It was the milk that first got my attention.
At the end of the week, there was still some left, a final cup or so sloshing around the bottom of the jug.
Then I started to notice more subtle signs: The lunch meat that stayed in the meat drawer. The bread that didnt disappear faster than I could say inhale. The peanut butter oh, the luxury of peanut butter that was right there in its jar when I needed it.
It finally started to sink in: Im an empty nester now. A family cook with no family to feed.
But I am still a cook, someone who needs even craves time in the kitchen. So how do I adjust to this new life? How do I become a serves-two cook in a serves-six world?
I needed advice. So I turned to Ben and Karen Barker, who downsized a lot more than their own kitchen last year. They closed their award-winning restaurant, the Magnolia Grill in Durham, so they could spend more time with their grown sons and grandchildren.
Its mundane on the surface, but dramatically wonderful, Ben said.
They still cook every day, Karen insists. A winner of the James Beard Foundations award for the nations best pastry chef, she doesnt bake much these days. But shell often make a batch of pizza dough so she and Ben can split a small pizza with a salad a couple of times a week.
And Ben, who once ran his restaurants walk-in refrigerator as a no-waste facility, has learned to go to the Carrboro Farmers Market and only come back with a couple of zucchini or a single bunch of kale.
We think in two- to three-day clips, Karen says. Its planned, but it leaves a little room for spontaneity.
Learning to shop
Its difficult to know for sure how many of us cooking for two are empty nesters who have to adjust after cooking for families. But its a good bet that the 76 million members of the baby boom generation, who are now between 52 and 65, are having an effect.
That age group is expected to control 52 percent of the $706 billion spent on groceries by 2015. And you can bet many in our trend-setting generation wont settle for two-for-one specials on Lean Cuisine.
Learning to shop is the first step, says Linda Gassenheimer. A longtime columnist for the Miami Herald, Gassenheimer writes the Quick Fix for 2 column that runs each week in the Observer.
Gassenheimer says she never hesitates to ask for prepackaged meats or vegetables to be cut down at the supermarket.
If they wont do it, I go to another market, she declares.
While Gassenheimer went through downsizing when her sons left home, she actually came to small-serving cooking before they left, as an offshoot of a project she did on fast cooking. If you want to cook faster, she learned, its easier if you work with smaller amounts.
Still, cutting recipes in half doesnt always mean just halving all the ingredients or even the cooking time. One chicken breast cooks in the same amount of time as two, for example. Or if you cook a smaller roast, youll still need enough liquid to braise it.
People have to think about cookware. The pan needs to be right for the size of the meat youre putting in it. Shes found that a 7-inch sauté pan or omelet pan, for instance, is perfect for two people.
Even if you cook in smaller amounts, youre still likely to have leftovers, says Gassenheimer. And you should: A small batch of soup tucked in the freezer is just as welcome as a big batch when youre busy.
Her advice: Dont serve leftovers as leftovers thats boring. Create another dish.
Use extra pasta in a gratin or macaroni and cheese. Or use extra linguine in a stir-fry, like lo mein. Leftover roasted meat can be ground up with a little mayonnaise and horseradish to make a pate to serve on toast with a salad.
Karen Barker corrected me when I called her an empty nester. She and Ben have stayed so busy and gotten so involved with friends and family that nothing feels all that empty. But cooking what they want, not what kids or customers dictate, is a new and delightful thing.
To be able to cook at leisure is a dramatically different way to approach it, says Ben Barker. The meals have been complete and hardly complex, but really, really satisfying.