Leia Kedem: Eating well on a smaller scale

Leia Kedem: Eating well on a smaller scale

By LEIA KEDEM

I opened one of my cookbooks a few nights ago and realized that my recipes are mocking me.

OK, maybe that's a bit harsh, but think about it: Most are written to make four servings or more, suggesting that we should be eating that meal with family or at least a gaggle of friends. But what about the singletons out there?

Whether you live away from family, are an empty nester or have a household of one or two for other reasons, it can be hard to motivate yourself to cook for, well, just yourself.

I'll be honest, I've often turned to frozen meals and takeout. Hey, no cleanup!

Still, there are plenty of benefits to cooking from scratch, even on a smaller scale. Homemade meals can be more nutritious, better tasting — and certainly cheaper — than regularly going for restaurant fare.

So what is the best strategy to scale it down? Here are my best tips.

You can still use family favorite recipes. Choose those with ingredient amounts that are easy to divide mathematically.

If the scaled-down recipe calls for only half a can of beans or small quantity of another type of ingredient, put the extra in a plastic container in the fridge and use within a week in another recipe. For things like tomato paste or chicken broth, I like to portion into ice cube trays for future use. This is a good option for recipes that call for amounts as small as 1 or 2 tablespoons.

When it comes to seasonings, keep in mind that you might need to make some adjustments, especially if reducing the recipe gives you uneven measurements like 13/8 teaspoon. In this case, I like to round down to the nearest whole number and add more gradually, tasting each time.

I often omit the salt that is called for in the recipe and then add to taste. Amazingly, most of the time I find that I don't need nearly as much as written — and I'm sure my blood pressure is thanking me for it. I also tend to add more ground black pepper. To me, this helps bring out flavors without salt.

Another issue with scaling down recipes is that cooking time may need to be reduced. Then, check for doneness 5-10 minutes sooner than the time listed.

Important: Take notes on what works and what doesn't, like ingredients used, changes to seasonings, cooking method, time, etc. That way you can replicate your great results in the future.

Of course, convenience items aren't completely off limits. Consider buying precut or prepared ingredients if they fit into your budget. They might be more expensive but can save time and effort. They are also usually found in smaller amounts that fit your needs.

Frozen foods are also great options. Frozen chicken breasts tend to be smaller than those you would buy fresh and are closer to the recommended 3-ounce portion size.

Sometimes you can get great deals on large packages of fresh chicken breasts and other meats. Just because it says family pack doesn't mean you can't get in on the savings. Form ground meat into patties and cut up steaks into portions the size of a deck of cards or an iPhone.

I have found that boneless skinless chicken breasts tend to be much larger than what one person would need, but this can be easily remedied by cutting the piece in half.

Even better, butterfly the portioned pieces; when they are thinner, they'll thaw quicker and then take less time to cook through. These freeze very well when individually wrapped tightly in foil and then stored in a freezer bag.

You can even get a roast; prepare as directed by a recipe, then portion out leftovers. Freeze in plastic containers to eat as a quick meal on a busy day or use as part of another recipe like a soup, stew or casserole.

What about "not wanting to go to all that trouble?" I understand that it can take effort and make a lot of dishes dirty if you prepare a new dish every night.

Set aside some time on the weekend to think about ways you could repurpose ingredients over a few days. Leftover cooked chicken could be eaten on a sandwich, tossed with greens and dressing for a salad or stir-fried with vegetables and rice. Cooking a little extra once can feed you at least twice.

Although we all have busy lives, we often forget that being social is an important part of the eating experience that can add to our enjoyment and satisfaction. Get together monthly with friends and do a potluck dinner and recipe swap. Allow others to benefit from your delicious creations and get new dishes to try.

If this all seems daunting, no worries. Scale up your cooking confidence by making a scaled-down recipe once a week, then increase the frequency when you get more comfortable.

Just remember: Whether you are a newbie or seasoned pro in the kitchen, you're worth the time and effort. Even — or especially — when it's just you.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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