By Diane Norwood, MS, RD, CDE, Guest Contributor
Your service member has left for yet another deployment and you’re left holding the (grocery) bag, wondering, “Why should I bother cooking for one?”
The thought of subsisting on cereal and wine sounds great right about now.
If you’re the main chef in your family and your spouse leaves, you may feel some relief from having to cook. On the other hand, if your resident chef just deployed, you may feel despair and, well, hunger. And in either case, you may feel compelled to drown your sorrows a little bit. Go ahead and defer full-time “adulting” temporarily.
But after about a week, it’s time to pull yourself together. Your mental and physical health depends on it, and cooking for one can help!
As you may know, going through the motions of a normal routine, while maybe even improving upon it — and getting real therapy from a trained professional if you need help — is a far more productive and healthy use of your alone time.
Embracing the Positive Opportunities
There are definite deployment struggles when we have careers, schedules, properties and/or families to manage without the usual tag-team help of our spouse. Is it just me, or do houses, cars and children seem to have more problems that need fixing during these times? But somehow, one day at a time, we get through these challenges.
And when we look on the bright side, we can embrace endless opportunities for personal growth when we are suddenly blessed with the gift of more free time to spend however we choose. We may spend “bonus” free time on a big sewing project that covers the dining room table for months, a long overdue girls’ trip or even a simple reorganizing project that always gets put on the back burner.
The Best Self-Improvement Project: Cooking for One
Frankly, few opportunities for self-improvement are as challenging and yet worthwhile as your health. Cooking real-food meals for yourself is one of the best ways to spend time on your mental and physical health during your spouse’s absence. (Exercise is a close second!) There are many ways cooking for one is beneficial:
- It provides less processed, real food.
- It is mindful, which means you are planning ahead to eat healthy.
- It establishes healthy eating habits over time, which may improve your health.
- It saves money, which can minimize stress.
- It offers psychological benefits, such as feelings of independence and accomplishment.
- It can be creative and fun!
Of course, there are challenges cooking for one. But sometimes I think it’s easier.
When my spouse is gone, I like to try new recipes without the pressure of possible epic fails, savor foods my spouse might not typically eat, and reap the benefits of leftovers for days – which frees up time for other things I enjoy doing!
To make cooking for one during deployments as easy as possible, I asked 2 military spouse dietitians to contribute their best ideas along with mine. Because you are, indeed, worth the effort it takes to cook for one!
10 Tips for Cooking for One
Stock your kitchen with easy, real foods and keep it simple. Sometimes people say they can spend $100 at the store and still have “nothing” on hand to make a meal. If you really have no real-food ingredients in your kitchen, it’s hard to make a nourishing meal for any number of people.
Start by stocking a few basics: simple meats, eggs, vegetables to eat raw, steamed or roasted, salad ingredients, full-fat plain Greek yogurt, cheese, etc. And don’t forget you can use a toaster oven to keep it even simpler!
Invite friends to join you for dinner (or any other meal)! Better yet, make it a standing weekly dinner date with one or more spouses who are “in the same boat.” A weekly dinner with my friend and our 4 little kids was my salvation during my first deployment. Either take turns hosting and cooking, or make it a potluck every time.
Either way, you are making important social connections to combat loneliness, commiserate about some of the struggles, and enjoy the opportunity to support each another.
Portion leftovers into single-serving containers for lunch or dinner later in the week. Most recipes make enough for 4 people. Slow cookers and pressure cookers yield even more servings. That’s fine when you eat leftovers! This makes it easy to stock your fridge with a few grab-and-go healthy prepared meals.
Make friends with your freezer. Using the freezer to store extra prepared foods is just plain smart to minimize cooking efforts and food waste. Cook once, eat twice — or 3 or 4 times, if you’re really smart.
Fellow military spouse Tracey Linneweber, RD, CLT, suggests, “Cook what you want to eat and freeze the leftovers. Casseroles, soups, leftover meat, barbecue, pancakes, and breads all freeze well. You can take out leftover meat, add a baked potato, and frozen vegetables for a quick meal.”
Make skillet meals. One-pan cooking means one-pan cleaning with – you guessed it – leftovers. You can make a simple breakfast for dinner, such as scrambled eggs with veggies. Or quickly toss together sausage, bell peppers and onions. Or try my easy recipe for Inside Out Egg Rolls.
Prepare a simple foil pack meal ahead of time. Betsy Ramirez, a military spouse RD and blogger has a great idea for make-ahead foil packs.
She shares “I created a salmon and asparagus foil pack meal that I can make right after breakfast. I stick it in the fridge until it’s time to prep dinner. All I have to do is preheat the oven and cook them for 20 minutes.”
Pizza delivery isn’t even that fast!
Roast a sheet-pan meal. Cooking meat and vegetables in the oven together on the same pan is genius. It takes about 10 min to prep and then you are free to do something else within the 30 minutes it takes to cook.
Make a main dish salad. My favorite way to “cook” for myself is to make a large salad.
To my usual tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese and roasted nuts, I add rotisserie chicken or leftover grilled meats, beans (chickpeas or edamame), hard-boiled eggs, roasted vegetables, leftover corn off the cob, or fresh fruits (oranges, blueberries, strawberries, etc.) I skip store-bought dressings and pour a tablespoon of olive oil and a capful of apple cider vinegar, add salt and pepper, and toss.
Consider other resources. Farmers markets help inspire you to use what’s in season and they support local farmers. If you don’t have one near you, maybe you’d like to try a grocery store delivery service (Amazon Now perhaps) to free up time. It’s the next best thing to asking your spouse to pick up a few things at the store!
Allow yourself to be flexible. You don’t have to make a complete meal plan and grocery list. That’s the beauty of cooking for one.
Maybe you use a wipe-it board on the fridge to sketch a few meal ideas so you make sure you have what you need on hand. Or rather, open the fridge and see what you can make from what have on hand.
But if a friend calls you to suggest a spontaneous get-together, by all means, drop everything (into the freezer) or invite them over to enjoy the togetherness. Getting through deployment takes a military spouse village!
The bottom line is this: going through the motions of cooking for yourself — even the simplest of real-food meals — will help you remember you are worth it! So, don’t delay putting some of these “cooking for one” tips into practice.
The sooner you start cooking for yourself, the sooner you’ll reap the benefits. And you’ll be maintaining if not improving your mental and physical health — which will be one more thing to celebrate at homecoming!
Finding yourself eating cereal a few too many nights during deployment? Follow NextGen MilSpouse’s Pinterest boards for more cooking for one ideas. Click here to follow us.
Diane Norwood is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and freelance health writer. She wanders the world with her Navy Pediatrician husband and their three daughters, each born in a different country. She has made it her life’s work to savor authentic, healthy foods, grapple with and summarize nutrition science, and showcase how she makes easy, real food on her blog, The Wandering RD.