"What's for dinner?" These three simple words can stir up many feelings when cooking for one. Maybe you dread the chore of cooking because it feels like a lot of work for just one person. Or maybe you simply don't know what to cook. Sounds familiar? You're not alone. I tell my patients to think of cooking for one as an opportunity. You're in the driver's seat and can choose to cook whatever you like without worrying about pleasing others. And you can make sure your meal is healthy, because who better to care for yourself than you? So get to cooking, and follow these tips:
Keep it simple. This is my favorite motto. Following a recipe with more than eight ingredients that takes over an hour to prepare? That's not keeping it simple. Balance your plate solely on 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 ground spice or herb. Add a whole grain such as brown rice, and take advantage of the fast-cooking, microwaveable rice pouches, or try whole-wheat couscous that cooks in only five minutes. Lastly, you can steam or microwave almost any veggie, such as green beans, asparagus, or broccoli, which should take up half your plate. You now have a perfectly simple, healthy dinner in less than 30 minutes.
Watch portions. Remember, even with healthy meals, size matters. If you are cooking for one, keep it that way; don't start eating for two (or three). It's fine to make extra, which actually makes meal prep for the next day easier, but use it 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 a 1/2 cup. A serving of cooked vegetables is also about a 1/2 cup, but no restrictions here, unless you tend to go crazy with adding butter or oil to your veggies. I always recommend starting your meal with a green salad and enjoying a piece of fresh fruit for dessert.
Befriend your freezer. Buying frozen fruits and veggies, which can be just as good as the fresh variety, may help you keep it simple and prevent food from spoiling, I love the vegetables that come in the ready-to-steam bags. No need to cut the veggies; you just pop them in the microwave, and they're ready to serve in a few minutes. When you buy your fish, meat or poultry, you might get more than one serving, so feel free to wrap and freeze single servings, and just defrost and cook when you're ready. If you're feeling particularly unmotivated to cook, there's nothing wrong with an occasional frozen dinner. Just read the nutrition label closely, and keep saturated fats, sodium and sugar to a minimum. I suggest adding a side of veggies and green salad, because most of my patients can attest that a frozen dinner doesn't fill them up.
Take the guilt out of takeout. Ordering from your favorite takeout place or buying from the prepared-food section at the market doesn't mean you're settling for something unhealthy, and it sure can make your life easier. For takeout orders, specify how you want your food prepared. Opt for steamed, broiled or grilled entrees, and don't forget to order veggies. Request brown rice instead of white, and choose a baked potato over mashed. If anything comes with a sauce, have it on the side. If choosing prepared foods from your local supermarket, create a well-balanced meal, and watch portion sizes. Learn to ask questions about how a dish is prepared. If a lot of fat is used via butter, cream or cheese, choose another item. And those shiny, glistening veggies? I tell my patients to pass on them, as that often means the veggies are covered with oil. Lastly, if your serving is large, remember that you don't need to finish everything; save some for tomorrow's lunch.
Cooking for one should be enjoyable—not stressful. Relax as you prepare and eat your food. Use this personal time to de-stress from your day, treat yourself right and nourish your body. Before you know it, cooking for one might seem like a dream come true.
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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.