What’s an avid cook to do when her raison d’être dwindles? I’m sharing my tips on cooking for the empty nest and sparsely populated family table. Are you in the same circumstance? We’d love to hear your comments and suggestions below.
The year before my older daughter left for university, she came downstairs more often than usual as I cooked dinner, sitting up on the countertop, swinging her legs and sharing stories of her school day. It was a gift. It’s not something we talked about, but we both felt the pressure of her departure and wanted to squeeze as much as we could out of those final months together.
I didn’t bother scaling back the meals or the baking when she departed because, with her little sister still at home, there were often friends over to help eat the leftovers and the baked goodies. But two short years later, I was faced with cooking for the empty nest. Only two mouths to feed. Coming from Cajun country, where you love folks by feeding them I had never really cooked for only four. Six or eight or more portions were more my style. Part of my self-worth and affirmation came from feeding my family and my family had shrunk overnight. Can anyone relate?
Here are a few tactics that worked for me as I faced my new reality.
Cooking for the empty nest
- Don’t scale back to just one serving per person, at least not at first. Give yourself some time to adjust. On a normal day, cook twice the servings you need. In other words, if there are two of you at home, make enough for four. If you are home alone, cook for two. The second helpings make a great lunch for the next day. For leftovers that are even better the next day, try my Moroccan-style Lentil Stew.
- If the dish freezes well, consider making a larger amount. Freeze casseroles like lasagna already cut into serving portions so you can remove one or two from the freezer on a busy day and just reheat. Ditto with big pots of soup.
- Be on the lookout for recipes that can be made ahead in bulk and then baked as you need them. These buttermilk biscuits are the perfect example. No need to deny yourself a fresh hot biscuit stuffed with butter and jam just because you are baking for one or two!
- If you like making muffins and cakes, buy and use smaller pans. A 6-cup Bundt cake or half a dozen muffins are way more manageable. This quadruple chocolate Bundt is baked in one of those smaller pans and I can assure you it will disappear quickly.
- Even so, remember that extra baked goods can be shared at the office, yours or your spouse’s. Or bring them round to them your local hospital, not for the patients who have special dietary needs, of course, but for the hard-working volunteers.
- If you are used to buying meat in family packs to save money, keep on doing it. Wrap the steaks or chops or chicken parts in four-portion sizes right when you get home and freeze them. The smaller packaging allows the meat to thaw more quickly, saving time on cooking day as a bonus.
- Buy loose produce. If you want to buy just two carrots, you can buy two carrots. That one-pound bag goes a long way in our house and I hate throwing away that last wizen carrot found languishing at the bottom of the vegetable drawer.
- Invite friends round for dinner. Sometimes we just want to be in the middle of a bustling kitchen again. Plan a meal you can cook together or get everyone to bring something to share.
- Even when it’s just two of you (or just you!) at home, don’t shortchange yourself. Make a meal you’ll enjoy, one that makes you feel loved and appreciated. A quick bowl of whole-grained cereal may be a nutritious meal but it doesn’t soothe the soul like grilled pork chops and mashed potatoes. Even a speedy omelet can be special, given enough ham and cheese, with the bonus of making good use of some leftovers. That’s why I call them omelets with super powers.
I believe in gathering around the family table, lighting candles, putting out cloth napkins. It’s all part of the ritual of making dinnertime special. That’s what’s important, even if you are cooking for the empty nest. It’s important no matter how many or how few of us are sitting down to eat.
How did you transition from cooking for a family to cooking for one or two? As an avid cook are you dreading an empty nest?