Nutrition: Stay healthy at your table for one

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Talking to my siblings, I occasionally wonder if we grew up in the same home. However, one detail we unanimously recall is dinner at a set time, and barring a tornado warning, we were expected to be there.

Dinner was a big deal. We each had our assigned place at the table, and to this day I remember who sat next to me and who was across from me. When company arrived, an extension was added, and the two littlest brothers sat perched on a piano bench placed at the end. We always seemed to have room for more.

For a growing share of Americans, the dinner table, if existing at all, has shrunk dramatically. Whether by choice or circumstance, more people live alone and cook (or order) for only one.

Households of a single occupant have increased gradually from 17% in 1969 to 28% in 2019, encompassing millennials through baby boomers and beyond. Eating alone is also more common due to the pandemic, and/or conflicting schedules. Furthermore, the availability of food at anytime has morphed into eating all the time, contributing to the downtrend of meals in favor of an increase in snacks.

Meal options that don’t require cooking have never been more plentiful. Take-out of every kind of cuisine is obtainable not only from restaurants, but also delis, cafeterias or even convenience stores. And complete meals, including dessert portioned for one, line grocery shelves and freezers. On a related note, I’ve heard from many folks living alone that visiting a grocery store might be their only opportunity in a day to talk to someone in person.

Conveniences aside, many desire a home-cooked meal, and the simpler, the better. Other characteristics, such as less sodium, may be vitally important and difficult to achieve with many restaurant meals. Cost and excessive packaging are also frequent challenges with outsourcing food. But cooking at home, especially for one, presents hurdles, too. Such obstacles are expressed as common laments: “I don’t know what to make” or “I make too much and end up eating the same thing over and over” and finally, “I hate to waste food.”

Fortunately, there are many helpful suggestions for creating delicious meals for one. From preparation tips to making use of leftovers, tasty and economical solutions abound. Here are but a few:

  • Take advantage of the grocery meat counter, where single servings of fish, cuts of meat and poultry are readily available.
  • Experiment with an entirely new item to extend your food horizon. Even if unsuccessful, making only one serving is an adventure and very forgiving.
  • It’s not all or nothing when deciding between convenience and cooking from scratch. Purchase a protein such as grilled salmon or chicken and add your own sides, or vice-versa.
  • Repurpose fresh foods. Spinach may be great in a salad and a few days later work just as well sautéed and incorporated into an omelet.
  • Similarly, roasted carrots, onions, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts may accompany chicken, fish or a pork chop for one meal, and combine with a mixed green salad or pasta at another.
  • Leftover vegetables, beans or rice can be added to soups, stews, casseroles, or (with a little cheese) quesadillas.
  • Prepare a bag of fresh vegetables in a variety of ways: stir-fried, steamed, roasted or braised.
  • Try the healthy food bowl trend to assemble appetizing, imaginative meals and use leftovers at the same time.
  • Purchase fresh fruit such as pears, oranges, grapefruit, bananas and apples in 1–3 servings, rather than an entire bag or bunch. Apples too soft for eating in hand? Slice one up and pan fry for a quick side dish.
  • For another way to use up extra fruit, try the banana bread muffin recipe below, which makes use of one very ripe banana.
  • Make a homemade microwave mug dessert (chocolate pudding or white cake with sprinkles, for example) for a not-too-large portion of a sweet treat.
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables in bags allow for pouring out individual servings without waste.
  • For best-kept freshness, store a whole loaf of bread in the freezer, not refrigerator or counter.
  • Stock up on staples as part of an emergency plan for what to make when the refrigerator is close to empty. These versatile ingredients include: black beans, kidney beans, lentils, salsa, rice, pasta, canned tuna and salmon, peanut butter, stewed tomatoes, tomato soup, mushrooms, corn, peas. (See recipe below as one example of using these items). Fill your pantry with reasonably sized portions. Check food dates to assure the best quality product.
  • Essentials for the refrigerator may include milk — perhaps a brand with extended shelf life, as well as eggs, a variety of fresh fruit, yogurt, bagged fresh greens, and cheese — but not too much.
  • Revisit tried-and-true methods such as preparing extra servings of entrees for freezing, but up the game a bit. There is a world of very attractive little (individual) casserole dishes and matching covers. Look for descriptions indicating they’re safe for microwave, dishwasher and oven for freezer-to-table convenience.
  • For fun, invest in one new item for your kitchen such as a small crockpot, toaster oven, immersion blender, small bread maker or instant pot. Try their accompanying recipes.
  • Switch typical breakfast and lunch items for dinner. Breakfast at dinnertime could be French toast, ham or precooked bacon and fruit.
  • Have a large salad for dinner. Toss in hard-boiled egg slices, nuts and garbanzo beans for protein.
  • Making a big batch of chili? Share with a friend who has similar food preferences.

Though it is but a singular place setting, attractiveness enhances a meal. Make it a habit to sit for meals rather than stand at the counter or grab-and-go. Create a little ambiance by using the good china, a quality napkin and placemat, and maybe a candle or two. You deserve it. Dinner is a big deal, still.

Banana Bread Muffin

Has the texture of banana bread, but muffin-shaped. Use three 2-ounce ramekins or simply a muffin tin. Makes 3 servings.

¼ cup all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ cup very ripe, mashed banana

2 Tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar

1 Tablespoon butter or margarine, melted

1 egg yolk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 Tablespoons chopped walnuts for topping, if desired

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray inside of muffin tin or ramekins with non-stick spray. Mix flour, baking soda and cinnamon together in a bowl. Using another bowl, mash banana with a fork and mix with sugar. Add butter or margarine, egg yolk and vanilla to banana mixture. Add to the dry ingredients and mix (don’t over mix). Distribute batter evenly into 3 muffins. Top with chopped walnuts, if desired. Bake at 350 degrees for 20–25 minutes until lightly browned.

Nutrition per muffin (without nuts): 161 calories; 27g carbohydrate; 2g protein; 5g fat; 144mg sodium.

African Peanut Soup with Dark Red Beans

Makes 4 servings.

1 tsp. canola or olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1½ tsp. curry powder

¼ tsp. cumin

One 10 oz. can reduced sodium condensed tomato soup (such as Campbell’s Healthy Choice)

2 cups reduced sodium chicken broth

2 Tablespoons creamy peanut butter

1 cup salt-free red kidney beans rinsed and drained

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Heat oil in saucepan and sauté onion until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in curry powder and cumin. Add condensed tomato soup and broth. Bring mixture to a simmer, stirring constantly. Stir in peanut butter. Use a wire whisk to distribute evenly. Add beans and heat to simmer for about 5 minutes. Add chopped cilantro, saving a little for garnish.

Nutrition per serving of soup, about 1.5 cups: 185 calories; 26g carbohydrate; 9g protein; 5g fat; 362mg sodium.

Mary W. Zbaracki is a dietitian for St. Luke's.

Mary W. Zbaracki is a dietitian for St. Luke’s.

Mary W. Zbaracki, MPH, RD, LD, CDCES, CNSC, is a St. Luke’s Clinical Dietitian.

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