexican: lime, tomato, cumin and chili
In some cases a flavor principle is very specific to a particular area. For example, many Scandinavian countries use sour cream as the basis for dishes, but some countries will mix in paprika, whereas others add mint, dill or caraway seeds to change the flavor slightly.
When cooking dinner for one, you can’t beat boneless chicken breasts, which are economical, quick and a good source of lean protein. But if you cook them the same way each time, dinnertime can become a bore. Here’s how to add a little zing to your next chicken meal.
Start by adding 2 teaspoons (tsp) of canola oil or a little cooking spray to a pan and placing it on medium heat. Add the chicken. A boneless breast about half an inch thick should cook for about 8 minutes (4 minutes on each side). Using an instant-read digital meat thermometer, remove the breast from the heat when the chicken reaches an internal temperature of 170 degrees Fahrenheit. (If you don’t have a thermometer, cook the chicken until there is no longer any pink juice when the breast is pierced.)
Now be inventive by adding one of these options for flavor:
- sautéed onions, peppers and/or mushrooms
- lemon (or lime) juice and fresh black pepper
- curry powder mixed into 3 tablespoons (tbs) plain yogurt
- sesame seeds (with chicken cooked in sesame oil instead of canola)
- 1/4 cup orange juice and 1 teaspoon (tsp) ground cumin
- 2 tbs balsamic vinegar
- canned tomatoes and 1 tsp (per chicken breast) of any of the following herbs: oregano, rosemary, dill, cilantro or thyme
- capers and chopped black olives
- scallions and/or garlic
- 2 tbs Dijon mustard or an Asian condiment, such as soy, hoisin, oyster or plum sauce
Cooking for one can be a challenge because most recipes are designed to feed at least four people. However, you can easily adjust many recipes simply by using half the amount of the listed ingredients. This will produce two meals: dinner that night and lunch the following day. The only factor you need to adjust when halving recipes is the cooking time, which you may need to shorten by a few minutes.
To preserve leftovers, store meals in square or rectangular containers that are the same size as the meals themselves. Containers that are too big introduce more oxygen, which can hasten spoilage and shorten shelf life. It is also better to separate leftover meats from veggies and place them in different containers.
Here are some other ways to extend the life of your meals for one:
- Place unused portions of cooked broccoli, cauliflower, green peppers and onions in the freezer.
- Choose fresh vegetables that will keep well for a week or more. Examples are beets, cabbage, carrots, celery, pars-nips, potatoes and winter squash. And always buy produce in season, to save money.
- If fresh veggies are not available, opt for frozen vegetables, which have less sodium than their canned counterparts. When buying frozen vegetables, don’t choose products with heavy seasonings or sauces and avoid boil-in-the-bag packages, which are usually higher in fat.
- If you need only a small amount of cheese, buy it from the deli department rather than in bulk.
- Use a grill instead of the oven or stovetop. That way you can cook only what you’ll eat and the mess will be minimal.
Stock up on these essential herbs, spices and extracts:
- bay leaf
- black pepper
- chili powder
- garlic powder
Meal #1: Smothered Boneless Chicken Breast, Narragansett Succotash and Spicy Greens for One
Smothered Boneless Chicken Breast
1 six-ounce boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 teaspoon (tsp) oil
1/2 cup water
1 large onion, sliced
1 green bell pepper, seeded, cored (with white pith removed) and sliced into strips
Heat oil on medium high in nonstick skillet, and add onions and pepper.
Cook for 4 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent vegetables from burning.
Add water. (Caution: Water will boil instantly and steam!)
Once water has evaporated and onions and peppers have slightly browned, remove veggies from the pan.
Add chicken to the pan (no need to clean the pan first).
Cook for about 4 minutes on each side or until internal temperature is 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Serve with succotash and spicy greens.
1 ten-ounce box of frozen succotash (mixture of corn and lima beans)
2 tsp canola oil
Cook succotash according to package directions.
Toss with oil.
1 ten-ounce box of frozen greens of your choice (e.g., collards, spinach or kale)
Cook greens according to package directions.
Douse with your favorite hot sauce.
Nutrient Analysis for Meal #1: 501 calories; 13 grams (g) total fat; 2 g saturated fat; 51 g carbohydrates; 51 g protein; 14 g fiber; 292 milligrams (mg) sodium; 99 mg cholesterol.
Outfit your kitchen with the following essential tools for success:
- heavy nonstick skillet for stir-frying
- vegetable steamer that inserts into a saucepan
- at least 2 saucepans
- a minimum of 3 knives (a paring knife for dicing and peeling; a larger one for cutting meats; and a serrated knife to slice bread and fruits)
- wooden or heat-resistant plastic spoons that won’t damage nonstick surfaces
- measuring cups and spoons
- wire whisk
- hand-held or small electric mixer
- plastic or wooden cutting board
- vegetable peeler
- can opener
- slotted spoon
- nonmetal spatula
- cookie sheet
- medium casserole dish
- microwave oven (for reheating leftovers)
- food processor (optional)
- toaster oven (optional)
Center-Cut Pork Chop With Lemon and Thyme,Tabasco®-Spiked Sweet Potatoes and Sugar Snap Peas for One
Center-Cut Pork Chop With Lemon & Thyme
1 four-ounce lean, center-cut pork chop 1 lemon, juiced, with seeds removed (about the size of a deck of cards) 1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp flour 2 tbs water
1 tsp vegetable oil salt and pepper to taste
Spray nonstick skillet with cooking spray, and heat on medium; then add pork chop.
Cook for 5 minutes, and then turn chop over and cook for another 5 minutes.
Remove pork chop from pan, and add oil and flour to the juices left in the pan.
Add lemon juice and dried thyme, salt and pepper if desired, along with 2 tbs water.
Stir until sauce reaches boiling point, then add pork chop back into the pan and turn off heat. After 2–3 minutes, place pork chop on a plate and pour sauce over. Serve with sweet potatoes and sugar snap peas.
Tabasco-Spiked Mashed Sweet Potatoes
1/2 pound sweet potatoes (about one potato)
water for boiling (enough to cover potatoes while cooking)
Tabasco sauce to taste
Peel and chop potato into 1-inch cubes.
Add potato cubes to water, and boil 8–10 minutes or until tender.
Drain potatoes in colander and add them back to pan.
Add Tabasco sauce to taste, and mash using potato masher or large fork.
Sugar Snap Peas
1 box or bag of sugar snap peas (without butter sauce)
Cook peas according to package directions.
Nutrient Analysis for Meal #2: 533 calories; 13 g total fat; 4 g saturated fat; 77 g carbohydrates; 28 g protein; 12 g fiber; 492 mg sodium; 52 mg cholesterol.
Here are two cookbooks that should be in everyone’s culinary library.
How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food by Mark Bittman, food columnist for The New York Times (Wiley Publishing 1998)
The New Food Lover’s Companion: Comprehensive Definitions of Nearly 6000 Food, Drink, and Culinary Terms (3rd ed.) by Sharon Tyler Herbst (Barron’s Educational Series 2001)