The joy of cooking for one.
On a recent trip to visit my lovely friend Jess in Brighton, we got to discussing some of the ways single people (like both of us) sabotage their self-care by not cooking for themselves. How cooking, eating and indeed, enjoying a home-cooked meal for one, is an act of self-love and care and that your culinary skills shouldn't be reserved for cooking for others. I suggested she write a blog about it as it fits so perfectly with The Kindfulness Effect ethos.....here it is! And it's fabulous...just like her!
‘Urrrgghhh, I can never be bothered to cook just for me.’
Was a more depressing phrase ever uttered? Shuffling around the kitchen in worn-out slippers, forlornly stirring a saucepan of baked beans, tipping them out onto a piece of bland, chewy toast. Hoovering up my flavourless creation without really noticing it, glued to repeats of Frasier. Is this how I thought my life would turn out? Single at 36 after a messy break-up, existing on a variety of beige foodstuffs? Something had to change.
And something did. Fast forward two years, a new home in a new city. Still me, still single, still in the same slippers. But now armed with a diploma in nutrition, a mended heart and a hell of a lot more self-compassion.
Cooking for yourself, properly cooking, is the ultimate act of self-love. I’ll wager most of you make some attempts to exercise, get enough sleep and look after your mental health. Why then, do single people so often neglect to feed themselves properly? Numerous people I know, regardless of age or gender, just don’t make the effort. ‘I’ll just bung a frozen pizza in the oven.’ ‘Just a microwaveable korma for me tonight.’ ‘Last night I just had a tomato’ (that last one was actually me circa 2017 when I couldn’t be bothered to go to the shops). Just, just, just. What a sad little word. Aren’t we worth more than ‘just’?
Living alone is not always easy. Financially, us single folk are at a significant disadvantage. And there’s always that one dress you can’t zip up yourself without a second pair of hands or that bracelet you can’t fasten. But for me, that’s where the list of doom and gloom ends. Living alone affords me enormous amounts of freedom and joy that I really would struggle to give up. And the greatest pleasure of my single existence? Cooking. Cooking JUST for me. I love it and my mission here is to make you love it too.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about 7-course taster menus every night, or Henry the Eighth-style banqueting. This is not about ‘treating yourself’ (bleurgh how I hate that expression). This is carving out the time in your day to source and prepare nutritious, tasty meals that will nourish you and remind you that you deserve to be looked after, regardless of your relationship status or living arrangements. And this is where Kindfulness comes into play, and why it resonates so much with my feelings about nutrition. The idea of cooking as a Kindful act - an act of self-love and compassion. Treating yourself with the same care as you would your family or friends. Bringing awareness to what you eat, how it makes you feel and where that food comes from. Gratitude - both for the planet and people that provided your food, and for yourself for taking the time and effort to prepare it.
The meals you prepare don’t need to be decadent or expensive.
Here are my 3 golden rules for cooking for one:
1) To quote the great food writer Michael Pollan; eat food. Real food. Stop it with the processed crap. It tastes awful and you don’t know what’s in it and it makes your soul sad.
2) Colour colour colour. I know you’ve heard it before, but it really is the best way to make sure you get all the nutrients you need. I like to challenge myself when I go to the supermarket to fill my trolley with an item for each colour of the rainbow (tunelessly singing ‘RED AND YELLOW AND PINK AND GREEN’ and attracting many an alarmed look in the process).
3) Eat stuff you like. A revelation, I know. But so often people eat what they think they should eat, rather than what they enjoy. And that’s how food becomes an enemy, and that’s how people develop an unhealthy relationship to cooking and nutrition. If it’s real food and if it’s colourful, then it’s probably giving you what you need in terms of nutrition. And that’s good enough.
Overcoming the barriers:
A lot of people tell me that the main reason they don’t properly cook for themselves is because of portion sizes. They don’t want to be wasteful, nor do they want to have 32 tonnes of curry in their freezer for the next decade. I would suggest that the rule of thumb for this is to cook two or three portions - enough for your evening meal and a couple of lunches. Any less than that and it runs the risk of feeling a bit ‘extravagant.’ Any more than that and your meals for the week start to look a little samey. I felt a real surge of pride and pleasure the other day at work when I opened up my new perfectly-sized little Tupperware and reheated a delicious portion of leftover Sichuan dan dan noodles. Genuine joy! (Although, to be fair, I probably get more joy from Tupperware than is acceptable in modern society).
Price is also a factor that deters people from cooking for themselves. And while I’d love to be loading my trolley with half of Harrod’s food hall, I recognise that this is not always (or ever) feasible. But hearty soups, warming stews, spicy curries (can you tell I’m writing this in September?), zingy stir-fries... these can be extremely cost-effective meals. And even the most meagre of dishes can easily be enhanced with a sprig of fresh herbs, some chilli flakes, a drizzle of oil (sesame is my current favourite), a handful of seeds, a pinch of sea salt or a dollop of hummus.
A lack of time can also get in the way of cooking yourself something proper, especially in our busy modern lives full of work / exercise / socialising / Netflix / online shopping for Tupperware. And I get it, sometimes you just can’t be arsed. And to this I offer a couple of suggestions. First of all, cooking can be an incredibly calming experience - an opportunity to be truly mindful. Switch off from everything else, notice the sensations of chopping and slicing, the sounds of sizzling and bubbling, the aromas, the colours. See this as your time to be present and aware. I know that I often find myself complaining that I can’t find the time for a proper meditation practice - why not kill two birds with one stone (or save two spiders with one glass - a more Kindful alternative)? Another tip that might be helpful, if you know you are going to have a busy or stressful week, is to pre-prepare. Do a big shop, put aside a couple of hours for chopping and measuring, and pop it all in the fridge or freezer for quick throw-together meals that you don’t have to think about too much. Make it work for you.
I know life can be tricky and cooking for yourself is an easy thing to neglect in favour of a ready meal or a solitary tomato, but I urge you to see cooking for one in a different light. Give it a try for a week and see how it makes you feel to have improved nutrition, tastier meals and a greater sense of self-worth. And remember that cooking ‘just’ for you is just as important. By Jessica Conway.
Jess is a teacher, writer and nutrition and lifestyle coach, living in Brighton.
Her interest in nutrition comes from years of trying to counterbalance a family history of heart disease and an insatiable passion for pasta and wine.
In her writing and coaching, she aims to provide well-researched, achievable advice for those struggling with their diet, sleep, activity or energy levels. She believes that food is all about joy, and her goal is to help people experience that joy, while giving their bodies what they need to stay healthy. For nutrition and lifestyle advice you can find Jess at www.libranutritionandlifestyle.co.uk