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Five Ways to Find the Joy of Cooking for One

I derive a lot of comfort from cooking. Bringing together separate ingredients to create a mingling of enticing flavors and aromas is soothing, inspirational even. And when I set a plate of delicious food willed by my two hands in front of a grateful dinner guest, few things feel more gratifying. So how does someone who enjoys cooking and exploring new recipes regularly end up eating variations of the same meal and spending as little time as possible in the kitchen?

Like many people, I rarely put in as much effort when cooking for myself. But whether we’re cooking for one or cooking for a crowd, shouldn’t the food itself provide us with the same kind of pleasure? In fact, when considering the benefits of preparing a meal for ourselves, it can be surprisingly more satisfying than the alternative.

The Joy of (Solitary) Cooking
As much as I enjoy hosting dinner parties, they aren’t stress-free events, and I spend plenty of time planning every detail. Even once dinner is served, I feel as though I can’t truly appreciate the meal because I’m wondering how well it’s going over with my guests. When we make a meal in solitude, we only have one person’s tastes to worry about—and since we already know what we like and don’t, it shouldn’t be too hard to accommodate those tastes. We can fully absorb the meal instead of worrying about someone else’s review.

Along those same lines, when we prepare food for ourselves, we can eat whatever we want. For example, if there’s an ingredient you love but your partner can’t stand, his or her business trip is the perfect time to experiment. Similarly, we can cook as much or as little as we feel like, and the meal can be as varied or monotonous, as colorful or monochromatic as our desire dictates. When we cook alone, we’re free to be completely selfish. How often can we say that outside of the kitchen?

Embracing the One-Pot, One-Bowl Method
Eating exactly what we’re in the mood for, balanced or not, is one of the best reasons to embrace solitary cooking. When asked what they enjoy cooking for themselves, most people mentioned various one-pot meals, such as fried rice or casseroles. One friend cited pasta with canned tuna, grated parmesan cheese, and olive oil as her go-to dish. Mine is scrambled eggs with spinach, mushrooms, and bell peppers smothered in ketchup and black pepper. Another person questioned also prefers eggs, but in a bowl with black beans, salsa, and cheese. (Perhaps eggs are the solitary person’s staple?) These are the kind of meals that are almost too simple to serve to others, but far too enjoyable to remove from our meal rotation.

Sometimes, our most desired meals are simple affairs, comprised of dishes requiring minimal preparation—a bowl of cereal or a sampler plate of crackers, cheeses, and dips. Meals like those are fun and hit the spot once in a while, but if they’re making nightly appearances for lack of motivation to do anything else, that can be a problem. Too often, if we don’t have anyone else to cook for, we assume that whatever we eat should require as little effort as possible. This is the wrong way to think! We all deserve a nice, enjoyable meal whether we have company or not. The key is learning to love the entire process—both cooking and eating alone.

Learn the Tricks of the Trade
After a long day at work or school, how do we avoid succumbing to an attack of laziness and step into the kitchen, stirring spoons blazing?

1. Buy quality ingredients.
Since we’re only cooking for ourselves, we can afford to spend a little more on better cuts of meat, nice cheese, or fresh herbs. Having an exciting array of ingredients is exactly the kind of catalyst for cooking we need sometimes.

2. Kick out the jams.
Mincing garlic and boiling water is much more fun when it’s done to a great soundtrack. Bust out a favorite CD or turn on the MP3 player and dance up a storm while dicing vegetables.

3. Explore new, exciting recipes.
To get meal ideas, check out cookbooks, food blogs, cooking magazines, and or have friends send you a few recommended recipes. Find a dish that incorporates all of your favorite ingredients or one that you’re curious about but your friends and family members would be reluctant to try.

4. Make big quantities for leftovers.
There will be nights that cooking sounds about as appealing as walking on glass. That’s why, when inspiration hits, making bigger portions is a good idea. Taking the time to make a huge batch of lasagna or stew and freezing the rest ensures many warm, appetizing meals in the future. And knowing you will be well-fed and happy for many nights to come makes cooking seem even more rewarding.

5. Set the table for one.
No more eating out of cartons or immediately turning on the TV. Part of recognizing that we’re worth the fuss of preparing a nice meal is also being comfortable with our own company. Use a favorite plate, light some candles, and concentrate on the delicious dinner you created rather than distracting yourself from it.

To cultivate a love of cooking alone, all we need are the right tools—the most important one being a positive state of mind. When we learn to view cooking and eating alone as an opportunity to treat ourselves nicely—eating a meal only we can truly appreciate and enjoying it in peace, for example—the time we spend in the kitchen starts to seem less burdensome and more necessary for our emotional well-being.

So, what are you making for yourself today?