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The Single Woman's Guide To Cooking For One

The hardest part of living alone may be eating alone.

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Hispanic woman cooking with digital tablet
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You’re told a lot of things about living alone: You’ll become a slob; it will bring out your worst tendencies; you’ll start talking to yourself; you’ll never make your bed again. But no one told me the hardest part of living alone would be eating alone. I don’t mean setting the table for one, lighting the candles for ambience and sitting down to a conversation with no one. I’m talking about the mechanics of it: buying, prepping, cooking and eating just the right amount of food every day.

When you live alone, every trip to the greenmarket involves fending off vendors’ propositions to buy more and spend less. There are $4 pints of sour cherries, or three pints for $10! (But what will you do with three pints?) There’s the perishable organic salsa at $7 for one jar or $10 for two! (But what will you do with two?) Then there are the bronzed sourdough loaves that could easily feed a family, but aren’t sold in halves. Every trip becomes a reminder that these deals are wasted on you; barring significant advances in refrigeration technology, the extra food will simply go to waste.

National statistics show that more people are living alone for longer. Whether by choice or necessity, they’re committing to their own homes before they commit to marriage. That’s a heck of a lot of meals eaten alone. A few recent articles have suggested that grownups still need classes in adulting, or at least that they should attend workshops on plumbing, electrical wiring and general handyman tasks. But hardly anyone offers to teach you how to cook when you live alone.

I knew precious little about this world when I was thrown into it in my mid-30s, my marriage of seven years over. I looked back on my life in the kitchen and realized there had never been a time I’d been cooking for one. I had gone straight from my parents’ house to college, to a succession of roommates, and from there to a live-in boyfriend who became my husband.

For him, I’d made extravagant cookbook meals that spanned the globe: Japanese ramen with homemade broth, Indian chutney chicken and samosas, hand-folded Chinese dumplings. I was determined to show off my cooking skills, with the predictable result — as my projects got more ambitious and time-consuming — I grew more annoyed that I was the only one putting dinner on the table.

Suddenly, the act of grocery shopping that had given me such joy was merely step one on the road to resentment. But two years ago, when I found myself not-so-suddenly single again (the decision to leave was mine — and had only 10 percent to do with the kitchen imbalance), I realized I missed the daily ritual of preparing an evening meal.

That’s when reality kicked in. How would I relearn to cook for myself, in a culture increasingly insistent on antiwaste practices and eco-friendliness, when every deal I came across was geared toward a family of four? Like so many privileges in life, this is not something we think about until it’s staring us in the face. Food shopping solo would require some planning and a lot of willpower, but I resolved to master it just as easily as I’d mastered it for two.

The strategies I’ve come up with remind me of a Rubik’s Cube, with mix-and-match colors on six sides. Planning my weekly schedule involves holding multiple bits of information in my head simultaneously while subtly twisting them until they align. How many meals will I spend out versus at home this week? How much of this bag of pea sprouts or clutch of potatoes will I use on each of those meals? What will happen if, god forbid, I accept a last-minute invitation for dinner out on a night I planned on using up the zucchini? On the other hand, great excuses abound for dates I don’t want to go on: “I can’t tonight; I have to stay in and sauté my oyster mushrooms.”

These days, my heart quickens for market stalls offering loose vegetables — the kind you can self-select, bag and weigh — because I know I’ll be paying only for what I need. What am I to do with a bunch of leeks when all I need is one? How to create a mixed salad from several heads of lettuce before they all go bad? My worst temptation is the fragrant bunches of fresh herbs, which call out to me even when I need only one sprig. Gather ye armloads while ye may; all that cilantro is going in the compost bin four days after taco night.

So if you see me at my local farmers market, frozen in place and clutching a bunch of turnips steadfastly, like some night watchman with a swinging lantern, you’ll know why. I’m not experiencing some divine cucumber revelation; I’m merely running recipe scripts in my head, trying to think of not just one, but three or four uses next week for the perishable produce I’m holding.

This newfound talent for cooking alone has led to an unexpected side effect, which many newly single women may recognize: an increased confidence in my own skills, made stronger by the fact that there’s no one else around to recognize them.

The most important part of my solo cooking experience, then, has become the moment I sit down for the meal and take a bite. That’s when you’ll hear me murmuring faint praise for myself, or letting out an expletive of surprise as I munch away happily. After all, I may be dining solo, but I still need to hear a compliment now and then. And when you live alone, you have to be your own biggest fan.