Cooking for one: Embrace leftovers, freezers

  • Reporter Grace Bird adds mushrooms while making minestrone soup at her Amherst apartment. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Reporter Grace Bird cuts up mushrooms to make minestrone soup at her Amherst apartment. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Reporter Grace Bird cuts up green peppers to make minestrone soup at her Amherst apartment. While soups can seem intimidating, many call for a few ingredients and as many steps. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Ingredients for minestrone soup include green and red peppers, mushrooms, carrots, diced tomato, garlic, onion, pasta shells and vegetable broth. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Reporter Grace Bird makes minestrone soup at her Amherst apartment. Minestrone soup is an easy dish to make and can be tailored according to preference and fridge contents. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Reporter Grace Bird makes minestrone soup at her Amherst apartment. To best cook for one, nutritionist Alicia Walter recommends stocking a pantry with “essential items” like pasta, oil, onion, garlic, pesto and herbs. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Minestrone soup with green and red peppers, mushrooms, carrots, diced tomato, garlic, onion, pasta shells and vegetable broth. Staff Photo/Dan Little

  • Reporter Grace Bird enjoys a bowl of minestrone soup at her Amherst apartment, having sought advice from nutritionists about how to cook for one, while staying healthy. Staff Photo/Dan Little

Staff Writer
Published: 3/8/2019 12:47:43 PM

After living in shared houses on a college-student budget for half a decade, I’ve become adept at cooking one meal (and one meal only).

That meal is spaghetti with tomato sauce, a childhood staple of mine. I can cook it in 15 minutes flat with a podcast on, my eyes shut and my brain switched off. The recipe goes like this: Pan-fry minced meat, add chopped miscellaneous vegetables, pour in tomato sauce, boil pasta, mix together — and voila.

I split the pasta into containers, stack them up in the freezer and fish them out most days for lunch and dinner. It’s a deeply ingrained system, one that has earned me some (warranted) judgment from family, friends and housemates over the years. And yet, I have stayed strong, continuing to cook the same meal, week after week, month after month, year after year.

Moving often sparks motivation to overturn old habits, though, so when I relocated to western Massachusetts recently, I took advantage of the momentum and decided to expand my recipe list. After all, my one-dish agenda was damaging my taste buds (my cherished childhood meal now tastes like cardboard) and my health (my pasta intake rivals that of professional football players).

So, I enlisted some expert help. Alicia Walter, a dietitian and nutritionist at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, assured me that cooking for one “doesn’t have to be depressing.”

“A lot of it has to do with attitude,” Walter said. “It has to do with being interested in your own health, and being your personal best, and self-care.”

First, it’s important to stock a pantry with “essential items” like pasta, oil, onion, garlic, pesto and herbs, Walter said.

“Stock wisely, though,” Walter said. “Figure out the building blocks of your meals.”

Freezers should be embraced, Walter said. Cooking in batches and freezing the leftovers is a way to ensure healthy meals are always available.

“Be smart with your time,” Walter said. “Schedule a cooking day on the weekend and store meals in the freezer.”

To avoid eating the same leftovers for every meal, Walter recommended cooking a batch of meat, freezing it, and using it in different dishes. For example, a rotisserie chicken can be used to make chicken quesadillas, chicken salad and chicken soup.

Walter also recommends cooking two dishes at the same time, both in considerable quantities. Cooking both soup and casserole at once, for example, and stocking them in the freezer means during the week, one can alternate between the two.

Walter said searching for recipes using Google can suffice. Allrecipes.com is among her favorite websites, she said. Walter also recommended the cookbook “Microwave Cooking for One.”

Fatemeh Giahi, a nutritionist at Valley Nutrition Counseling in Hadley, pointed out that cooking is often faster than ordering take-out.

“It’s possible to put something together in 10, 15 minutes,” Giahi said. “It takes time to decide what to eat, order it and then wait for it to come.”

After considering Walter and Giahi’s advice, I went about finding a few dishes to add to my rotation. These recipes needed to be ones I could easily understand and adapt according to the contents of my fridge that day. They needed to be nutritious but filling. They needed to be reasonably-priced. They needed to taste good. They needed to not be salad.

Casseroles

Pasta bakes can be an easy, delicious meal to make, cut up into squares and store in the freezer, Walter said. A healthy spin on macaroni and cheese can conjure up nostalgia and satisfy taste buds — without causing too much guilt.

Walter suggested using healthier alternatives like whole grain or chickpea-based pastas, and low-fat milk and cheese. Also, pureed butternut squash can be a healthy addition to help glue the pasta together. The squash can be pureed using a blender or on a pot over the stove.

Nut loaves

I hadn’t heard of a nut loaf until Walter recommended it to me. But as a banana bread enthusiast, it sounded intriguing — almost a way to eat cake for dinner. Nut loaves are usually meatless, so they can be a substantial alternative to “fake meat” for vegetarians.

While nut loaves vary ingredient-wise, Walter said she prefers using ground nuts, vegetables (mushrooms, onions, peppers, carrots or celery), mashed beans, a cooked grain (oats, quinoa or rice), and low-fat cheese and herbs. I added eggs to my recipe to glue the batter together.

To make the loaf: saute the vegetables, beat the eggs, transfer both to a mixing bowl and stir in the grains, nuts, cheese and herbs. Pour the mixture into a pan and bake at 350 degrees until the loaf is golden-brown (at least one hour).

Stir-fries

Stir-fries are quick, healthy, versatile dishes that include many pantry staples. Stir-fries require protein and vegetables; specific ingredients are pretty interchangeable.

For vegetables, Walter recommends using a combination of broccoli, peppers, onions, carrots, cauliflower, green beans and even frozen vegetables. Many meats and seafoods suit stir-fries, including chicken, pork, beef, fish, shrimp and scallops. For seasoning, Walter advised using soy sauce and something sweet for balance, like honey or agave.

Soups

Soups can seem intimidating, but that’s mostly a facade. Many call for a few ingredients and as many steps.

Minestrone soup is an easy dish to make and can be tailored according to preference and fridge contents. I like mushrooms, basil and elbow-shaped pasta, so I included all three in my minestrone for a personal twist.

Here’s my minestrone recipe, adapted from my mother’s advice and what I found online. Chop vegetables (celery, carrots, onion, garlic, mushrooms and peppers, plus anything else that’s in the fridge) and saute them in a pot. Then add tinned tomatoes, tomato sauce, one or two cartons of stock and elbow-shaped pasta. Sprinkle in any herbs you like.

Bring the soup to a boil and then let it simmer for an hour or so. And voila, now you have soup. Minestrone is an easy meal to take to work (a bonus: the smell won’t permeate the office when you heat it up), or fish out of the freezer after a busy day.

Of course, I’ve only scratched the surface. I need to keep finding easy, healthy recipes and build up my meal rotation. But already, this experience has made a difference to how I feel, physically and mentally. It seems that branding myself a “one dish cook” only made it true. And cooking a few new dishes changed that long-held identity pretty fast.

Some final thoughts: for reluctant cooks like me, simple is always best. Find recipes that need to be understood not memorized, and that can be loosely interpreted depending on motivation levels and pantry contents. Recipes that can be condensed into two sentences are ideal.

And when inspiration strikes, make extra food and freeze it for all the days when inspiration doesn’t strike. Finally, in my very amateur, non-expert opinion, oatmeal with milk and sliced banana includes three food groups and therefore counts as dinner (but only sometimes).

Grace Bird started working at the Greenfield Recorder this year covering West County. She can be reached at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 280.




Greenfield Recorder

14 Hope Street
Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906

 

Copyright © 2019 by Newspapers of Massachusetts, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy