The Improving-But-Still-Awful Eating Habits of a Single Empty-Nester

Photo by Aida Solomon on Unsplash

I recently got into an inane argument with my daughter about which dinner is worse: scrambled eggs (me) or ramen (her.) And we’re not talking ramen: delicious and nutritious Japanese noodle soup, but ramen: dried chemicals in a styrofoam cup. Inane, I say!

My daughter cares for my wellbeing and frequently gives me a hard time about eating eggs for dinner, a go-to meal for evenings I am alone. Though she is taller than me, I do try and remember that she is a child and doesn’t have the range of experience I do. I did feed myself as a young single person — actually, I ate quite a lot of ramen — and then myself and my young husband, increasing my proficiency until she came along. For her entire life she has witnessed her mother: a family and community feeding machine.

For the longest time I considered my ability to keep food on the table a big part of what it meant for me to be a good mother (an idea I reject now for many reasons.) On top of shopping and cooking three meals per day from scratch for our family of 4, I belonged to a large church that had a huge food ministry.

We served a free hot lunch weekly to students from the high school across the street. We were connected to the local mission, occasionally helping in the kitchen. BBQs and Potlucks were plenty. We ran a coffee bar. We served dinners to attendees of evening courses the church offered, with groups of volunteers, mostly women, gathered laughing together as they worked over steaming stockpots in the church basement.

My husband and I both grew up in town and had an extended network of family and friends. We loved to entertain and fed a houseful of people a few times each year. For a while I did all the church’s shopping as well as our own. I felt like I lived at Costco. I baked throughout the week. This was the regular routine for a decade and a half.

Then, we moved to a city where we knew no one. Poof went our community. My husband and I were earning more money, but we were busier so restaurant dinners and pizza delivery became weekly events. The kids had grown to getting their own breakfast and packing their own lunches. I still cooked and baked but on nowhere near the scale that I had for a decade. Oddly, I started enjoying it less. Feeding us started to feel like a chore.

3 years ago I experimented with eating low-carb high-fat. My body, energy and mentality really took to it so I’ve kept it up. I adapted what I ate around what my family ate (for example, when I made pasta for them, I served my sauce over spiralized zuchinni.) I started baking less. Subtle changes, but changes nonetheless.

2 years ago I left my marriage and started my MFA (on top of single-parenting and full-time office work) which is when I started eating eggs for dinner on a regular basis.

Eggs, to my daughter’s horror, was the best thing I fed myself. My second-healthiest regular meal was a Teen Burger on a lettuce wrap picked up from A&W on my way home at night. My most frequent dinner was wine and chips while sitting cross-legged in front of Netflix. Sometimes I ate nothing at all. When I cooked eggs, I felt like I was winning at life.

For most of the last 2 years the fridge has been empty. During the weeks my girls were home, we would walk to a restaurant once, order pizza once, and I cooked with the intention of producing leftovers. With this ingenious pattern I could get away with cooking a family meal just 4 to 6 nights each month.

I completed the MFA and left my job this spring. I’ve decided it is time to get out of this funk and relearn how to cook. I’m only 40 which means I have many many many meals ahead of me. I want to take care of myself.

The disaster that has been Covid-19 has held many silver-linings for me. One, is that it broke my terrible habit of eating out, saving me money and forcing me to reaquaint myself with routine meal planning and grocery shopping. I eat simply, but that is fine with me. My intention is to slowly and intentionally expand my repertoire.

And, oh! when I stumble across a man on the dating apps who loves to cook? The possibilities! Being fed? Without having to do anything? Oh my….

Part of my problem is laziness. I scramble eggs, for example, when what I really crave is an omelette. I still add vegetables and cheese, I just skip the steps needed to fold everything elegantly together.

I’m learning how to keep single servings of things in the freezer, whether it is leftovers I can heat up in a pinch, or a single chicken breast that I reserved when my kids were here and I cooked an actual entree.

I feel lucky that I’ve always loved vegetables. They’re so versatile. I’ve come to think of spaghetti squash as a staple, like dried pasta used to be. Squash keeps well in a cool cupboard for weeks. If I make sure to have one on hand most of the time, I know a handful of simple, delicious and nutritionally dense dishes I can make.

I’ve been eating far less meat, which was always an ideal for me. I was a vegetarian before I got married.

I am not sure if I will ever recover the culinary prowess of my youth. I don’t want to, really. I never loved to cook. I did it from necessity and enjoyed it on occasion. Now that I am older and have more choice about how I spend my days I’d rather give my limited earthly hours to other pursuits.

I want to eat well. I believe eating well can mean eating simply. Having to re-learn how to feed myself means I can be more mindful about nutrition for myself, hospitality when my kids are here, and minimising food waste for the sake of peoples and planet.

But, yuck, I will never ever stoop to heating up a 75-cent bag of white flour and preservatives. Maybe I can really impress my daughter and learn to cook actual ramen, complete with fresh vegetables and flavourful broth. I could even add an egg.

Entrepreneur and single proto-empty-nester writing about life changes as she enters her 40s. Excited about everything. MFA Creative Nonfiction.

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