Cooking for one has never been a challenge for me. I relish the half-hour it takes me — or, rather, the half-hour I give myself, even on the most harried of days — to chop vegetables, sauté some tofu or scramble an egg, assemble a pretty salad, and slice a piece of fruit. Set on a tea tray with a glass of wine and a candle, my evening repast has long been a private and very personal little affair that gives me exactly what I like: lots of fiber, some protein, and a healthy serving of relaxation.
Because I suffer from mild reactive hypoglycemia, my blood sugar dives dangerously after I eat large meals, and most especially when they’re high in refined carbohydrates. So whole grains can make a cameo appearance on my plate, but potatoes, pasta, and white rice are verboten. I stick with veggies and some lean protein, and I’m good.
Cooking for two, however — as in, myself plus my boyfriend — is an entirely different matter. And no, it’s not what you think.
He’s an omnivore today, but he was raised as a vegetarian, which means that he’s as happy eating seitan and chickpeas as steak and chops. I don’t have to worry that he’ll turn up his nose at “Erika food” — eclectic, veggie-rich, and often a bit eccentric. He genuinely likes my cooking, and I like having someone to share meals that are just a little more thoughtfully composed than I would usually make just for myself. It’s a perfectly lovely arrangement.
But after we’d been dating for three months, it became painfully clear that my dietary habits didn’t suit him. He was tall (six feet, seven inches) and quite trim before we started dating; with me, he was becoming thinner and thinner. Clearly, his stomach wasn’t getting enough to eat at my place.
We’d dine on what I considered a substantial, filling meal of whole foods. A few hours later, I’d find him in the kitchen, downing a bowl of generously buttered rice with a few handfuls of shredded cheese.
He’s not much of a cook, so asking him to cook his own meals wasn’t particularly helpful. And I liked cooking for two. So I sat down and considered a few strategies — dubbed Operation Don’t Starve the Boyfriend — for meals we would both enjoy.
Cooking for myself, I rarely use fats; my stir-fries sizzle in a nonstick pan, while my salads go undressed. But the boyfriend enjoys their flavor, and they do add some nutrients as well as a good helping of calories. So nowadays, I set aside my portion of a meal before adding a little fat to his portion.
When I make a stir-fry, for example, my portion comes out of the pan first. I add a slug of sesame oil to his portion and, after a minute or so on high heat, everything crisps up nicely. And both of our servings are still hot when we sit down to eat.
Similarly, I can plate my piece of venison with red wine-mushroom sauce first, then add the butter that I omitted from the sauce recipe just to his serving, still in the pan.
This is a common restaurant trick that’s easy to implement at home. Steamed kale, collards, or chard make a fine bed for stews and stir-fries — especially if you like sturdy greens. Meanwhile, you’re also setting the rice cooker or boiling some pasta for the starch lover.
This trick works fantastically for soups, too: Cook some pasta or rice separately from the soup (you can cook the greens directly in the soup, as they will soften up from the heat of the soup alone) and then combine the elements as desired for each individual serving.
Toppings are a life-saver. If the boyfriend walks into the kitchen and declares that he’s extra-hungry (or thinks that dinner looks a little light), I turn to my garnish repertoire. Chopped nuts, avocado, unsweetened coconut, dried fruit, and cheese all add calories (and often some fat and protein) and are completely customizable.
His salads get topped with extra goodies while mine can be mostly vegetable, his soups and stews can get a lid of cheese (on Euro-centric nights) or a handful of coconut (on Indian or Thai nights).
If you’re having vegetables with a little protein, he can have protein with a little vegetable. Stir-fries often call for cooking ingredients separately, so just keep the cooked tofu or shrimp or what-have-you in one bowl and the veggies in another, then toss them together plate by plate.
When I roast a chicken, a pork loin, or some sausages, I roast some vegetables alongside — carrots, Brussels sprouts, winter squash, and rutabagas are my favorites — and divide them up accordingly.
Operation Don’t Starve The Boyfriend has turned into Operation Don’t Starve The Husband. On most nights, we both eat very well. And his pants still fit, too.
Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Erika Szymanski is currently earning a Ph.D. in New Zealand on how research gets communicated in the wine industry. She blogs at Wineoscope.