How to find joy in cooking for one

A meal for one doesn’t need to be pitiable. Looking after yourself should be seen as an act of kindness, not a chore. 

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As a teenager, I could think of no more depressing a future for myself than that suggested by the dog-eared copy of Delia Smith’s One is Fun! that had somehow made its way into the school library. My horrible friends and I roared with laughter at the infinite tragedy contained within that jaunty exclamation mark – when we were given our freedom, we were going to live on bacon Super Noodles and white Magnums.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and I’ll cheerfully admit that the pleasure I take in cooking for myself is one of the chief things that’s got me through the last 12 months. As much as I love sharing food with friends and family, with few rival claims to my attention the menu has become the excitement of my weekend.

Smith, who is married, reassures readers that she, at least, doesn’t “share the dismissive opinion of the lady who commented, ‘People on their own? All they want is a yoghurt’” – a strangely common belief, even among those who should know better. Kathleen Le Riche, whose entertaining 1954 work Cooking Alone, has recently been reissued by Faber & Faber, reports she encounters almost universal resistance among single friends: “Whether the solitude is more or less permanent, or a temporary ménage, the attitude is, I can’t be bothered.” Yet, as one of her characters muses: “If I’m not a captive, and not a nun under a vow of abstinence, then why don’t I give myself the pleasure of eating?”

[see also: Banana ice cream and a cheat’s Spanish omelette can make cooking with children fun]

Leaving aside those who take no particular satisfaction in food, the reason must surely be that you don’t think yourself worth the effort – a perspective on life that would have seemed miserable 70 years ago, let alone in our “self-care” era. Francesca Specter gives such “Only Me-ism”, as she calls it, short shrift in her book Alonement: How to be Alone and Absolutely Own It: “You wouldn’t expect your partner or close friends to make do with a nutritionally devoid toast and jam ‘dinner’ so why should you have to when you’re alone?… You’re not ‘only me’, you matter.”

Signe Johansen – whose book Solo: the Joy of Cooking for One, is now out in paperback – observes: “Rather than asking why you should bother cooking for yourself, try reframing your thinking: start with the assumption that looking after yourself is an essential act of kindness, and suddenly cooking a few simple dishes doesn’t seem like such a chore.”

Fortunately, I am both greedy and privileged enough to find it a treat. I’m with Nigel Slater in his insistence that “no one should even think of pitying the single cook. That vision of the lone diner with their sad little can of baked beans and their individual portion of M&S shepherd’s pie is actually a myth put around by couples desperately trying to reassure themselves.”

After a year of full-time catering for partners and children, I suspect it’s now easier to see the attraction of being able to eat what you want when you want, with no one asking if they can have ketchup on it. Although sharing food is one of the most universal of social interactions, it cannot be denied that sometimes it’s rather nice when “the only thing you have to consider is what you want to eat… simple as that”, as the America’s Test Kitchen’s collection Cooking for One sells the idea.

Your incentives for cooking are likely to be different from mine. What’s important, if enthusiasm is failing you at this point, is reminding yourself that you’re absolutely worth it. 

[see also: Winemakers, like artists and musicians, know how to wring something bright from murky times]

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 17 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold

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