Eat alone? Make your meals nutritious

Dinner parties, cooking for a crowd, fixing the family meal—those are easy compared with the challenges of cooking for one. If you live alone, chances are you don't give your meals a lot of thought or preparation.

Many times eating alone means throwing a meal together or getting take out. Such practices may mean unhealthy meals that over time may negatively impact health.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend a certain number of calories each day for three different levels of physical activity, based on age and gender:

FEMALE 19–30 1800–2000 2000–2200 2400
31–50 1800 2000 2200
51+ 1600 1800 2000–2200
MALE 19–30 2400–2600 2600–2800 3000
31–50 2200–2400 2400–2600 2800–3000
51+ 2000–2200 2200–2400 2400–2800

In addition to sufficient calories, you need adequate amounts of the three main energy sources available to the body: protein, carbohydrates and fat. 10–35 percent of your calories should come from protein: beans, nuts, soybeans, meat, poultry, eggs or dairy products. 45–65 percent should come from fiber-rich carbohydrates, and 20–35 percent should be from fats (with only 10 percent from saturated fats). Depending on the amount of calories recommended for your age and activity level, to achieve these goals you should aim each day for 1½–2½ cups of a variety of fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruits; 2–4 cups of a variety of different colored vegetables; 5–10 ounces of grains, at least ½ of which should be whole grains (1 ounce of grain is equivalent to ½ cup of cereal); and 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or other dairy products.

Here are some suggestions to make solo eating nutritious and interesting.

Don't skip breakfast

Cereals are a good choice for the first meal of the day, particularly if you add milk and fresh fruit. Another breakfast idea is a smoothie, with yogurt, fruit and nonfat dry milk. You can even take that with you as you head out the door on a busy day. Although muffins and bagels are popular breakfast items, most low-sugar cereals are better for you, If you insist on a bagel, try topping it with a little peanut butter for extra nutrition.

Buy smart by not buying too much

Many single people are worried about buying too much and wasting it. Instead, buy only what you need. Supermarkets are much more "solo-friendly" than they used to be. At the meat counter, ask for two chicken legs or one salmon steak. In the dairy section, look for a half-dozen eggs. Try individual salads, which don't cost any more than a whole head of lettuce.

Choose foods that won't spoil

Buy things that are inexpensive but have a long shelf life, such as yogurt, nonfat dry milk and potatoes. A baked potato—chock full of nutrients—can be topped with broccoli, shredded cheese or leftover chili. Add a salad on the side, and you've got an excellent meal in a short amount of time.

Set aside a 'cooking day'

Make up batches of spaghetti, chili and bean soup, for instance, and freeze them. You can eat part of one dish one night, have more for lunch the next day, and still have enough for one more meal—that's three in one.

Use a crock pot

You can start the evening meal in a crockpot before you leave for a busy day. Toss in vegetables, beans and meat and let it cook while you're away. At the end of the day, you will find a delightful aroma awaiting you.

Keep frozen, canned foods on hand

Frozen and canned foods can save time for a quick dinner. You can cook up frozen vegetables in the microwave and serve them over pasta. Or, freeze chicken breasts and then cook them in the microwave. Prepared foods can also work, but read the labels carefully. Many of these products are high in sodium. And try to buy them on sale, if you're counting pennies. Frozen entrees offer precise portions, but sometimes they need to be supplemented with a salad and milk for a complete meal.

Watch portions

Know how much of a meal is considered one serving, and then put the rest of the meal away. Or, don't cook more than you will eat at one sitting. Most foods will last a few days in the refrigerator, especially if you place them at the back of the fridge, where it's coldest.

Cut recipes in half

If you use a cookbook, make half a recipe. Watch the timing as you cook smaller quantities. Smaller dishes are trickier to cook. For instance, a 1½ pound pork roast cooks quickly. So, be on your toes to ensure your single dish serving turns out just right!

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