PICTURE this: You're a young, single professional on your own. You come home after a long, hard day at work and head for the refrigerator. Will you cook? Probably not. ``The traffic's burned you out. You watch the news, go through your mail. Go to the Y or read the paper. ... Making a full meal is the last thing on my mind,'' says Scott Manning, 29, a single account executive for a promotions firm in Westmont, Ill.
Many singles can relate to Mr. Manning's attitude about cooking. What was once the ``typical bachelor'' image now holds true for male and female alike. Singles are into convenience. Some are slaves to the microwave. They want food that's fast, good-tasting, hassle-free, and inexpensive.
``Basically when you're single, eating is a nuisance,'' says Gaelynn Moseley, 24, an office manager in New York. She lists the food items in her apartment: ice cream, rice, salad dressing, and grapefruit juice. Many single professionals she knows make a habit of eating a late lunch so they can can just snack later, she says.
In fact, for most of the two dozen singles interviewed by the Monitor for this article, meal preparation just isn't a priority.
``Leftover spaghetti plus sauce plus microwave equals meal,'' says Chris Shields, 26, a painter in Westfield, N.J. ``Ah, yes - bagel and sea legs, then bagel and cream cheese,'' he says while surveying his refrigerator for future eats. ``I won't cook myself a meal at all,'' he says. ``It's a time thing.''
At the end of the day, singles only have themselves to please: No one is there to shake a finger at them if they eat ice cream for dinner.
When no one is watching over you, it's easy to fall into slovenly ways of living, says Edan Schappert, author of ``The Sophisticate's Guide to Living Alone Successfully,'' which is subtitled: ``Rule No. 1: Don't Eat Over the Sink.''
``A bowl of glob here, some crackers there ... [it's] easy to become lazy,'' she says. On the other hand, being single is ``a real luxury - you can eat any way you want, when you want, and what you want.''
Interestingly, when asked if they liked to cook, most singles said yes. What's more, of those who do take the time to cook for themselves regularly, more seem to be men than women these days.
Michael Stern, co-author of ``Roadfood and Goodfood'' and ``Real American Food,'' says that nowadays cooking is a skill for men. ``It could be a sign of a desirable man that he knows his way around the kitchen,'' he says.
Part of reason is simply that ``guys need to eat more,'' says Stephanie Elkind, a cooking instructor at Boston's Center for Adult Education. ``It sounds silly, but it's true. Women are perfectly content with a salad - and then ice cream or popcorn.'' She seen more men take her cooking classes - even the baking classes.
Andy Johnson, 24, a researcher at Boston's Children's Hospital, cooks a full dinner for himself nearly four times a week - chicken, fish, vegetable dishes. Working in a well-stocked kitchen, he says he enjoys ``switching gears from work.''
Why don't more singles cook? ``It's not necessarily the time - though often that's the main excuse people give,'' says Mr. Johnson, who shares a house with four other guys. ``A lot of people have just never cooked before and find it intimidating.''
Still, many singles interviewed say they're put off by cooking because of ``the effort.'' Singles often have to contend with leftovers on the brink of spoiling. Portioning is a pain. Freezing is a bother.
And nearly all singles agreed that the restaurant scene is too brutal on the budget. So what are the alternatives?
Here's what they said:
Snacking - cheese and crackers, cereal, popcorn, ice cream
Take out - pizza, Chinese, McDonald's, salad bars
Quick fix-its - soup, pasta, rice, omelettes
Three cheers (beeps) for the microwave! ``A lot of people - single or non-single - really go for those frozen dinners,'' says author Stern. Though they're not the way to go if you're watching your budget, ``they really are pretty good,'' he says. And ``as far as convenience, they are truly fabulous.''
To many, the idea of Chicken Teriyaki, enchiladas, or Pasta Primavera in a matter of minutes is a dream come true. (One single, who asked not to identified, said microwave dinners are the only reason he eats better than his dog.)
But others aren't willing to pay the price, or just aren't into what they see as prefab, over-packaged, over-processed food.
When it comes to cooking, usually what's easiest prevails. Boil some rice. Pop a potato in the microwave. Slip a cheese sandwich in the toaster oven.
How working singles eat at home is yet another study. Eat from the package; eat over the sink. If you don't take the time to cook, you surely don't want to clean anything.
Although Mr. Stern is married, he says he eats like a single person because his wife has a different schedule.
It's not unusual for him to down half a bag of nacho tortillas with dip. ``I'll have a few [chips] and decide which frozen dinner to microwave. But by the time I get up out of my chair, and the news is over, I have no room for anything but a half a pint of ice cream!'' (Stern is not alone: A half dozen single people interviewed admitted to having ice cream for dinner within the past week.)
``There's something deliciously hedonistic about taking that pint out of a freezer and going as far as you can go,'' says Stern, also a fan of popcorn (every day) and hot dogs. He adds that convenience foods - from snacks to packaged meals - have come a long way in the past 15 years with far better quality and choice.
To be sure, nearly all agree that cooking is at its best when it involves other people - roommates or friends.
At his former residence, Johnson and his housemates cooked dinner together nearly every night. ``It's cheaper and a better way to eat,'' he says, adding that if more single people got into the habit of cooking, they would probably stick with it and find that it doesn't take as much time as they think. He suggests collecting some simple recipes.