Ever heard of the “Women Laughing Alone with Salad” phenomenon? It started as an image gallery and morphed into a meme about stock photo companies’ bizarre fondness for images of women seemingly overcome with joy and hilarity while dining alone on greens. As one comedian put it, enjoying a bottle of wine solo might inspire that response, but lettuce?

Women Laughing Alone with Salad memeWomen Laughing Alone with Salad meme (Photo: Edith Zimmerman/The Hairpin)

On the TV show 30 Rock, eating alone was depicted more darkly. When asked by Alec Baldwin what she had done the night before, singleton Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey, said, “Well, I was going to my cooking for one class, but my instructor committed suicide.” 

Clearly, there’s a cultural ambivalence about eating for one — even though Americans are now eating most of their meals alone. Some 57 percent of meals in the United States are consumed by solo diners, according to a 2014 study by the market research organization NPD Group.

When we eat alone, we don't always eat well. At least one study suggests older people who dine solo are less likely to eat healthy meals, with single adults over 50 in Europe eating 2.3 fewer vegetable servings a day than their peers who were married or living with someone. 

But it doesn’t have to be that way, says food writer and cookbook author Joe Yonan.

Dining alone in style

Yonan, an award-winning food editor at The Washington Post, should know. He used to write a monthly column for the newspaper on solo cooking (he now writes the Post’s Weeknight Vegetarian column). He has written two cookbooks, “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One" and “Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook.” And although he’s no longer single, he is troubled that anyone might feel it’s not worth bothering to make something delectable “when it’s just me.” 

Food writer Joe YonanFood writer Joe Yonan (Photo: Sarah Kate)

Cooking for yourself means taking care of yourself, says Yonan, who feels that standards shouldn’t go out the window just because there’s a one-place setting. Other well-known food writers have covered this ground, including Judith Jones, Deborah Madison, and Joyce Goldstein, and there’s an anthology of essays on the subject edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. But Yonan adds a male perspective to the mix, and his easy-to-make but tantalizing recipes may well appeal to singles, the fast-growing segment of U.S. households. 

Here are some of his tips for dining well solo.

Create building blocks rather than recipes. Over the weekend or during your free time, make and freeze bags of staples such as rice and beans. Cooked rice and beans, broth or pizza dough can jump-start many a meal, and they’ll keep for ages in the freezer. If you keep your fridge stocked with condiments like kimchee, chutney and salsa, you can brighten dishes effortlessly. And don’t forget to fill your pantry with whole foods such as dried beans, pasta and grains.

Grocery shop on weekends. Never stop at the store on your way home from a long day at work, Yonan says. By the time you get home, you’ll be so tired that you’ll likely settle for cereal and a couple spoonfuls of peanut butter. If you take the time to pick up pantry items and fresh raw ingredients on the weekend, you’ll have the energy to cook when you get home after work.

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Wok out. “What's easier than a stir-fry? It's tempting to say ‘nothing,’ because stir-frying is so versatile and beloved that we all like to think we can do it,” Yonan writes in one of his columns in The Washington Post. It was only after he got a carbon steel wok and seasoned it properly at the urging of cookbook author and "wok queen" Grace Young, he says, that he was able to get the high temperatures necessary for the perfect stir-fry. Now, he says, “I use it several nights a week, so much so that it pretty much lives on my stove top.”

Fire up your oven grill. Yonan says grilling is an amazingly fast and versatile way to cook and bring out the flavors of everything from cabbage to pineapple and red peppers. So get your grill on, and remember it’s not just for meat.

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Freeze left-behind veggies and use them in broth and soups. Yonan, who was born in Albany, Georgia but grew up in Texas, has said that the South has a “reverential relationship” with vegetables. He advises using mild-flavored vegetables, such as the ends and peels of carrots, onions and potatoes and the stems left behind when you strip leaves off chard. But, as he cautions in a recipe for “Scrappy Vegetable Broth” in his Weeknight Vegetarian column, “Don’t use anything particularly dirty (such as the hairy roots of onions), and rinse the trimmings before you freeze them to avoid having to worry about grit later.”

Yonan admits there are days when he is so tired after work that it’s all he can do to grab a wrap on the way home. And he spends plenty of time cooking for friends or dining with them. But, as he writes in “Serve Yourself," “The thing to remember is this: You don’t have to resort to takeout just because you live alone...After all, if you don’t feed yourself well, who will?”

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Sarah Henry is a food writer who has contributed to Grist, Afar, Civil Eats, KQED, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Atlantic and other outlets. She is a contributing editor at Edible East Bay and a regular writer for Edible San Francisco. She has also worked at Time Inc. and has a food blog called "Lettuce Eat Kale."