Eating alone? So often, it just seems easier to chuck something on a slice of toast for dinner when you’re dining solo, than go to the effort of cooking a whole proper meal. For food writer Janneke Vreugdenhil, her toast topping of choice was anchovies and avocado – if she could bring herself to eat at all.
“After my husband left me three years ago, at first, I couldn’t eat,” she remembers. “I’m a food writer so I’m used to cooking, food is a big part of my life. I get up in the morning and I think about food; I go to bed and I think about food, and suddenly, food was the last thing on my agenda.
“I was so sad, I wasn’t hungry. I was losing weight and I felt miserable. Because divorce is not very good for your self-confidence and self-love, I didn’t love myself enough to think I was worth the trouble of cooking. Then one day I thought, ‘OK, I have to start taking better care of myself’.”
Don’t feel ‘silly’ cooking for just yourself
It was after around six months of living alone – aside from when her two sons were with her – that the Dutch cookery book author and critic finally seared herself a lone wolf of a steak.
“In the beginning, it felt really strange,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘It’s silly, I’m all alone, why am I going to all this trouble? Why don’t I just eat a bag of crisps in bed like a did in the first months?'”
That process of swapping dinners of crisps, supermarket soup and bowls of oatmeal, led to her rediscovering her joy of food, and to recipe ideas, and finally to Solo Food, a cookbook of dishes perfect for one.
She considers the book her “therapy” because it drove her to cook for herself daily, and enjoy it, until “it became a new normal thing to do”.
“After a while, I didn’t eat dinner in front of the television. I decided to sit at the table and properly eat my food with a knife and fork and have a glass of wine with it – and have a proper meal,” she says with pride.
Packaging trends and most recipes make solo cooking more difficult
Janneke’s own sadness and wobbly self-esteem were not the only obstacles to cooking well for one though. “Cooking for one is a different thing than cooking for two, or a crowd or a family,” she explains. “Recipes are always meant for four people, and packaging in supermarkets is aimed at families.” On a practical level, solo cooking can be a logistical nightmare, especially in comparison to the ease involved in surviving on takeout pizza.
“It is far easier to multiply a recipe for one, than to divide a recipe for four into one-person portions – like a cauliflower, you’re never going to eat a whole cauliflower all by yourself, even the natural packaging of it makes it difficult for one person,” Janneke acknowledges sagely. “Meals have to be quick and practical. You have to be clever.”
In Solo Food, she shares a lemon cake in a mug, a bowl of stir-fried prawns to dunk in harissa mayo, ideas for using up stuff across multiple days without rice-fatigue setting in, and a favourite green slush of quinotto that Janneke admits is “not something I would make for someone else, it doesn’t really look good, it’s a bit messy, but it tastes really, really nice”. And, perhaps most brilliantly, she’s stuck in a recipe for ‘oysters, Champagne and a good book’.
Making dinner for one can be an opportunity to experiment and indulge
“So many people live solo for some time in their lives,” says Janneke. “Whether you’re alone by choice or by chance, it doesn’t matter, cooking for yourself is a very precious – and fun – thing to do.”
And when studies show that people who live alone not only eat less varied diets, scoffing meals short on fruit, fish and freshness, they also produce more waste, finding the fun is surely paramount.
“I am cooking more freestyle,” says Janneke, reflecting on how her dinners for one have changed how she works in the kitchen. “I’m doing really funky stuff because there’s no one to say, ‘Oh, you can’t have that with that!’ I put all my leftovers together and sometimes it’s amazingly good, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all and I do have to order pizza, but it’s a real opportunity to cook on instinct, and by heart.
“Restaurant meals, takeouts, ready meals – they’re made for the average palate,” she adds, but when you’re only feeding yourself, you can be specific, decadent, selfish even – you can spoil yourself. “You can make your salad as sour as you want, your soup as velvety as you want, your Chinese food as spicy as you want, you can really follow your own palate. You don’t have to please anyone else.”
Solo Food by Janneke Vreugdenhil, photography by Floortje van Essen-Ingen Housz, is published in paperback by HQ, priced £16.99. Available now.