What Do You Eat When You Eat Alone?

by Sarah Henry on June 13, 2009 · 18 comments

in comfort food,food books,recipes

True confession: When I’m home alone at night sometimes I forget to make dinner. Ten o’clock rolls around, the kitchen is closed, and so I grab a bowl of cereal and call it a night. Terrible habit I know. At least it’s whole grain cereal. It turns out, I’m in good company.

Here’s another cereal-for-solo suppers supporter:

Flickr photo by Brian Auer used under the Creative Commons license

How about you? What do you eat for dinner when nobody is looking? I’ve been thinking a lot about this particular pastime since my domestic situation shifted about 18 months ago. Half the week my kid and I eat dinner every night, mostly at home, no exceptions. The other half of the week he’s dining with his dad, leaving me free to whip up something fabulously indulgent for myself, right?

Not likely. I typically take the opportunity to eat out with friends. That’s sort of cheating. And expensive. And on a week when my son is doing a five-night stint at his father’s I rarely eat out every single one of those evenings. So, then, what’s for dinner at my house?

Initially, I had grand visions of simmering batches of soup on the stove on solo supper nights. Somehow I don’t seem to find — or make — the time to prepare these meals. So I’ve been conducting an informal survey, asking folks who find themselves making dinner for one on a regular basis what they eat. The 81-year-old widow whose memoir I’m editing tells me she cooks herself a meal chock full of vegetables. A male friend’s frequent solo feast of choice is a stir-fry. A galpal swears that Trader Joes frozen shrimp and mango cubes can be called into service to make a delicious meal. And a chef friend recalls that during her single days she delighted in buying the best cuts of meat or priciest seafood justifying the cost because she only needed small portions of each.

I’m suitably impressed. All these people take their meal at the table, with napkins and place mats, and maybe candles and a glass of wine as well. Truly, eye-opening. Clearly, eating well on your own is a learned skill.

Now, thanks to Deborah Madison, of Greens restaurant fame and the author of the wildly popular cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, we’ve got some more insights into what people chew on when no one else is watching.

Her new book, What We Eat When We Eat Alone, is a departure from her usual fare (and not just because meat features prominently). It’s written with and inspired by her hubbie, Patrick McFarlin, who got in the habit of asking this very question as an icebreaker on food trips the couple took with the Oldways Preservation Trust.  McFarlin’s whimsical illustrations accompany the stories. The book includes some 100 recipes, tweaked a tad for your solitary pleasure.

Check out the funny video found here for a flavor of what folks told the couple about eating alone. And read an excerpt, on the universal appeal of leftovers, over at Culinate.

The results of the authors’ unscientific research may surprise you. At a recent reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s book store, the couple drew laughter when they acknowledged that there appears to be something of a gender divide surrounding solo dinners.  Men frequently eat meat when on their own and their cooking often involves “sticking something into something,” like the flank steak stuffed with bacon, cheese, and mushrooms featured in the book. Women often opt for good carbs with salt or something like a salad that involves chopping and dicing. What people do when supping solo is also interesting. Some eat while watching TV, with their animals, while reading — or even in bed. Others (again, often men) pace, eat while surveying the contents of the fridge, or even wolf dinner down while leaning over the sink.

This respectful yet voyeuristic read gives a glimpse into the secret life of those of us seeking solitary sustenance, whether we’re eating alone as an aberration or on a regular basis. The book reveals that people tend to cook simple, satisfying meals that they know and love or opt to make something their partners don’t like, such as okra or sardines, when on their own.  There’s also some weird stuff like margarita mix poured over white bread — yikes — though not as many strange food choices as you might imagine in such a book.

What do this duo eat on their ownsome? Madison says she’d choose pie if it was available, though that’s usually not an option. She’s fond of braised vegetables. McFarlin’s a fan of panini.

My personal favorite food for a satisfying solo supper? Scrambled eggs. I know many Americans couldn’t imagine eating this so-called breakfast staple for dinner but, heck, throw caution to the wind and give it a whirl.  The secret ingredient for lovely, moist scramble? Cream, glorious, cream. Thank you Bill Granger of the much-lauded bills restaurants in Sydney for this ingredient insight. For scrambled eggs for one use 2 eggs and about a third a cup of cream. Find the full recipe here. I look in my veggie crisper and dice up nice and fine anything fresh and colorful and whack that in as well. Often orange pepper, baby spinach, and red onion find their way into the mix. Goat cheese is a nice addition too. Bill scrambled egg purists may sniff at such suggestions. So be it.

Now it’s your turn. Do tell: What kind of grub goes down your gullet at nighttime when no one’s looking? Feel no fear, guilt, or shame. Judging by Madison’s and McFarlin’s account, it appears that there are many culinary commonalities among solitary eaters, revealing that we’re never really alone even when we’re dining at a table for one.

Flickr photo by avlxyz used under the Creative Commons license

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Romney Steele June 18, 2009 at 10:06 pm

hi Sarah

True Confession could be it’s own title to a book, like how you start off here.
I love scrambled eggs too–and I too always add a little milk or cream, and with toast for dinner, it’s perfect! Throw in a few tussles of arugula on the side and a glass of white wine, and I dare say you have a perfect meal.

Nani

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MP June 20, 2009 at 5:35 pm

Scambled eggs make a fabulous dinner for 4 on those nights when the cupboard is bare and/or you have no time. You gotta love a high protein dinner that takes a mere four minutes to cook.

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Shelley M July 4, 2009 at 7:33 am

My solo meal? There is this Ethiopian dipping sauce that is easy to make using just a spice blend (brought from Ethiopia by my mother-in-law) mixed with water into a paste and then mixed with olive oil. Sadly, I usually pull out a small italian loaf of white bread (of all things) and dip it in that spicy sauce. A totally irresponsible dinner! …but I guess that’s the point of the solo dinner, freedom to make bad choices!

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Elizabeth B July 29, 2009 at 12:18 pm

I am a cereal girl too! It’s cheap, easy, and probably better than eating a bowl of Ice Cream.

I know I am not alone either. Those of us who have to prepare a “real” meal on the other nights of the week like to feel like we have the night off!

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Sarah Henry August 1, 2009 at 11:42 pm

I hear you, Elizabeth. And I enjoy the company (in cereal & scrambled egg land) and also the intriguing-sounding Ethiopian dipping sauce option from Shelley.

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Sarah Henry August 1, 2009 at 11:42 pm

I hear you, Elizabeth. And I enjoy the company (in cereal & scrambled egg land) and also the intriguing-sounding Ethiopian dipping sauce option from Shelley.

Reply

Sarah Henry August 1, 2009 at 11:42 pm

I hear you, Elizabeth. And I enjoy the company (in cereal & scrambled egg land) and also the intriguing-sounding Ethiopian dipping sauce option from Shelley.

Reply

Sarah Henry August 1, 2009 at 11:42 pm

I hear you, Elizabeth. And I enjoy the company (in cereal & scrambled egg land) and also the intriguing-sounding Ethiopian dipping sauce option from Shelley.

Reply

Sarah Henry August 1, 2009 at 11:42 pm

I hear you, Elizabeth. And I enjoy the company (in cereal & scrambled egg land) and also the intriguing-sounding Ethiopian dipping sauce option from Shelley.

Reply

taleoftwovegans August 19, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Well I live alone so this is pretty much all the time for me. There are definitely days when I spend ages staring into the fridge or cupboards willing something to materialize that I can eat without doing much work at all. But then other days I am content to spend hours puttering around making food (usually enough for several other meals as well).
As for how I eat, definitely not sitting at the table! It’s usually on the couch with my laptop, glad to hear I am not alone with that!

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Carrie August 27, 2009 at 6:38 pm

My brother and I split rent on a house and we are both in our early 20′s so we are almost never at home at the same time. So because of that I eat alone (at the most) 3 times a week.
My normal “meal” is a hunk of french bread, slices of apple, cheese, and carrots with ranch dressing. I keep all of this stocked so it’s easy and hey, it’s fruit, veggies and dairy!

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Vicucio October 12, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Hey, I like to have Coke or Pepsi at 1:00 a.m. in the morning.

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Mikki February 11, 2010 at 7:12 am

I always have a freezer full of salmon and other seafood which defrosts in about 1/2 an hour when put in cold water, so I pop one into a bowl of water and then see what’s in the veggie drawer while it’s defrosting. I’ll either saute the fish or grill after a quick marinade in olive oil, vinegar, salt and an herb, steam the veggie and that’s a meal. If I have any sauerkraut in the fridge I’ll put the fish on top of that for a real “gourmet” meal.

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Scott November 16, 2010 at 6:09 pm

When alone, I love saltine crackers with a thin spread of margarine (or butter) and a generous sprinkling of dill weed and celery salt! Especially good with Chardonnay.

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