A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Margie asking a question about meal planning that I thought was just perfect for us folks who are empty nesters. Here's a portion of her note:
I want to start fixing meals here at home ( I know it would save just oodles of money), but DH is away almost all of the time. So, .... do I just go ahead and fix a regular meal just for me and try to section it out ( so I don’t pig out, LOL) or do I just do what I have been doing ( which is to pop a frozen dinner in, or have a sandwich or something like that).
I actually have experience in this area myself. With John's former work schedule he worked 7 days in a row every other week. He did not want a meal when he came in from work. He preferred to eat a sandwich, bowl of soup or salad or simply to sort of snack/graze through the evening. I, on the other hand, had eaten such for my lunch and wanted a hot meal. Locally we have a Subway shop and a diner that serves up chicken and burgers...A trip to pick up takeout elsewhere entailed driving at least 35 miles and up to 70 round trip. Adding gas costs to the cost of takeout? Ridiculous! The solution eventually occurred to start cooking for myself! The problem was what to cook and how to go about preparing food for one.
Over time I found myself preparing some elaborate meals and a friend asked me if I really did all that cooking just for me. Yes, I did! I had tried the frozen entree route which is all well and good for an occasional meal but palls if you're eating a steady diet of them.
At first I started setting aside single portions of food from our mutual dinners and freezing them to eat during John's work weeks. That worked okay but what about those days we ate out? Or I'd actually managed to make enough for just two servings? I was left high and dry for a part of each week. So I started cooking.
As I suggested to Margie, start with what YOU like to eat. John just doesn't care for certain foods that I like a lot. Meatloaf, Salmon patties, rutabagas...I decided it was also a good time to experiment with half sized versions of recipes that sounded good but I wasn't exactly sure if they'd go over with John. And then I sometimes made up a big batch of something like lasagna, divided into three four serving size pans and one 1 or 2 serving size pan (worked well with other dishes like spaghetti pie, Tamale pie, chicken pot pie...sounds like a lot of pies but they were healthy) and I'd freeze them, as an oven ready meal.
Here's how I went about planning my cooking for one. First I kept a calendar, so that I knew what my schedule was. Then I made out a menu plan, same as I did for the weeks John was home. Go back three years on this blog archives and half the menus listed were just for me!
Second I planned how I'd use my resources. I didn't use oven ready meals or leftover meals on those days when I was going to be home all day long and had nothing much planned. I cooked on those days. Sometimes a single serving meal and sometimes a full sized entree which I portioned out a serving onto my plate and then I stored the rest in the fridge or freezer for John and I to share the next week. On days when I had projects or big cleaning days here I at home, I chose to use the oven ready meals I'd prepared and frozen or reheated a leftovers meal.
Third, I made eating out a special thing. On days when I was going to be out and about, I might treat myself to a meal out but I never went out just especially to buy a meal, so eating out was a treat I allowed myself. Occasionally I'd go to a grocery store deli and get a roasted chicken and come home to make a meal for me, sandwiches for John and use the rest of the meat to make meals for the two of us to share. Sometimes I was just craving a certain frozen entree, like the Tai Pei Chicken Pot Stickers or Red Baron 4 Cheese Pizza. but those were considered treats, too. I do keep the Tai Pei family sized bag of Pot stickers on hand because it's a convenient thing to portion out a few at a time for a dinner for myself on a busy day.
Fourth, I looked for smaller sizes in items I really liked. There are five ounce cans of salmon which is super for a single serving for me. I seldom buy smaller sizes, but much as I like salmon patties I can't eat 10 or 12 and I don't much like them frozen and thawed. The small cans are just right. There are many small sizes of most vegetables including dried beans. I buy rutabagas to cook, divide into single serving containers and freeze. I've even found a single serving size coffee pod that I can use in my coffee pot to make a cup of decaf just for me on those days when I'm alone. Yes, it's a little more expensive than loose coffee, but I don't have to make the size pot I'm accustomed to making (and whose proportions I've perfected to be really good coffee) and pour two servings down the drain after.
Fifth, Treat yourself to something special. John is pretty much a bananas, apple, grapes and peaches man. I love apricots, Pluots, strawberries. I buy single fruits in season just for myself to have on those days when he's working. What a treat it is to have a pair of lovely apricots as a snack! I also buy some produce in single serving proportions. John's not crazy over green beans (he prefers the Italian Flat or Kentucky Wonder as I knew them growing up), but I love a crisply steamed whole green bean. I buy just enough to serve me and have them on one of his work days. Real food seldom costs anywhere near takeout.
So that's how I manage my meals on the occasional days alone now, and how I used to eat routinely when John's work schedule was different. I'll add one last thing: set the table, pull out those pretty plates (you know the good china or the vintage ones that you keep 'saving'), and make your meal a little special. Eating quickly in front of the TV or hanging over the sink will only give you indigestion and spills to clean up. Having a pretty place setting and a good meal on the table will add to the satisfaction of your food and feed your senses as well. John doesn't mind a pretty plating of food but he's not one to appreciate china on the table that often. However, I've some lovely pieces that seldom see use unless I make things pretty just for me. Use those saved lovely things and enjoy them!
Just as an example, I was out yesterday doing the grocery shopping, in an effort to avoid holiday crowds. I thought long and hard about what I would do for my dinner and decided that after all those chicken pot stickers were handy and here. I came home and as I plundered the fridge for vegetables to stir fry, I came across the single portion of wild rice I'd had leftover from Saturday's dinner. Fried rice was my side dish to go with the pot stickers. I chopped broccoli stem, a bit of onion, some carrot sticks that I'd kept handily cut up for snacks, a bit of celery, red bell pepper and some sliced green beans I'd just brought home, with a bit of garlic and ginger root (I keep sliced ginger root in the freezer and take out just a piece or two when I need it). I steamed my dumplings in the pan as the rice heated. It was delicious, took about 15 minutes to cook and cost about $1 compared to $8 for Chinese buffet.
Those are my hints and helps for cooking for one...another Retirement Remedy.