When I first moved out of my marital house, my Italian friend Mariah asked me if I was cooking in my new place. I said, “No. It’s too overwhelming.” She knew how important food had always been to me—cooking it and eating it. The fact that I wasn’t cooking was a sign that I hadn’t really settled into being on my own. I wasn’t “owning” my new life in my new home.
She was right. When we are stressed, it is easy for our healthy habits to go out the window. The tendency after a breakup can be to eat nothing but easy comfort foods. This can be great in small doses, but as we’ve probably all discovered, it doesn’t feel like a treat when you indulge every day. There’s a joy in good health, and in cooking for one. For me, learning to love cooking alone was a slow process, and one that let me explore, experiment and indulge in ways I couldn’t always do when married. Cooking for myself was an empowering way to take back my own vitality.
But how to get started? Food isn’t just about nutrition, but also joy. One way to relish the pleasure of cooking for one is to add healthy, fun foods into your meal planning.
Here are 6 ways I found to have fun cooking for one.
1. Slow cook for comfort.
My friend Mariah offered me a recipe for a simple, homemade spaghetti sauce as a way to start cooking again. She said there were a million ways I could make it my own, and I have ever since. It’s not an all-the-time dish because it takes so long. You can’t make homemade meat sauce if you have a hungry spouse waiting to be fed. But now, voila! Now there is no impatient spouse telling you that 11 pm is too late for dinner. Old-fashioned spaghetti sauce is about the process. When I make this, I’m settling in for the night. I might eat at eleven. Maybe twelve. I’ll be chopping, stirring, simmering and tasting four hours. I’ll definitely have food left over for the week. It’s like a warm, hearty gift to myself.
It’s also social; I can have friends over, feel that I’ve impressed them, and then send them home with leftovers.
2. It’s your house; smell it up if you want to.
My husband always complained about the smell of Brussels sprouts; now I just love to stink up the house whenever possible with these super-healthy, super-versatile, tiny cabbages. If I have time, I roast and add parmesan cheese and olive oil. If rushed, I heat up a microwaveable bag of frozen Brussels sprouts, top with light shredded cheese, some Earth Balance, and hot sauce. I’ve got an instant, stinky, delectable treat.
Inna Topiler, a New Jersey-based clinical nutritionist and founder of Complete Nutrition and Wellness in Hoboken, says that sulfur is what makes these greens so satisfyingly stinky. “Leafy green vegetables contribute much-needed oxygen to the blood,” she says, but they also can upset sensitive stomachs. If you can’t take the sulfur, have Brussels in moderation and intersperse them with other vegetables like carrots. Topiler advises adding a protein in the form of lean meat, a half cup of starch, and a fat such as hummus or guacamole to stave off hunger later.
Cruciferous vegetables also produce gas (as those of us who eat a lot of them know). If gas is a problem, cook first, and/or switch to other dark greens like Swiss chard to bring oxygen to your blood.
Vinegar and greens is another stinky favorite of mine. I get a huge bag of kale, collards, or whatever is on sale, steam, then toss in some salt, pepper, cayenne, sesame oil, and rice vinegar. Then I eat it all myself. It feels warm and comforting but also light, and it provides iron. Add almond cheese for a protein. (Try Lisanti, found at Whole Foods.)
3. Get your greens straight from the box.
Salad doesn’t sound fun, but what is fun is eating it right out of the box. I can eat a huge box of spring mix in one sitting. It’s especially good with a yogurt-based dressing. I also love a high-omega, vegan blue cheese dressing made by Follow Your Heart. Now that I’m single, I can get dressing all over my face without anyone watching. The best part? No salad bowl means no cleanup.
Topiler suggests add a protein, so you’re not popping open another box ten minutes later.
4. Top it off with instant dessert.
One of my favorite, super-easy comfort foods is frozen berries topped with melted chocolate chips. (I love Trader Joe’s mixed frozen berries and the store's chocolate chips.) Place berries in a bowl. In a separate bowl, pour a bunch of semi-sweet chocolate chips. Cover the bowl, microwave for about a minute, stir, and pour on the frozen fruit. The chocolate will harden on the bottom, while the top will remain warm and creamy, and start defrosting the frozen berries. It’s perfect.
If you want to satisfy your sweet tooth without severely spiking your insulin—which can put stress on your adrenal glands and, in turn, make you feel more stressed out, as Topiler explains—add a protein and fat. No, you don’t have to dip turkey slices into chocolate, but you can add a dollop of yogurt or some slivered almonds. Or try a different chocolate dessert, such as chocolate mousse, and add avocado for fat, and berries for texture.
Yogurt is another easy, breezy, healthy dessert. It sounds simple and boring, but it’s packed with protein, and a small but effective amount of probiotics. If you feel unhealthy from stress, lack of sleep or anxiety, grab a giant container of Greek yogurt and a big bottle of honey. I like to pour the honey right into the yogurt container and just spoon it out.
5. Remember the child within.
What’s one thing most kids foods have in common? They’re fun enough that kids will eat them. Or, in my case, when I was a kid, a good meal was one that was fun for me and easy for my single mom to make. Such as gluten-free vegan peanut butter Rice Krispy treats, a staple when I was growing up. We weren’t avoiding gluten or animal products back then; we just knew they were easy and delicious.
Today, of course, telling myself that standing over my stove, peeling sticky, crispy, chocolaty goo from the pan is good for me makes the treat that much more enjoyable. Peanut butter and chocolate is the perfect combination of excitement and comfort that I sought in my marriage, but finally created on my own. Peanut butter Rice Krispy treats are also great for a large party to eat hot off the stove, and you can store extras for breakfast.
College food was also fun. One of my college favorites was apples drizzled in tahini. Today, the combo reminds me of my beloved college roommates. It’s the perfect breakfast because it’s refreshing and not too sweet, but still feels like a crisp, somewhat decadent treat. Tahini is a little more interesting than peanut butter. Slice, drizzle, enjoy.
6. Honor what you learned in your marriage.
Butternut squash and tahini from the Jerusalem cookbook is another complex recipe with plenty of leftovers. I like to think that my affection for Middle Eastern flavors comes from having been married to a Middle Eastern man. I retained a taste for those spices and that produce, just as I’ve retained some positive habits and skills from the marriage itself. Making this dish reminds me of what was good in my marriage, and is also healthy and scrumptious.
My Friend Mariah’s Homemade Spaghetti Sauce
- olive oil
- fresh garlic to taste
- 1 bunch fresh basil
- 1 large can whole peeled tomatoes
- 1 large can diced tomatoes
- spices of your choice such as chili flakes, garlic powder and oregano
- lean protein such as ground turkey
- pasta of your choice
Slice the garlic thin and simmer in the oil with the basil. (It’s up to you whether or not you take the garlic and basil out later; I think it’s not necessary.)
When the garlic and basil start to smell amazing, dump in both cans of tomatoes. Add spices. I add a lot of chili flakes because I like the heat, plus garlic powder, oregano, and a squirt of honey. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. When the whole tomatoes have lightened, pop and mash with a wooden spoon. Spend the next hour or two simmering and adjusting and adding spices.
Cook pasta and lean protein separately. Combine and enjoy.
Roasted Butternut Squash and Red Onion with Tahini and Za’atar
Adapted from Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi
- 1 large butternut squash, cut into 3/4 by 2 1/2-inch wedges
- 2 red onions, cut into 1 1/4-inch wedges
- 3 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 1/2 tablespoons light tahini paste
- 1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 small clove garlic, crushed
- 3 1/2 tablespoons pine nuts
- 1 tablespoon za’atar
- 1 tablespoon coarsely chopped flat leaf parsley
- Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 475 F.
Put the squash and onion in a large mixing bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of the oil, 1 teaspoon salt (I used more), and some black pepper and toss well. Spread on a baking sheet and roast in the oven 30 to 40 minutes, or until the vegetables have taken on some color and are cooked through. Keep an eye on the onions as they might cook faster than the squash and need to be removed earlier. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.
To make the sauce, place the tahini in a small bowl along with the lemon juice, water, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Whisk until the sauce is the consistency of honey, adding more water or tahini if necessary.
Pour the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons oil into a small frying pan and place over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts along with the 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook for 2 minutes, stirring often, until the nuts are golden brown. Remove from the heat and transfer the nuts and oil to a small bowl to stop the cooking.
To serve, spread the vegetables out on a large serving platter and drizzle over the tahini. Sprinkle the pine nuts and their oil on top, followed by the za’atar and parsley.
Daniya Karnofsky is the host and creator of the YouTube and live baking/love advice show, “And She Bakes.” She is also the creator and host of the live comedy show/dating app “All My Single Friends.” Daliya got it out of the way early and was married and divorced by age twenty-four.