On Cooking Alone

As someone who lives alone and eats most of my meals alone, I spend a lot of time cooking alone.

I like cooking, so this isn’t a particularly onerous or upsetting state of affairs, but it can be tiring. Cooking takes work, and when you are very busy with a wide ranging number of tasks, it’s sometimes hard to set aside time to do that work. There are days when I am completely up to roasting something and doing a fancy bit with vegetables and taking two hours to make dinner. There are other days when I call it an accomplishment if I can make some buckwheat soba and throw together some peanut sauce for it. If there happen to be some veggies in the fridge I can toss on, so much the better, but I’m really not going to sweat it.

Very little thinking goes into cooking alone. Most recipes are designed for at least two and often four, on the root assumption that people aren’t cooking independently. which sometimes works out well for me because then I have leftovers, but is not so great with things that need to be eaten fresh and hot. Or recipes with huge yields that would require me to eat the same thing for a week to work through it. And yes, I can adjust recipes. I can freeze things. I do both of those things. But, at the same time, there’s a steady reminder that I’m a weirdo because I cook alone, not with or for anyone else.

And this becomes particularly frustrating in conversations about food and culture. There’s a lot of policing that goes around when it comes to what people eat, how they eat it, how they prepare it, who gets to make decisions about food, as we know. And there’s a lot of disdain for people who eat ‘convenience foods’ or don’t eat very well or don’t satisfy the arbitrary requirements of being a ‘good person,’ which seems to boil down to eating what someone else deems healthy.

Some of these concern trolls put in some effort with ‘helpful suggestions’ intended to show that they care and understand that food preparation can be complex and limited by time, ingredient availability, disability, and other factors. These suggestions, though, invariably do not involve people who are cooking alone. They don’t include suggestions to make cooking alone easier, because a lot of the things that make cooking alone easier are things foodies don’t like.

Like buying things in small packages, say, which is getting hard for me to do because the package size I need is absurdly expensive, but there’s no possible way I can go through a regular-sized package of, say, cheese. It’s great when you have a bulk section that’s cheaper and allows you to measure out what you need, but you can’t do that with everything. You can’t do it with milk and butter, say. And you get weird, judgey looks when you ask for a small cut of meat or approach the cheese person to ask if a block of something could be cut in half for you. You are reminded that you are consuming too little, and then people realise oh, you must be eating alone, how sad.

Cooking alone can be great fun. I don’t have to argue with anyone about flavours and spicing and what we will have for dinner. Nor do I seethe with resentment when I work hard over a meal for someone I care about and get an indifferent response, one that indicates the person clearly doesn’t respect how much work I just put in, a casual ‘yeah, it was okay.’ I don’t have to balance potentially conflicting needs to make sure everyone is happy and if I experiment with a new recipe and it goes wrong, well, no one but me is there to see it, so that’s okay. And I don’t need to deal with people commenting while I’m trying to cook or adjust a recipe, offering their own ‘helpful suggestions’ when I want to stab them with a roasting fork.

But it can also be very not fun. It’s hard to remember to eat when you live alone, and to make each meal valuable. It’s hard because it’s just you, so a sense of ‘who cares’ can start to set in, especially in the depths of winter when it’s dark and cold and you really just don’t care. Why not have an apple for dinner. You’ll wonder why you feel cranky and weird later on, of course, but you couldn’t bring yourself to bother with anything more complex.

And you’re constantly reminded that you’re not eating healthily enough, not being a good person, not ‘taking care of your body,’ because you can’t invest as much time and energy in cooking. There is no one to help. It’s just you and the cookstove. No one is going to rescue you or help you chop things, no one else is going to do the dishes. It’s all you, which means that every time you cook, you have to wonder how much time and energy you can, and want to, invest in it. Because time spent cooking alone is sometimes time you could have spent doing something else that might be critically important and instead has to wait until you satisfy the demands of your stomach.

So it’s no particular surprise that people who cook alone turn to easy and convenient options that mean the difference between eating and not eating; and it’s disappointing to see people sneering at us because those sneers aren’t just contempt about how we are failing at eating right, but also a certain sense of snideness about how we are alone. Even in my case where it’s a voluntary and blissful state, those looks are a reminder that I’m abnormal and to be feared and viewed as a subject of pity, because I’m alone.