The art of cooking small

By Corey Colombin

Tips, tricks and recipes for empty nesters

I am the mother of five grown children. As our family grew, I adjusted my shopping, food prep and cooking methods to accommodate. One by one, as my children began to leave the nest, I found that shopping and cooking meals for a smaller household presented its own challenges. I went from preparing meals for a family of seven down to two—my husband and me.

So, at the ripe age of 55, I was faced with a choice: throw in the towel and buy frozen dinners, or divert my energy and creativity into making flavorful meals for the two of us. I decided that we’re worth the extra effort. 

It’s not about making do or simply cooking less—it’s about doing it better and with pride. After some trial and error, I learned that planning and executing savory meals for two is an art form—the art of cooking small.

Plan, freeze, enjoy 

Grocery store bargains are often best when buying in bulk. Even though you may only need a two-pack of pork chops, it can cost the same as a “family” pack of six. So, what do you do with the remaining four chops? 

The key to utilizing bulk bargains is twofold: menu planning and organized freezing. I utilize a weekly menu template I created on my computer with the days of the week listed at the top, followed by the space needed to list the meals. 

Underneath is my grocery list, organized by the path I take through the store. Creating a weekly menu is a good prompt to look for ingredients in the kitchen before heading out to shop, which eliminates repetitive purchases. 

Sample Menu 

• Monday: Pot roast (carrots, onion, potatoes, celery)

• Tuesday: Sausage pasta and asparagus tips in lemon crema, salad, French bread 

• Wednesday: Beef tarts, soup

• Thursday: Leftovers 

• Friday: Soup and grilled cheese sandwich corners (made with French bread), pasta salad

• Saturday: Saturday chicken over rice, asparagus, or peas 

• Sunday: French toast breakfast, leftovers

• Soup of the week: Broccoli potato and cheese 

Sample Grocery List

• Dairy: sliced cheese (variety), grated sharp cheddar, half and half, eggs, butter, rolled pie crust. 

• Deli: lunch meat, pasta salad

• Bread: English muffins, sandwich bread, French loaf 

• Meat: chicken thighs, pot roast, mild Italian sausage 

• Canned: evaporated milk (12 oz), cream of mushroom soup, Better than Bouillon.

• Frozen: peas 

• Dry goods: boxed bowtie pasta, instant rice, Lipton Onion Soup Mix, cornstarch, instant mashed potatoes, paprika. 

• Produce: salad, carrots, potatoes, yellow onion, small bag of broccoli florets, asparagus, lemons (2-3). 

This menu is an example of varied flavors with overlapping ingredients, resulting in no waste. All recipes are easy to execute, using readily available and affordable ingredients. If you begin with the pot roast on Monday, you’ll use the leftovers on Wednesday for the meat tart filling, which you can pair with the homemade soup. On Tuesday, start another meal creating leftovers for Thursday. Throughout the week, you’ll use slices of French bread for dinner on Tuesday and Friday, and for breakfast on Sunday. The yummiest way to finish off a loaf of French bread is to make French toast for breakfast. 

After you’ve served homemade soup on Wednesday and Friday, you can freeze to enjoy another day. 

Soup is one of the most freezer friendly things to make. A typical serving for two fits nicely in a quart-sized freezer bag. Label and lay flat to freeze. Once you’ve frozen several varieties, it’s like having a soup bar stored in the freezer, waiting to heat and serve. 

Freezing is essential to menu planning and food storage, and most of these menu items are freezer friendly. For successful freezing, keep on hand gallon-sized and quart-sized freezer bags and a Sharpie pen to write what you are packaging and the date it’s being frozen. If you have a vacuum sealer, even better. 

When buying bulk packages of meat, always separate it into proper portions before freezing, and double bag to avoid freezer burn. Besides meat and leftovers, other common items that freeze well include grated cheese, butter, rolled pie crusts, tortillas, bread products (short term) and homemade cookies and brownies. 

Featured Recipes

 POT ROAST

• Small to medium beef pot roast
• 3-4 potatoes, peeled and cut into quarters
• 4 carrot stalks, peeled and cut into chunks
• 2 stalks celery, chopped
• 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
• 1 envelope Lipton Onion Soup Mix
• 1 Tbsp. Better than Bouillon beef paste 
• 2 Tbsp. cornstarch

Place roast in the middle of a large roasting pan. Add water or beef stock until roast is mostly covered. Add bouillon. Sprinkle onion soup mix on top of roast. In oven, cover and cook at 350° for at least an hour. Tuck vegetables around the roast in the water or broth. Make sure the water level is adequate throughout the process and remove the vegetables when tender, even if the roast requires more time. Cooking takes about 3 hours. When done, remove the roast. To make gravy, mix 2 Tbsp. cornstarch with cold water to make a paste. Stir paste into drippings and whisk until thickened. Salt and pepper to taste.

SAUSAGE PASTA & ASPARAGUS TIPS

• Mild Italian sausage, loose
• Box of bowtie pasta
• 2 lemons, washed
• Evaporated milk
• Asparagus tips (can be substituted with frozen peas)
• 2 Tbsp. butter

Boil and drain pasta per box instructions. Brown sausage in frying pan, remove and set aside. In the same pan, soften asparagus in sausage grease and 1 Tbsp. butter. In a small saucepan, add evaporated milk with remaining butter and simmer on low heat, stirring frequently with an egg whisk. Grate some zest from washed lemons. Set aside. Extract juice from both lemons. When milk mixture is frothy, lower temperature and gently add lemon juice, whisking continuously. The result is a thin, lemon crema sauce. If it’s too thin, gradually introduce cornstarch paste to thicken. In a casserole dish, toss together the sausage, pasta, asparagus tips, lemon crema sauce and zest. 

BEEF TARTS (Savory seconds of pot roast)

• Leftover pot roast and vegetables
• Leftover gravy
• Rolled pie crust
• Flour
• Egg wash (1 egg, 1 teaspoon oil)

 Chop leftover meat and vegetables into small pieces. Mix with gravy. Roll pie crust onto a floured surface and thin it just a bit. Place a salad or dessert plate on the crust for a pattern and cut around the edges. The size of the plate dictates the size of the meat tart. Place a little pile of filling on half of each circle, not touching the edges. Fold over, roll the edge and pinch together. Mark the edges with a floured fork. Poke fork holes in the top of the tart. Place on a cookie sheet in the oven at 350° for 40 minutes. Mix egg with oil to make egg wash. After 40 minutes, brush tarts with egg wash. Cook for ten more minutes or until brown.

BROCCOLI POTATO CHEDDAR SOUP

• 1 small package broccoli florets (or one head of broccoli, tops only)
• Vegetable broth
• 2 cups water
• 1 cup grated cheddar cheese
• Mashed potato flakes (for thickening)

In a large soup pot, simmer broccoli florets in vegetable broth until tender. As the broccoli absorbs broth, add water to replace fluid level. When thoroughly cooked, mash broccoli with a potato masher in the pan. Add remaining water and stir. Sprinkle in potato flakes and stir until desired thickness is achieved. Stir in shredded cheddar cheese. If you like thinner soup, use more vegetable broth or water. Add seasoning to taste. Top with cheese when serving. 

SATURDAY CHICKEN

• 1 family pack chicken thighs, skin on
• 1 can cream of mushroom soup
• 1 cup half and half
• Paprika

Trim excess fat from chicken thighs. Take six thighs out of the pack and freeze the rest. Place thighs in an oven-safe casserole pan, skin up. Liberally sprinkle with paprika. In a small bowl, mix mushroom soup with half and half. Pour over thighs. Cook in the oven at 350° for approximately one hour. Then, turn the oven up to 400° and cook an additional 15 minutes to brown the sauce. Serve over rice with lots of sauce. 

FRENCH TOAST

• French bread, sliced to desired thickness (no more than 3⁄4 inch)
• 1 egg
• Splash of half and half
• Cinnamon
• Sugar
• Powdered sugar

Cut 4-5 slices of French bread. Mix the egg and half and half in a shallow bowl. Add sugar, sprinkle with cinnamon. Stir. Lay each slice in egg mixture for about 15 seconds on each side. Place on a hot, buttered skillet. Brown on both sides, making sure the egg is cooked. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. 

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