In 1963, the German television station NDR recorded an 18-minute single take of Dinner for One, a comedy sketch written by Lauri Wylie. According to older editions of the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the most re-aired television program ever, often shown on New Year's Eve in countries all over the world (including Germany, Denmark, Sweden, South Africa, and Australia).
It's a real slapstick gem. Miss Sophie hosts a dinner for her 90th birthday, inviting her four friends, Sir Toby, Admiral von Schneider, Mr. Pomeroy, and Mr. Winterbottom. Unfortunately, she's outlived all of them, so instead she dines alone. The film should be devastating, were it not for the butler, James, who keeps her company throughout the meal.
Dinner for One is a traditional affair à la russe: four courses (mulligatawny soup, North Sea haddock, chicken, and fruit). Each course is a lap around the same joke: James serves Miss Sophie her food and then has to impersonate the guests, making a birthday toast at all four seats (this means four shots each of sherry, white wine, Champagne, and Port).
Every time he stumbles back to the sideboard, where the food sits, he trips over a tiger-skin rug with a head that juts out from the ground. (Humor here comes from the fact that as James gets drunker and drunker, he becomes more cognizant of the rug and even hopscotches over it toward the end of the meal.)
"The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?" he asks at each course.
"The same procedure as every year, James!" she answers.
This was my roundabout way of saying: Eating dinner alone doesn't have to be a sad affair. If anything, it's a chance to collect your thoughts, to be with yourself and with yourself alone, and to brush off the day's excesses.
Though it would be nice, I'll admit, to have a James keeping me company, I take great pleasure in preparing myself a small supper when I can. There are a few pantry staples I rely on for this: quick-cooking meats like seafood and steak, carbohydrates like pasta and white rice, and a selection of amaros with which to end the meal (and to aid in digestion).
Another thing about recipes for one: They're incredibly easy to scale up (just multiply the ingredient quantities by however many you're feeding). Scaling down a recipe, on the other hand, is like nails on a chalkboard. There's nothing like dividing a recipe by six to eight to remind you of your loneliness. The New Yorker's parody of the FoodNetwork.com recipe review hits this nerve dead on:
I live alone in a studio apartment with only a mini fridge, so leftovers aren't an option. And every time I try to reduce the size of a recipe, it just doesn't come out right. Don't get me wrong, Ina Garten—I am completely fine with being a forty-nine-year-old assistant funeral director who has only ever purchased twin sheets. Totally. Fine. But why don't you try dividing 1⁄4 teaspoon of fleur de sel by eight? Do you think I just happen to own an electron microscope?
For you and for me, here are 28 single-serving dinner recipes (most developed by yours truly, plus a couple by other anchorites here on earth) so you don't have to go out and buy an electron microscope.
Lightly dressed in a malt vinaigrette, this salad is exactly what I want to eat when I want to eat absolutely everything. I can have the chicken, the eggs, and the bacon. Better yet, each will be perfectly cooked and deliberately composed in relation to the others (i.e., blue cheese, cherry tomatoes, avocado slices, and gorgeously bitter radicchio).
The dinner salad of Dinner Salads™. This Caesar is meaty and substantial enough to be a meal on its own, especially the way I make it: one whole romaine heart, scattered on a large plate with a gutsy, anchovy-heavy dressing, upgraded with roasted seaweed snack and nutty sesame oil.
Anita Lo "relies on the toaster oven to roast the vegetables for her vegetarian tacos, and even to warm the tortillas on top," Genius Recipes columnist Kristen Miglore writes. "She quick-pickles a handful of radishes, quarters, and roasts the rest, then wilts the greens in, too ... Everything is considered and nothing goes to waste."
I remember the way, years ago (before I learned to cook in any real capacity), the way an avocado half would make me full; even fuller when I'd smash roasted seaweed snack, sesame oil, and salt into it with a fork. Flecked onto a slice of toast, it was the most delicious way to satisfy those after-school hunger pangs.
I find great comfort in knowing that, as long as you have one egg, a little milk, and some flour, you're just a greased ramekin away from a Yorkshire pudding. My version takes the original recipe (egg, milk, flour) and "turduckens" it into another British delicacy: Welsh rarebit. We Americans have no idea what any of this means (why is it called pudding?), but let me tell you, it's nice with meats and gravies, or as a savory dinner for one—especially with a green salad, or just a glass of wine and a good book.
This lovely recipe comes by way of former Food52 editor extraordinaire Nikkitha Bakshani. "It closely mirrors what I would call the best egg salad sandwich I've ever eaten in my life, widely available at conbini (convenience) stores across Japan," she writes. "My personal favorite one was at 7-Eleven, but they all have the same idea: super-smooth eggs that don't shy away from mayo, in between soft white bread." Complete with potato chips or a side salad, this meal for one couldn't be simpler.
The joy of writing this piece is that I get to highlight those underrated recipes readers may have missed the first time around in the column. Here, an otherwise laborious dish, chicken pot pie, is transformed into a quick weeknight meal for one. Radishes, peas, and an umami-rich Thai coconut curry fill a buttery pie crust—and it all gets cooked in one pan. I adore eating this for dinner, but making it is also a pleasure. Even the pie crust is homemade, with the idea in mind that rolling out a single portion of dough is easier than rolling out a normal one (but what is "normal," anyway?).
Inspired by an immeasurably delicious garlic shrimp dish I had at a Chinese restaurant in Hawaii, this dinner for one makes good use of a high-heat oven. Marinated shrimp caramelizes in its own juices, creating a sauce that's made even saucier thanks to a last-minute pat of butter and spritz of lemon juice. The usual scampi players are present (garlic, lemon, and red pepper flakes), but I went with mirin instead of white wine and soy sauce instead of salt, lending it some of that Waikiki palate.
I’ve always felt that frying at home was never worth the mess, but when you’re cooking small-scale like this, the oil feels more manageable. I like to make a classic milk gravy with some pan drippings, essentially a cowboy's version of a béchamel. The most important ingredient here for me is the nutmeg, that deep, earthy cure-all for homesickness.
I regret that this dish may have been overshadowed by the long, sad story it accompanied. Melancholy aside, it really is a useful dinner recipe to keep in your back pocket. Baked chicken breasts with a raw corn salad—what more does one need?
I developed this recipe for two reasons: 1) Apparently Marilyn Monroe made lamb chops for herself when she lived alone (and who doesn't want to be Marilyn Monroe?). 2) Lamb chops cook up super fast (we're talking one to two minutes per side), which is ideal for when you need to hit the kitchen running.
It might seem like an extravagance to cook duck for one, but I stand by it. This pan-seared duck breast recipe almost asks that you be negligent, as the fat needs time to render in the pan, untouched, left to do what it does best.
Sustainable salmon fillet and gorgeous hunk of Gorgonzola aside, it's likely you’ll already have all these ingredients on hand—and dinner will be ready in 20 minutes tops.
"This recipe is a great way to use up old bread," writes Lo. "Day old, week old, two weeks old—as long as it isn't moldy, it will work. The lemon and olive oil soaks into the dry bread to make it soft and delicious again. And paired with the chicken breast, you have a balanced meal that covers all four food groups."
The true star here is the caper-raisin butter that runs through the entire foil packet. I first read about this golden elixir in Tacos: Recipes and Provocations by Alex Stupack and Jordana Rothman, who got it from Jean-Georges Vongerichten. "This scallop preparation helped make JGV's flagship restaurant a sensation when it opened in 1997," they write in the recipe's headnote. I thought it was the strangest combination of ingredients and had to try it for myself. Now I keep a jar in my fridge most weeks of the year. It tastes great with pasta, roasted cauliflower, raw bitter vegetables, and of course, scallops.
Exceedingly simple, yes, but don't knock it till you've tried it: This is my father's favorite way to cook baby back ribs. As one reviewer reports back, "I truly doubted and had serious reservations about this recipe, but I also had a rack of ribs that wasn't going to fit in the freezer. I should not have doubted at all; these ribs were stellar! Huge return on the tiny investment of time and effort and almost nonexistent ingredient list."
"This was the best burger recipe I have tried thus far," writes in one reviewer. "It was easy to prep and make. Everyone on the table devoured it. I have since added other ingredients just to change it up, but the original recipe is the best ever. The taste of the cinnamon and rosemary really complement each other. I have even started adding these spices to my meatballs."
Here's a weeknight workhouse of a supper, something I like to cook for myself when I have time for nothing else. Sweet, salty, and life-affirming, the fish sauce–lime butter is at once funky caramel and umami personified. (Don't forget to turn on your range hood vent, though.)
Spaghetti Napolitan (named after Naples, Italy), or what I like to call "ketchup spaghetti," was invented by the head chef at the New Grand Hotel. Since tomato sauce was a rare ingredient in postwar Yokohama around the 1950s, ketchup was used as a substitute. Unfortunately, some people hear the word "ketchup" and cringe. I have a theory: The American palate has for so many decades been conditioned to associate Heinz ketchup as a condiment, disallowing any acknowledgement of it as an ingredient in its own right. Which is unfortunate because (hear me out) when you caramelize it in butter, onions, and red bell peppers, it gains an almost tomato paste–like flavor that pairs beautifully with pasta. It's important to note here, too, that many cultures in the world have some variation of this dish and adore it.
The star ingredient here is white miso—it adds that savory depth, made even better once fried in olive oil. If ever there were a dish you'd want to eat on repeat, then this umami-packed eggplant spaghetti must be it.
If Americans have delivery pizza, then Koreans have jjajangmyeon (often romanized as jajangmyeon), a popular black bean noodle dish studded with fatty pork. In Seoul, you can order it over the phone and have a bowl delivered to your door in a matter of moments. (Or you can make it at home.)
Real Alfredo—the original from Rome, at least—doesn't have a lick of cream. Just fettuccine, butter, and cheese, tossed together with the pasta's starchy cooking liquid to create a sauce that looks and tastes very close to heavy cream. At his restaurants in Italy, Alfredo di Lelio would do this tableside as a sort of ceremony for the guests.
"In his book, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania, Arthur Schwartz introduced me to the simple delights of pasta cooked with fried eggs," says recipe author Rhonda. "Living alone overseas while my husband was deployed with the USAF, I became a bit obsessed with this dish—to the point where my sister, Amanda, thought she might have to run an intervention. Ten years later, I have added to and changed this recipe to fit my own tastes. The yolks coat the pasta and the whites provide little puffs of yumminess throughout this peppery, garlicky dish. The pangrattato tops it all off by adding bits of crunch and bright bursts of lemon and rosemary."
This recipe was linked to in The New York Times last year and was, in its own way, the reason my column came to be. (Thank you, Tejal Rao.) The dish's success proved that people are indeed looking for single-serving dinners, especially ones which don't result in leftovers. Eighteen relaxing minutes are all you need here—and don't forget to eat this pesto risotto straight out of the pan with a wooden spoon. (It just tastes better.)
I'm forever grateful for this recipe's food stylist, Yossy Arefi, who made my eggs look creamier and dreamier than I ever could've imagined. Its origin story is humble: I came home from work one night to an empty kitchen, save for a few eggs, rice (which I always have stocked), and a packet of roasted seaweed snack. I decided to turn these eggs into a scramble; in went some sesame oil, soy sauce, and a little sugar—and I found that the whole lot tasted not unlike those tamago nigiri you get at sushi restaurants. My soft-scrambled tamagoyaki was born.
Another Japanese favorite: all the sweet and salty barbecued eel you can eat over fluffy white rice. If you know, you know.
Dolsot bibimbap is a classic Korean dish of mixed rice with vegetables, served in a sizzling hot stone bowl. The earthenware caramelizes the rice and forms a tahdig-like crust on the bottom, which tastes fantastic against the meat, gochujang (red pepper paste), and fresh white rice. Here, I've replaced the stone pot with the more readily available cast-iron skillet. Everything gets cooked in this one pan, which means dishes are reduced and caramelization is heightened.
A more grownup take on the broccoli-cheese-rice casseroles I grew up adoring, but with salty-nutty Parmesan and bitter-as-can-be broccoli rabe. Because there are days, after one too many late-night fried chicken sandwiches and French fries, when what my body really craves is bitterness.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).Order now