Table for One

What Do You Cook When No One's Watching?

The solo dinners that feed our souls.

by:
November  2, 2018

Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


"Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly," M. F. K. Fisher writes in my favorite chapter of her Alphabet for Gourmets, "A is for Dining Alone." There's nothing more devastating to me than a bad dinner date. Which is why I often find myself alone after work, sitting at my kitchen island with a plate of food and a glass of wine, my dog at my feet. At the end of a long day, this table for one is more than just a place for me to have my dinner—it's a place, as well, for me to have my thoughts.

There's great pleasure in the cooking, too. When we talk about the foods we cook for ourselves, they can often feel like throwaway meals we're embarrassed about and would never serve to others. But I find that it's in this kind of cooking—where the sole purpose is to nourish myself—that I'm the most at ease, and thus much more able to experiment, create, and, eventually, master a recipe.

Anita Lo's chicken dinner for one makes use of day-old bread and celebrates broccoli. Photo by Ty Mecham

As I started gaining my foot in the kitchen years ago, I found that I was eager to learn new ways to feed myself—only myself—but that I had to create my own scaled-down versions of recipes from cookbooks and online. Which is why I was grateful when Anita Lo's Solo: A Modern Cookbook for a Party of One arrived at my desk, and even more so to read the comments on Tejal Rao's coverage of it in The New York Times. It meant not only that publishers were starting to take the subject of one seriously, but also that there were other people out there, like me, looking for single-serving recipes that had as much care and complexity as their larger-serving counterparts.

Shop the Story

As a writer, too, I find that it's in this realm of the solo dinner that there are the best stories. The plight of the single-serving recipe is that it often has to parade joy and self-love (or else it's sad). It's often sold without any acknowledgement that there’s always a reason, always some kind of context, that explains why that one is not two, or four, or six to eight (how most recipes are written). As Lo writes in the introduction to her book, "I've been dumped as many times as I've been in relationships—and I can count those on less than two hands. Spread over my fifty-year life-span, that's a lot of solo meals."

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“it's literally just white flour tortilla (the "fakest" kind you can get), smeared with a generous layer of sour cream and piled with sharp shredded (ORANGE) cheddar cheese. Heat that up for 30 seconds in the microwave, then chopped cherry/grape tomatoes are added, and then you roll the whole thing up. More like a quesadilla than a burrito, really, but this is absolutely a comfort food for me. I'll occasionally add sliced scallions to make it extra special. Another is the "Masi Deluxe" or simply, the hamburger bun featuring just ketchup that I'd eat growing up when I couldn't wait for the actual grilling to start. Sometimes it still hits the spot. Ketchup on rice is another "monstrosity" featuring ketchup I've been known to partake in. ”
— Alexa M.
Comment

Solo is a testament to celebrating all of the reasons we find ourselves alone at the table with knife and fork—and never apologizing for any of them.


Earlier this month I asked the internet (Twitter, Instagram, and you guys!) a couple questions to test a theory: that people are indeed looking for recipes for one and cookbooks like Anita's. The first question was pragmatic:

The second question was more of a conversation starter: What do you cook for yourself when no one's watching? Not knowing what to expect, I got a slew of responses (too many to capture here). But here were some of my favorites:

  • "One giant pancake."
  • "7 eggs with an avocado and ketchup, 6 if someone's watching."
  • "A whole head of broccoli, roasted, and eaten on its own with a fork (it's not like I'm doing this for anyone else)."
  • "Big fat Fordhook lima beans with a ton of butter, salt, and fresh ground black pepper."
  • "The iceberg wedge Grandma would make—with a decent layer of good mayo on the cut sides and some chopped black olives on top."
  • "Tuna on pickles: I make a salty tuna salad with just a little mayo, minced onion and celery, tons of salt and pepper and a splash of pickle brine. Then I pile little mounds onto zesty bread and butter pickles. Maybe sprinkle with more salt and pepper. Then I pop 'em in my mouth and wish there were more!"
  • "Canned corn beef hash."

Many turn to carbs when they're alone, naturally.

  • "Instant mashed potatoes with meatballs in gravy."
  • "An extremely loaded baked potato: roast beef, caramelized onions, butter, sour cream, chives, horseradish."
  • "Leftover pasta, fried in butter with bread crumbs and ketchup."
  • "Pasta alle vongole with a few cups of white wine is my recipe for when my heart aches."
  • "Warm leftover spaghetti and meat sauce sandwich folded into a single slice of fresh white bread with softened butter. (Sigh.)"
  • "Ramen and accidental hard-boiled eggs (I always aim to soft-boil but just can't get it right)."
  • "Shin Ramyun with scallions and a last-minute egg dropped in."
  • "I eat loaves of bread—whole loaves—in one happy sitting. Crusty, crackling, warm artisan hearth loaves fresh from my oven. In baking school, I ate entire baguettes for dinner followed by an apple for good luck."
  • "Frozen pizza."
The things men come to eat when they are alone are, I suppose, not much stranger than the men themselves.
M. F. K. Fisher, An Alphabet for Gourmets

Some get very creative when they're alone.

  • "Crunchy peanut butter, mayo, grape jelly, iceberg lettuce, on gummy, fresh, white bread."
  • "Cheese-covered Ritz crackers melted in the microwave."
  • "Microwave nachos on saltines. Don't hate!"
  • "Saltines and sriracha (apply several dots and eat in two bites)."
  • "Tate's cookies mashed up with a fork in a mug of milk, eaten like cereal (but with the fork)."
  • "Grape Nuts with milk and a couple tablespoons of unprepared Jello powder."
  • "Banana and bacon with mascarpone on a grilled split bun. Drink juice to remove the guilt."
  • "I make packaged ramen (Top Ramen brand, Soy Sauce flavor) and turn it into what I call 'faux pho' by adding more broth and spiking it with fresh ginger and thinly sliced mushrooms, celery, carrots, scallions, red pepper flakes, and a little sesame oil."

A lot of people eat rice when they're alone.

  • "Rice with brown butter–scrambled eggs."
  • "Day-old rice, fried eggs."
  • "Leftover rice, fried egg, soy sauce."
  • "White rice. Sauteed onion. Crispy sunny egg."
  • "White rice with butter, soy sauce, and fried egg on top. Sour kimchi on the side."
  • "Spam and rice, served with kimchi."
  • "Steamed white rice, thin and crispy Spam, fried eggs, and kimchi if I've got it."
  • "Kimchi fried rice, straight out of the pan."
  • "The spiciest-of-spicy, mouth-on-fire fried rice with as much kimchi and gochujang as possible, sautéed in butter, any leftover veggies I have in the fridge (to make me feel that it's healthier?) and an egg."

Some choose to treat themselves when they're alone.

  • "A meal I savor alone—an appetizer of beautifully prepared artichokes or tomatoes, then a piece of grilled fish (halibut or trout, e.g.), finished in brown butter. With Barolo or white zinfandel on the side."
  • "Seared scallops (easy to pop a few out of the freezer) with extra super garlicky greens (whatever I have) and tons of lemon juice on both. The rest of my family would never eat this, so it’s a treat for me."
  • "A pound or more of sautéed mushrooms with Worcestershire, maybe add broccoli or another veg. I don't even bother to put it over pasta—just tuck in with a bowl and a spoon in front of the latest episode of Great British Baking Show."
  • "The only one that sees me eat is the cat. But when I'm feeling particularly indulgent, I make a big pan of chicken livers sautéed with onions, apples, and (of course) bacon."
  • "Sometimes I like to make a lobster and consume it barehanded over the sink."

Somehow, reading all of these made me feel less alone this week, reiterating something that I've always felt about cooking for one: If these are the foods we choose to eat when no one is looking, then why wouldn't we always eat like that?

It's these private meals that seem to celebrate, most honestly, the very act of eating itself—the nourishment of our bodies—as something we should never be ashamed of, regardless of the contents of our plates. And in their casual, unsurveilled preparation, recipes for one also take the stress out of cooking and allow us to seek refuge in the quiet, solitary hummings of the kitchen, in the pleasures that can come from such a reliable self-sufficiency.

What do you cook for yourself when no one's watching? Let us know in the comments below.

110 Comments

Diari November 17, 2018
Two slices of fried bacon, 2 eggs scrambled in bacon fat, and avocado oil mayonnaise in a wrap with a few dots of sriracha! So yum.
 
Talicia S. November 14, 2018
I make fauxshuka. Can of diced tomatoes with cumin, smoked paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, and red pepper flakes with 3 or 4 eggs. Eaten with whatever bready thing I have at the house (bread, tortilla, pita, etc)
 
Merrill S. November 13, 2018
Reading this comment thread is making me SO hungry! My solo meals are almost always cheese-centric, since it's my favorite food group and my husband's least favorite: I can be very happy with a crisp green salad and several thick slices of toasted country bread with a soft cheese (Cambazola, excellent ricotta and La Tur are three of my go-tos). Goat cheese grits with tons of black pepper is another comfort meal, served in a very large bowl!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 14, 2018
Aw, I cook myself a white cheddar shrimp and grits whenever I’m missing Atlanta.
 
meghan November 13, 2018
this is my favorite article as of late; I honestly fantasize about those very rare nights frequently, which usually come but once a year. they're like less ostentatious christmas. i am in the "roast entire head of broccoli for myself" camp, except I do it with a head of cauliflower smothered in sriracha, tamari, and lime -- drizzled in tahini afterwards. UGH. I could make it for my partner and I, but then I'd have to share... and eat it with other things to stretch it! the whole point gone! (selfish, but true!)<br />i am also all for the toast-in-the-oven camp, with a ludicrously big slab of brie and slices of apple. nothing says "alone but not lonely" for me like ingesting a ton of good brie by me onesies.
 
Sasha S. November 13, 2018
A big artichoke, steamed, with lemon garlic butter for dipping, and white wine to drink. Generally after house/yard work or exercise. The artichoke cooks while I'm in the shower.
 
FioDow November 13, 2018
Thank you for this lovely article, this sweet community-builder. I’ve shared it with a dear friend to whom I confessed just this past weekend that I was as uninspired cooking for myself as I am fired up cooking for even one other person. But I do see the pleasure in the one-beloved-food-in-a-bowl meal. It can be anything from good canned corn (Nibblets peaches ‘n cream) w a judicious application of butter, salt & pepper to bokchoy or rapini -even lowly zucchini- sautéed in heaps of garlic. Then there’s the classic alone treat: Haagen Daz chocolate! Spoined straight from the container (they are single-sized aren’t they?)
 
Donna November 13, 2018
Surprised to see someone else shares my love of a big bowl of fat Fordhook lima beans (baby limas won't do) with lots of butter, salt and pepper. But I always top with plenty of grated parmesan or pecorino. Heaven!
 
glenn November 11, 2018
Dan Dan noodles is what I make for myself. Complex yet simple street food.
 
Kristina November 11, 2018
If I'm eating alone, I eat what I love and my husband does not. Usually that is homemade white pizza. I've been known to eat it for days for dinner if he's on a multi-day business trip ;)
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 11, 2018
Mmm. Sounds lovely, Kristina.
 
Tom J. November 11, 2018
a toasted bagel with cream cheese and salsa on top. it weirds the kids out.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 11, 2018
Tom, very interesting. But I see it: The cream cheese/salsa combo probably tastes a bit like sour cream/salsa?
 
Bran<3 November 10, 2018
I love the question and everyone's answers. I like to have whatever baked good I have in the house with a cup of tea or coffee (cake for breakfast). Pancakes. Eggs and bacon. Daiya box mac on a fresh bed of baby kale with tons of black pepper. A simple salad consisting of arugula, grilled chicken, cherry tomatoes, and honey mustard dressing. Heavily seasoned and roasted baby golds with smoked turkey sausage. Sometimes corn chips and spicy hummus, hah!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 10, 2018
I love everyone's answers, too. :) Mm, there's nothing more comforting than something sweet + hot coffee, especially in the morning. If I've baked a layer cake (for myself!) I'll have it for breakfast all week. Major sweet tooth in the morning for some reason...
 
Bran<3 November 10, 2018
I'm the same way. I did just that a week ago when I made a yellow cake with chocolate buttercream frosting. It served as breakfast and desert for several days. Adulting isn't always hard. :D
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 10, 2018
Classic!
 
Hannah211 November 10, 2018
I like to make mu shu pork or chicken with dinner, and use those Blue Dragon rice wraps you find at the supermarket. If I’m feeling really indulgent I make peanut butter pudding for dessert. Sometimes I just eat peanut butter pudding for dinner, too
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 10, 2018
What's peanut butter pudding?? Do you have a recipe.
 
Hannah211 November 11, 2018
I take a store bought chocolate pudding cup – my favorite is the dairy free Lakeview Farms brand – and add two tbsp. peanut butter, one and a half tbsp. cocoa powder, three tbsp. water, and an extra tbsp maple syrup. I mix it all in a deep Pyrex bowl and nuke it for a minute. It splatters the microwave if I don’t. That’s my one serving and it tastes like heaven, well, to me. <br /><br />My favorite brand of PB is Trader Joe’s organic Valencia, crunchy, because it’s also creamy at the same time. Creamy, crunchy, salty, and sweet. I could just take a whole chocolate bar and smother it with this stuff.<br />
 
Hannah211 November 11, 2018
I take a store bought chocolate pudding cup – my favorite is the dairy free Lakeview Farms brand – and add two tbsp. peanut butter, one and a half tbsp. cocoa powder, three tbsp. water, and an extra tbsp maple syrup. I mix it all in a deep Pyrex bowl and nuke it for a minute. It splatters the microwave if I don’t. That’s my one serving and it tastes like heaven, well, to me. <br /><br />My favorite brand of PB is Trader Joe’s organic Valencia, crunchy, because it’s also creamy at the same time. Creamy, crunchy, salty, and sweet. I could just take a whole chocolate bar and smother it with this stuff.<br />
 
poodletail November 9, 2018
Oven-roast a bag of Brussels sprouts with chunks of red potato and onion with good olive oil, Kosher salt, and cracked black pepper. Serve in a bowl with poached eggs and smother with ketchup.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2018
Ketchup really does save the day, every day.
 
daisybrain November 9, 2018
The reason I don't cook for my family the things I choose to make for myself is because my family doesn't like what I make for myself. As a parent and partner one cooks almost always with someone else in mind. It isn't often that I have the chance to consider no one besides myself. Cooking for just myself is a completely selfish endeavor that I get to savor once or twice a year.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2018
Dying to know: What's that once-or-twice-a-year dish?
 
daisybrain November 16, 2018
It varies but right now I would kill for some meaty pan seared sea scallops with brown butter sauce and sauteed spinach with tons of garlic. That or a BIG bowl of popcorn and a bottle of Rioja.
 
Lexi November 9, 2018
Omg I also make "phaux" as we call it in my house. Split a top ramen soy sauce flavour in half , and throw a sliced up hot dog in the water the last minute of cooking. Add slivered bell pepper and onion (makes it "healthy"), half the flavour packet, pour into bowl. Top with sliced scallions, plenty of cilantro. Shredded cheese because there are no rules. Hoisin and sriracha streaked liberally across the top. Made this for my (chef) dad last month and he watched in fascination. It's his new favourite dish.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2018
Sounds like my kind of food: all that freshness from the cilantro and scallions, spiciness from the hot sauce, richness from the cheese (Koreans love adding a slice of yellow American cheese to Shin Ramyun).
 
Jonny November 9, 2018
Shredded roasted chicken, barbecue sauce on a bun add Cole slaw if I have it.<br /><br />Roasted chicken sandwich on toast with extra mayo, cheese, tomato, lettuce<br /><br />Toast made in the oven with lots of butter<br /><br />Cheese toast made until the cheese is bubbly<br /><br />Granola and half and half<br /><br />Pasta made cream with a little pasta water & Parmesan or asiago with roasted chicken, red onion, spinach, LOTS of garlic, salt & fresh ground white pepper. If I have it garlic toast with olive oil.<br /><br />Tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, feta, garlic, salt, pepper & oregano & grilled cheese sandwich<br /><br />Turkey burger with lots of sautéed onions, garlic, mushrooms, & if I have bell pepper. Must have melted cheese on it as well. Bun optional.<br /><br />Strawberries, half and half, & sugar <br /><br />Toast made in oven with lots of butter (I love it so I named it twice)<br /><br />Everything bagels toasted with lots of melted butter on them<br /><br />Popcorn with lots of nacho cheese or white cheddar seasoning on it<br /><br />Popcorn with Louisiana hot sauce on it
 
Jonny November 9, 2018
Oh and I forgot potato chips!!! I mean the large bag of chips that have a cheese or barbecue flavor and are kettle cut. But my all time favorites Zapp's Cajun crawtators or voodoo flavored chips. Those are potato chip nirvana for me. Sigh!!! Oh to live in Louisiana again. 😔
 
Denice November 9, 2018
Oh yes! This reminds me of my love of a good veggie burger on a good GF bun (Beyond Meat Burgers are bomb!) with American cheese, mayo, dill pickles, lettuce, and tomato.<br />And how did I forget Olive Oil Fried Bread?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2018
Curious to know why you specify toast in the oven (vs. the toaster) ?
 
Hannah211 November 10, 2018
Potato chips really do save the date! Being from New England, I like my Cape Cod potato chips. The larger bags always have tons of chips that are folded over, hence fold in a little more salt and good greasiness than the others. Result is a crispy, crunchy, greasy, salty thing that I love in an original chip.
 
Hannah211 November 10, 2018
Oops, thought I was replying "Save the day" to Jonny.
 
Jonny November 10, 2018
I grew up with 5 sisters and two brothers. Using a toaster was not practical as it would have meant my mother was in the kitchen longer making breakfast with hungry mouths to feed. <br />It was more efficient to add pats of butter to slices and run them under a broiler to melt and brown. You had toasty bits with no butter (or in those days margarine) and areas of buttery goodness. It's a childhood comfort thing for me.<br /><br />I can load the bread with 5 pats of butter and toast it letting the butter melt and sink into the bread. Once it's done flip it to toast on second side. If I did right there's a bit of butter on the pan (or foil) that coats the second side that gets browned when I flip it. While it's still warm I slather on lots of really good apple butter. But it's very good plain as well.<br /><br />Doesn't work in a toaster as you can put buttered bread in a toaster. I don't own a toaster oven so that's out for me too. You can do this in a skillet like grilled cheese but it's not the same and it's easier to burn butter in a skillet. But with skillet version you do have option of melting butter and adding lots of garlic to it then toasting the bread in it. For the skillet version Turanos Italian bread or a good sourdough Works very well. For the oven version a very good wheat is better.
 
Jonny November 10, 2018
I fell in love with Cape cod chips while attending college in western MA. They were probably what started my life long live of kettle chips. <br /><br />Oh goodness I'm feeling the need to go to Potbellys just for a Zapp's fix. If you can find Zapp's chips in your area I highly recommend them. But fair warning, the Cajun crawtators & voodoo flavored are spicy. You probably would want use either in your potato chip cookie recipe.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 10, 2018
I love the toast story. Thanks for sharing, Jonny.
 
Lynda W. November 13, 2018
Jonny, we did this, too, growing up. But no broiler - if you put it in the oven at 400 degrees, lower third of the oven, it gets brown on the bottom, too, and dark brown and toasty on top. No flipping required, and works great for thick slices, too.<br />Other great related options: oven raisin-bread toast made with lots of sugar sprinkled over before toasting; banana-cinnamon toast, put slices of banana (not too thick) on each piece of butter, then sprinkle heavily with home-mixed cinnamon sugar, i.e., heavy on the sugar, light on the cinnamon.<br />Needless to say, all these many years later, I still do these often.
 
Christine November 8, 2018
As a retired chef with a husband who travels I have the joy of cooking for myself often. I do try to avoid the pint of Haagen Daz coffee ice cream! A few things I made last month:<br />1. A line caught salmon steak oven roasted with a hefty slather of Dijon, alongside a baked sweet potato. Yeah. I know, an orange meal.<br />2. A French omelet with the very last heirloom tomato from the garden, sautéed organic spinach, and freshly grated Jarlsburg. Maybe this is a French Swiss omelet...<br />3. Kale salad. An entire bunch of organic kale massaged with the juice of a lemon and zest, very good olive oil, a handful of coarse grated Parmesan, another handful of dried cranberries, S&P, (makes the cook feel virtuous because she ate a pint of ice cream the night before)<br />4. A big pot of Lentil soup with Roasted carrots and Fresh mint from Love Soup by the great Anna Thomas. I like to make it with the small French lentils, it gets better and better as the week goes on. The bit of crumbled feta added to the bowl makes it a bit creamy. A toasted bit of a baguette is nice but optional.<br />I try to set the table with a nice placemat, a linen napkin, and savor my own little feast, but there are nights when I just pile dinner onto a Pie plate and watch Rachel Maddow.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2018
Hehe, this is great. I often find myself balancing a pint of B&J with a nice Tuscan kale salad. Everything in moderation—including moderation (Oscar Wilde).
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 9, 2018
Oh, I should add that my Tuscan kale salad is slathered in blue cheese dressing. :)
 
Konny N. November 8, 2018
My spouse will be away for three days next week. I am looking forward to pulling frozen trout out of the freezer. I pan fry it stuffed with lemon and onion. I usually have microwaveable brown rice and some broccoli on the side.<br /><br />I may also have an artichoke with lemon butter for dipping.<br /><br />Sometimes I have popcorn with lots of butter, for dinner!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2018
Butter is the theme here. I love cooking trout en papillote for myself, too. Lots of herbs and butter—and garlic, of course.
 
Beth D. November 8, 2018
i love to treat myself when im alone and have some time to cook, but when im in a bit of a rush ill make pasta with traditional alfredo sauce, just a bit of pasta cooking liquid whisked with a ridiculous amount of butter and parmesan cheese. lately I've been throwing in some roasted delicata winter squash, caramelized onions and a ton of garlic. so rich and delicious, maybe just a tiny bit more sophisticated than box mac n cheese, which makes me feel special.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2018
Beth, that IS the truly Alfredo, huh? No cream? Walk me thru your pasta pls; I'm developing a fettuccine Alfredo for one.
 
D Y. November 8, 2018
Eric -- I love this column! Thank you for writing it, now I'm following you, as I'm sure many others are. And the comments from everyone are wonderful!<br />
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 8, 2018
Aw, thank you D.Y. I’m eating up this comments section too.