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Cooking for 1 or 2? How to keep meals creative and nutritious


As we age, the way we eat changes. Perhaps your appetite changes, or your nutritional requirements, or the number of people you’re cooking for — and all of these changes can lead to questions. But with some tips from local nutritionists and an empty-nester who has made the switch to cooking for two, it’s possible to eat nutritiously and deliciously — without too much repetition or reliance on leftovers.

Stephanie Sodak, a registered dietitian, licensed dietitian-nutritionist, and manager of nutrition and culinary services at Willow Valley Communities, offers a key tip: Plan ahead. “It’s better to prepare ahead for foods that you know you like, that you are going to want to make, and that will help people to not just give into buying fast food or convenience foods,” Sodak says. “I also encourage that when someone does cook, cook extra of what they’re making,” she says. “So if they’re making a recipe that calls for chicken or rice or pasta, cook more of those things than what they need because they can then either refrigerate or freeze those and use them later for another recipe. It saves prep time.”
If folks are bored of eating leftovers, there are ways to spice up these pre-prepared ingredients. “They can also reinvent leftovers,” Sodak explains. “So if they did make something, and now they have some leftover chicken or rice, they can wrap that up in a tortilla and make something quick there.” Nicole Keever, a registered dietitian, licensed dietitian nutritionist and founder of Mid Atlantic Nutrition Specialists, recommends herbs as a fresh, healthy way to add lots of flavor to a dish. “Instead of using sodium, which can have some negative impact — especially as we get older with higher risk for high blood pressure — (I recommend) using fresh herbs instead, which can really change a very basic, bland dish into something very exciting, and can create a great deal of versatility.”

At the beginning of the week, try to think of multiple ways to season the core ingredients of your main dish, and let that guide your cooking, Keever suggests. “If you want to create multiple dishes in the same week, but you want to use the same base ingredients, you can do that by changing up the seasonings,” Keever says. “So if you bake a bunch of chicken breasts, for example, you could prepare that five different ways throughout the week, but really only have to do the bulk of your cooking on one day. “You could prepare that (chicken) as a burrito bowl one day, with beans, which are going to give you great fiber, quinoa, which is a great source of both fiber and protein, and use seasonings, like cilantro, for example, and avocado,” she says. “The next day, you can take that same chicken and prepare it with whole wheat pasta, basil and oregano, and have a whole different flavor.”

Linda Brackbill, a resident at Willow Valley Communities, has spent much of her life cooking for a large family — first her family of six as a teenager, and later her family of four (her husband, her two children and herself). Now, even after more than two decades as emptynesters, Brackbill says that cooking for two is still “a work in progress.” She finds soups and casseroles — once a staple of her cooking repertoire — to be the most difficult to cut down in size for her husband and herself. Instead, she’s been experimenting with new recipes (most recently, fish tacos) and learning to reinvent old favorites and repurpose ingredients, instead of simply eating leftovers. “I like to do a roast beef in the Crockpot, and after I do that, sometimes I will use it to make some beef noodle soup,” Brackbill says. “I also use (the leftover beef) for shepherd’s pie, which is another thing that I’ve just recently started making … So then it doesn’t seem like you’re eating the same thing.” Prioritize nutrients Appetites can change as we age, Sodak says. She suggests prioritizing nutrient-rich foods, in order to be sure you’re still fulfilling your daily nutritional needs, even if you’re less hungry throughout the day. “Sometimes older people will think, ‘Well, I’m not hungry, I’m not going to eat.’ You still need to eat. So I encourage people to make every bite count,” Sodak says.

And what are a few nutrients that you should be sure to incorporate in your diet as you age?

“You want to make sure what you are eating is nutritious and is giving you good vitamins and minerals,” Sodak says. “Fruits and vegetables are always key no matter what age, but as we get older, raw fruits and vegetables provide a good amount of fiber that we tend to need.

“I encourage yogurt, cot-tage cheese, things like that, which are fermented and can help keep our gut healthy, which tends to benefit the rest of our body,” Sodak says.

“These are general guidelines and may not apply depending on someone’s specific situation, but the general thing that I think is really important to consider with aging is making sure we’re getting enough protein,” Keever says. “As we age, our bodies naturally begin to break down muscle mass and we want to try to counteract that so we stay as strong as possible, so making sure we have enough protein is really important.

“I would say bone health is very important as we age,” Keever says. “We want to minimize the risk for fracture, so that means working on calcium intake and calcium absorption — so that means both calcium and vitamin D.”

One important reminder? Food is often a part of our social lives, so it’s important to prioritize fulfilling dining experiences, Keever says.

“I think the biggest thing to remember is that food is so very social in our culture, so you want to make sure that you have dining experiences that are fulfilling,” she says. “A lot of times, when I have clients come to talk with me in session who are cooking just for themselves, they might not give as much energy and thought and care to preparing for themselves as they would have if they were preparing for their entire family.

“You can certainly cut recipes in half — or make that an opportunity for connection,” Keever says. “Maybe on Mondays, you cook. Then you go to a friend’s house on Wednesdays and they cook. That way you’re continuing to have the connection that our culture really has built around food times. Because it’s more than just nourishment for your body — it’s that connection with other people. Research backs us up that those who remain connected stay healthier.”

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