You arrive home from a hectic workday, famished and exhausted. Why not race off to the organic market for some Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, stoneground quinoa, farm-fresh eggs and broccoli? You've been meaning to make that souffle featured on your favorite cooking show, and you can enjoy nutritious gourmet cuisine in ... three hours. Plus traffic.
Of course, that's not realistic. You're busy and that box of Raisin Bran Crunch is ready and waiting. You can pour it, plop down on the sofa and eat within minutes with your favorite sitcom. Or perhaps you thought somewhat ahead and, on your way home, swung through the fast food drive-through -- again.
If these scenarios sound familiar, you're not alone. Americans are eating solo and on-the-run more than ever. Rather than plan your day around balanced meals, you may struggle to squeeze meals in. In some ways, the abundance and convenience of food is an asset, but failing to prepare and sit down for nutritious, balanced meals poses numerous risks. Gaining an understanding of solo-dining pitfalls may inspire you to avoid those problems.
We metabolize all of our experiences, not only the food we eat. When we are single and watching the news while we dine, we absorb that, too. If the news program is about murder and mayhem, that is not a positive pairing.
- Darcy Lubbers, certified marriage and family therapist
Countertops, Cars and Couches
With about 50,000 fast food chains in the United States, according to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, it's unsurprising that Americans spend more than $140 billion on fried, salty and super-sized drive-through fodder. In 2007, Americans spent another $7 billion on frozen foods, much of which consisted of ready-to-eat meals and pizzas. This rising popularity of packaged, prepared and heavily processed foods presents a number of risks.
"I don't have hard numbers on the frequency," said registered dietitian Dina Aronson, "but it has definitely become more common in the modern world, as less emphasis is placed on family meals and more people eat on the go, at their desks, in front of the TV and at home solo."
The availability of fast and frozen foods make them "so convenient for a single person," said Sylvia Melendez-Klinger, a registered dietitian and founder of Hispanic Food Communications Inc. "Eating on your own lends itself to developing unhealthy eating habits -- eating too much or not enough, eating in front of the TV or standing and not taking the time to eat properly."
While dining alone, you're also more likely to eat food straight from packages rather than from properly-portioned plates. And reheating, microwaving and can-opening may account for your sole "cooking" techniques.
If your meals lack fresh foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and fiber-rich whole grains, you run the risk of developing nutrient deficiencies, poor digestive health and an increased susceptibility for infections and disease. Many frozen, canned and prepared snack foods contain excessive amounts of sugar and sodium -- traits that can contribute to serious health problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
In a study published May 2008 in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," researchers analyzed the dietary patterns, TV viewing habits and weight of Australian adults ages 26 to 36. Women who watched more than three hours of TV per day were significantly more likely to exhibit severe abdominal obesity compared with women who watched less than one hour per day. Moderate abdominal obesity was prevalent among male avid-TV watchers and uncommon among men who watched little daily TV.
Weighty Emotional Effects
Doing your solo dining on-the-run or amid intense distraction also brings emotional complications.
"We metabolize all of our experiences, not only the food we eat," said Darcy Lubbers, a certified marriage, family and art therapist. "When we are single and watching the news while we dine, we absorb that, too. If the news program is about murder and mayhem, that is not a positive pairing."
As a result, you can experience added stress, anxiety, depressive moods and physical symptoms, such as indigestion, bloating and heartburn. Because it takes about 20 minutes for your mind to send "I'm full!" messages to your body, said Lubbers, eating quickly and mindlessly -- without paying attention to food, your body or its needs -- can also lead to overeating and associated guilt, shame and general emotional discomfort.
A study published in the "Journal of Applied Gerontology" in December 2000 examined the emotional and physical effects eating alone or with others had on 63 retired Swedish women. Researchers found that women who cooked with and for others were far more likely to view meal preparation as a gift, use fresh ingredients and present foods in a visually appealing manner. Widows who dined alone exhibited little joy around meal preparation and eating. As a result, they also showed higher risks for poor nutrient intake -- a scenario that can exacerbate emotional and physical health problems.
Playing Uno Right
Cooking and dining alone can lead to heightened physical and emotional satisfaction, if you approach them properly.
To improve your personal nutrient intake, pinpoint and address your specific obstacles.
"If it's a time issue, I would focus on time management," Aronson explained. "If it's a convenience issue, I would suggest tips for increasing the nutrition value of meals that are still convenient. It's OK to eat these foods for dinner occasionally, but if eaten for dinner, as the rule and not the exception, over time the body will suffer. Our bodies need fresh foods to thrive."
You can also up the nutritional ante of processed foods by adding nutritious ingredients or side dishes. Rather than consume a frozen meal on its own, for example, serve it with a fresh fruit or vegetable salad. Add diced tomatoes, brown rice, black beans or frozen mixed veggies to canned soups. For added calcium and protein, swap water and sodas out for low-fat or soy milk.
And if you deem cereal and milk reasonable dinner fare, or simply the most convenient option, consume it occasionally and wisely.
"Cereal is certainly convenient and tasty, but it lacks the freshness factor, and it's easy to overeat," said Aronson. "If you're going to have cereal for dinner, a low-sugar whole-grain variety with added fruit and nuts, with fortified soy milk, is a heck of a better choice than Cocoa Pebbles."
Preparing your own nutritious meals also provides emotional benefits, which then positively affect your body.
"Cooking and dining alone ... provides an opportunity to do what I call an eating meditation," said Lubbers.
She suggests setting the table -- even adding candles -- and viewing your solo dining as a sacred event. "If we sit and pay attention to the colors, tastes and textures of our meals it increases our body's ability to absorb that food."
Eating mindfully, with awareness of the food you're eating and your body, increases the likelihood of eating appropriate amounts; you become aware of your body's hunger and satiation levels, while reaping more enjoyment from your food. People who eat mindfully, according to Lubbers, tend to eat less.
Cooking can evoke a mindful state, too, by increasing your appreciation for food and its preparation. The time it requires can take the urgency out of last-minute food grabbing and allow you to pay attention to the sight, colors, aroma and flavors of your dishes before your meals even begin.
If cooking seems intimidating, start simply. Boiling whole grain pasta and heating prepared pasta sauce with additional vegetables is a more mindful experience than microwaving a prepared pasta dish. And the end result typically provides more fiber and antioxidants and fewer artificial ingredients compared to prepared meals.
Other simple, nutritious dishes include vegetable omelets, using those leftover veggies you fear will "go bad"; homemade French toast, prepared with whole grain bread and egg whites; and quinoa or brown rice topped with veggies, beans and tofu. For healthy "curry in a hurry," Aronson suggests simmering frozen mixed vegetables on your stove with a jarred curry simmer sauce and desired protein.
If you still wish to attempt that whole grain souffle recipe "as seen on TV," consider investing in a simple, healthy recipe book or peruse the Web for trusted recipes. To safeguard against ordering pizza, you may want to keep a few healthy-ish prepared meals on hand until you've honed your skills.