Cooking for one

A growing number of Americans are warding off the stigma of preparing meals solo.

On most nights, Jo Anne Sitjar, a 40something construction project manager who lives alone in Glendale, Calif., faces a familiar question – to cook or not to cook?

"I usually deal with it by eating out," she says. If she's not dining with friends, she'll pick up takeout sushi or citrus-soaked grilled chicken from Pollo Loco – "the lesser of the fast-food evils." The costs, she acknowledges, add up, and the fare is not always as healthy as she'd like.

But eating at home presents its own challenges. "I did the crockpot thing for a while, but the food stays around forever and I got tired of it," Ms. Sitjar says. "I did the Lean Cuisine thing too, but that's really dull, and microwaved food has too much sodium."

These dilemmas ring true to many who live by themselves, which, according to census statistics, now compose more than a quarter of American households – outnumbering those made up of married couples with children. Since few people can afford to eat out every night, a growing number of cooking-for-one classes and solo-serving cookbooks is addressing the shift in demographics, offering not only practical advice but also a sense of camaraderie when it comes to fending for oneself in the kitchen.

"People have a psychological block about cooking for themselves," says Toni Lydecker, a cooking instructor and the author of "Serves One: Simple Meals to Savor When You're on Your Own." "They tend not to bother, instead of thinking of being alone as an opportunity to eat what they want."

Ms. Lydecker and other cooking-for-one instructors and writers take as their starting point the manifold possibilities of preparing meals solo. Having no one but oneself to consider, they say, gives one freer rein in the kitchen and greater license to experiment.

"It's the most creative type of cooking," says Judith Jones, Julia Childs's longtime editor at Knopf and the author of the forthcoming "The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food." "So many people live alone, but don't give themselves permission to make a nice meal that's just for them. You can buy something like veal that you wouldn't necessarily think of as being for one person and have scallopini one night and a nice tenderloin another night."

The prospect of preparing a veal dish might strike fear in the hearts of those ill-acquainted with their kitchens, but teachers of popular cooking-for-one classes around the country are encouraging culinary novices to get creative in different ways. Chief among these is jettisoning traditional notions of food preparation, and along with them, their cookbooks. Another is having students forage in their cupboards and supplementing what they find with fresh ingredients such as fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The idea is that by starting with some low-pressure experimentation, students gradually learn to feel competent behind the counter.

"Americans are realizing they can take back their kitchens and cook for themselves in a free and easy way," says Monika Reti, the founder and owner of Hipcooks, a Los Angeles-based cooking school.

Ms. Reti teaches her classes basic knife skills and has students explore the smells and textures of the foods they cook with. Taking time to enjoy the process inspires people to savor the final product even when they are the only ones who will eat it, she believes. Sitjar, who has taken the Hipcooks' cooking-for-one class, says that giving attention to small details like the aroma of sautéing garlic puts her in the mood to set the table and sit down for dinner, rather than "wolfing it down in five minutes standing at the kitchen sink."

Still, for many, the idea that cooking – and especially eating – should be social endeavors keeps the "psychological block" intact. Food marketing strategies are partly to blame for this, says Andrew Urbanetti, the chef de cuisine at Lumiere restaurant in Newton, Mass. and the teacher of a cooking-for-one class in Cambridge. "It's a shame that some commercials make eating alone seem like it's come down to a desperation meal, rather than something to be enjoyed," he says. He likens a part of his classes to a "therapy session," in which he tries to "diffuse the negativity and stress" that students might associate with cooking alone.

Although instructors like Mr. Urbanetti and Reti are helping usher in new attitudes about cooking and eating solo, they have their work cut out for them. Most recipes still serve four to six, and grocery shopping is still easier and more economical when it's for multiple people.

"At the supermarket, there's not a whole lot you can do for one," says Sandra Lee, host of the Food Network's popular Semi-Homemade show and author of the Semi-Homemade cookbook series. "When you do find single servings, they're more expensive because of packaging costs."

But there are ways to work around this. Rather than avoid buying meat, for instance, Ms. Lee suggests asking a butcher to cut and repackage it. "Sometimes you'll see one really nice steak in a package of four. You can ask for it to be divided up."

Putting the time and effort into such strategies is well worth the effort, she says. The pace of modern life simply means eating alone sometimes, even if one lives with other people or has a healthy social network.

"Downtime alone has become a luxury," she says. "When you're by yourself, you can reflect, regroup, cook at your own pace. You don't have to think about anyone but yourself. If you want to have tacos four nights a week, you can."

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