From the time I was a little girl, I was taught that to cook for someone is to show them that you love them. I grew up in a traditional Italian-American home, where there was a lot of emphasis placed on food and how it was consumed. On Sundays, we’d gather at one of my grandparents’ homes to pass heaping plates of spaghetti and meatballs around. When my brothers and I would come home from school, my mom would already be starting to cook dinner. We were expected to sit down and eat as a family every evening.
In my family, food was the sixth love language. And that’s translated into my relationships as I’ve gotten older. I’m never not looking for an excuse to cook for my friends. My apartment wish list doesn’t include outdoor space or an extra bedroom. It includes a dishwasher and a space big enough for me to host dinner parties. When I’m dating someone new and I really start to like them, the first thought that crosses my mind is, “How soon is too soon to invite them over for dinner?”
But my belief that food is love has always faltered when I’m cooking for one — which, as a single woman who lives on her own, I do a lot. I’ve tried to find the same excitement in preparing Ina Garten’s skillet-roasted lemon chicken for myself as I would a new boyfriend, but when I’m doing it for me, I just can’t seem to get it up. That’s when I wind up going the easy route: canned soups, pasta, salads, some peanut butter smeared over an apple. Or I just toss my hands in the air and Seamless my way out of the issue.
When I recently told a friend that cooking for one was depressing — “What’s the point if there’s no one to cook for?” — she told me that was all ego, which might be fair. Even so, having no one around to share meals with had become one of the things I disliked most about being single.
All that started to change about two months ago. I was in Paris for a solo vacation and met a woman named Sutanya Dacres at a cocktail party. She told me her story — how she’d grown up in New York City and moved to Paris after falling in love with and marrying a French guy. They eventually split, and since then she’s been hosting a podcast called Dinner For One. She told me she fell in love with cooking after she moved to Paris and that the podcast helped her rediscover her love for food (and for herself) after her breakup.
Sutanya and I spent some time together while I was in Paris, and the more she spoke about cooking for herself, the more it started to sound appealing to me. By forcing herself to cook for one, Sutanya found a way to enjoy it and reinvigorate herself in the process. For her, it became a lesson in self-love. I binge-listened to her podcast on my flight home, and by the time I landed, I’d decided to give her route a try. Maybe if I forced myself to cook for one, I could learn to love it, too.
I started by going through all of my cookbooks and marking recipes that I was interested in making. I didn’t care whether they were meals for one or meals for 12. I then set a time to go food shopping every week: Sunday mornings. I signed up for a CSA (consumer-supported agriculture) box and tried to take my time in the market, picking out my ingredients with care. I told myself that I should treat these shopping excursions the same way I would if I were hosting a dinner party. Instead of just tossing any old tomato into my cart, I’d take a minute to make sure I was picking the juiciest one possible.
When it came time to finally cook, I turned the process into an experience. I put on some good music or listened to a favorite podcast. I poured a glass of wine and meditatively chopped vegetables. Every time I’d start to get frustrated with how long it was taking, I’d take a breath and remind myself that I was cooking for my favorite person on the planet — me.
The process was definitely slow going at first. I threw together dinners more than I took the time to really cook for myself. Eventually, though, I worked my way up to cooking for myself three nights a week. And once it became a habit, something started to happen. I started to look forward to it. Along with going for a run and taking a yoga class, cooking for myself became a surprisingly meditative way to unwind after a stressful day. And soon enough, I realized that was where the love was — in giving myself a new way to relax at the end of the day. That was how food equaled love when it was just for me.
I’m still cooking three nights a week, although I do admit to cheating occasionally. (These Love The Wild seafood kits have helped me through many a rushed evening.) It turns out that cooking is no longer my least favorite part of being single. Instead, it’s become a new way for me to take time for myself. And there’s no better way for me to express love for myself than that.
Photo by Madeline Montoya.