“Being single,” a friend admitted, “I don’t think I ever eat a normal, sit-down meal that I actually cook, unless it’s a special occasion. It seems like a waste of time. Isn’t that sad?”
I nodded, remembering how hard it was for my husband and me to get used to forging regular meal times for our family after years of singleness without regular meal times. Dinner was a bite here, a handful of chips there, maybe order a pizza and eat pieces of it over the course of the next few days. Why bother cooking, I tended to think. It’s just me.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but in doing so I was forming habits that were not healthy for me physically and that were not so good for me emotionally either. I’ve tried to embrace the discipline of eating healthier foods, but also having healthier eating habits like sitting down and taking the time to actually enjoy my meal.
Years ago, while reading through the Bible, for some reason I started to notice all of those verses scattered throughout God’s Word that talk about meals and eating. At first I thought maybe my newest diet had gone to my head, but then I realized that, in God’s eyes, eating was closely tied to fellowship and togetherness, not just food. No wonder eating alone is hard for us — God designed for us to merge nourishing our bodies at mealtime and nourishing our souls with refreshing fellowship.
Deuteronomy 26:11 has become one of my favorite verses, perhaps because our meal times are so important to our family. This verse says, “And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.”
Still, even if it’s “just me” and no one else, I can still rejoice in every good thing that God gives me at each meal. Sit down to eat at your dinner table. Don’t let your table become horizontal long-term storage or the flat filing cabinet, either! Clear it off for dinner, set it nicely, maybe even add a candle or other centerpiece to it and enjoy your meal in the presence of God. I’ve found it so hard to do, yet so refreshing when I do make my meal times special even if I’m dining alone.
Most of the time, I’m helping moms of larger families try to figure out how to feed their families well on a budget. But making dinner for one is just as big of a challenge, I think. Many of the principles remain the same.
Begin WIth a Plan
The best place to begin is with a plan in mind. A menu doesn’t have to be rigid, but it does need to be more complex than 24/7 eating whatever we feel like eating. Think through your regular schedule — your work demands, classes, ministry responsibilities, and any other activities — and when you’re done writing that down, write another list of your favorite foods or meals. Now, you can combine those two lists into a general menu plan based upon how much cooking and eating time you have set aside each day (e.g., “Wednesday — soup, Thursday — salad, Friday — nachos”). This gives you a framework from which to work.
Each week, this plan can be made more specific, based upon what’s on sale or in season (such as “Soup” becoming “chicken soup,” “potato soup” or “gazpacho,” and “nachos” can become “fajitas,” “tacos” or “enchiladas”). You may prepare one serving, or even purposely prepare more, with a plan to use your leftovers, or freeze them for another time. Always schedule one “I’m not cooking” day on your menu plan, where you are free to use leftovers or eat out.
Most of the meals that are eaten in our house are not your usual “slab of meat, side of starch, side of vegetable” sort of meals, and most of my recipes are never exactly measured out. Meals don’t have to be complex all the time. Some days, in the heat of summer, fresh diced tomatoes tossed with Italian dressing and served with a side of corn on the cob can be the perfect meal.
I grew up here in the USA, but I lived overseas both as an exchange student and later as an au pair, not to mention traveling abroad, and I now love to cook and eat ethnic foods. The good news is that many ethnic foods (Middle Eastern, Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian or Asian) are not only less expensive, but they are also usually healthier for us and can have endless variations, based on the availability of the ingredients around you.
One of my favorite meals for the summer is chicken or shish kebobs. When I buy my boneless meat or chicken, I cut it into cubes, put it into a zipper freezer bag with lemon juice diluted with water, a pinch of thyme, rosemary, marjoram, onion flakes and garlic, and I freeze it in usable portions. For my family, that usually means large bags, but I always leave some meat to marinate in smaller baggies in one-serving sized portions. That way, I can quickly thaw the meat, put it on skewers and add whatever vegetables I find on sale for a quick meal under the broiler (or on the grill), served on a bed of rice. Sometimes I vary the marinade to be Asian style (with ginger, sesame oil, rice vinegar, Chinese Five Spice and lemon grass) or Indian style (with lemon juice diluted with water, curry powder, coriander, cumin and ginger).
I usually base what vegetables I put on the skewers on what’s on sale or in my garden. For example, we just had some kebobs with red peppers, onions, whole potatoes (from a can) and large cloves of elephant garlic.
In this same way, meat can be frozen in strips and left to marinate for some quick fajitas. I marinate my fajitas with lemon juice diluted in water, cilantro, coriander, chili powder, oregano, onion flakes and garlic, and then I broil the meat, some sliced onions and sweet bell peppers, and serve on a tortilla, sometimes with refried beans, cheese and salsa.
Other times, I freeze strips of meat in usable portions and quickly thaw it for stir-fry. To make a stir-fry, I simply heat my wok (a large skillet works well too), add just enough oil so that the meat will not stick, plus a few drops of sesame oil (which is found in the Oriental section of most grocery stores). Once the pan is hot, I add the meat and quickly stir-fry it until cooked through before adding whatever vegetables I have available.
Recently, I made a stir-fry of chicken, sliced carrots, sliced onions and sliced celery. To save time, you can pre-slice and freeze your vegetables in freezer bags for quick use later. Most stir-fries taste best when seasoned with oriental spices, such as Chinese Five Spice, ginger and lemon grass. Just add a pinch at a time, and adjust the spices to your taste. Next, create a sauce by adding a small amount of water with a pinch of either chicken soup mix or onion soup mix. Bring it to a boil, and stir in a cup of cold water mixed with 1 teaspoon of corn starch to thicken it. Just serve your stir-fry over some rice.
Convenience foods can be really convenient (shocking, I know) once in a while, but they’re not healthy or budget-friendly over the long term, nor do they always taste as good as homemade. One dish I really love to eat is lasagna. But as a single woman, I wasn’t about to make a pan of lasagna every week, because it was a lot of work and because I couldn’t possibly eat all of that food (or, worse yet, I would!). However, making a pan of lasagna or enchiladas, and then freezing individual servings of it in small freezer bags, makes for an awesome quick meal that is homemade.
There are many more dishes that freeze well. If you do a quick web search, you’ll find instructions on how to freeze just about any dish. I also shave time off of my cooking by slicing and freezing whatever I am able to ahead of time, and pre-cooking some long-cooking items such as dried beans. Dried beans are a great value both nutritionally and in cost, but they take a lot of time to cook. Whenever I cook dried beans, I cook a bit extra, and I freeze them in one-cup servings for quick refried beans or other dishes. I also prepare French Bread Pizza whenever I find baguettes on sale (or make them myself), wrap them well, and freeze them individually for a quick meal.
Seasonings, herbs and spices work best when you use them for more than your kitchen decor. Learning to use them properly is something that comes with time and practice. When I was first working as the household help in Europe, the lady of the house instructed me to go out to her herb garden and get the ingredients for that day’s dinner, and I just had to stare blankly at her. Where I grew up, the seasonings hung on a wall from the day my parents received them as a wedding gift and are still hanging there today — unused. However, after my initial intimidation at all of the seasonings we used in that household, I soon realized it wasn’t as complicated as I thought, and was actually quite fun.
Making dinner for one can also be a great learning opportunity, to experiment with and expand culinary skills. I’ll admit that I love to cook and have always enjoyed playing in the kitchen. The problem is, cooking for someone else makes it a little bit harder to experiment and try out new things. Not everyone is as forgiving about flops, especially now that I am a mother. My children still talk about the time when I made them eat what they lovingly dubbed “Seaweed Soup” (though the recipe didn’t sound that bad when I read it). I found my children begging for pizza from the youth group later that night at church, and I caught my husband in the car eating spare ribs from a local restaurant after claiming to be filling up my gas tank.
In any case, I’m always afraid of ruining dinner, so I’ve learned that on those days when no one else is home, I can take that time as a learning opportunity to try a new dish. If it’s awesome, I can freeze the leftovers in most cases or at least chill them for tomorrow. And, if it is really awful, only the dog and I have to know. If you have some extra time to play in the kitchen, try new recipes and expand your culinary horizons; not everything comes out “Seaweed Soup.” Through practice I have even learned to make egg rolls that everyone claims are better than the takeout place up the road.
The verse in Deuteronomy also talks about extending our tables beyond just ourselves and our immediate families, to those around us. In fact, the Bible actually commands practicing hospitality to all Christians. I used to think hospitality meant having a lavish dinner party, which intimidated me. After all, my house is rarely spotless, my fine china comes from Big Lots, and I’m definitely not Martha Stewart. Thankfully, hospitality is more like sharing a meal with a friend or a fellow saint, without necessarily being fancy about the occasion. With hospitality, the emphasis is on fellowship, not pretense.
Our family has literally (let me interject here that I know people misuse this word all the time, and often actually mean “figuratively”; I really do mean “literally” here) become addicted to hospitality over the years. We often have missionaries over to our home for dinner and have opened our homes to singles, widows, single-parent families, and other families throughout the year, especially during the holidays.
Hospitality, though, is not just something a family does, but something every Christian can do. And should do. The first time can be rather scary, but soon it becomes a joy to minister in this way, even if you just order a pizza or have a potluck.
I always stand amazed at how God takes something so simple and practical, such as mealtimes, and yet has so much to say about them. God created meal times for more than just physical nourishment, and hospitality is a great way to have some extra spiritual edification around your table as we share over a meal how God has worked in each of our lives, and to be an encouragement to others.
Even when dining alone, meal times can be times of rest and refreshing, a time to reflect on God’s provision in our lives. Taking the time, a few times a day, to sit and relax over an enjoyable meal does wonders.
Copyright © 2006 Kimberly Eddy. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.