Any advice for eating healthy when cooking for one?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’m 84. My doctor is concerned about my declining weight. But ever since my husband passed away last year, I haven’t been very motivated to cook. Any advice?

DEAR READER:

I see this with my patients quite often. The sadness and depression that follow the loss of a loved one can cause apathy. After years of cooking for two, it can be hard to make the effort to prepare regular, nutritious meals for one.

Also, when you do make the effort to cook, little things remind you that you’re only cooking for one. One of the great songwriters of the past 50 years, Joni Mitchell, said it this way: “But when he’s gone, me and them lonesome blues collide. The bed’s too big, the frying pan’s too wide.”

If you’re not motivated to cook, you may wind up skipping meals. Or you may rely on less-healthy convenience foods, like cereal, frozen dinners or canned foods. Some of my patients eat the same thing for every meal. They don’t bother with fruits or vegetables; they eat poorly and their diet lacks variety.

That can lead to malnutrition — deficiency in vitamins, fiber, protein or calcium. And malnutrition can lead to poor digestion, weight loss, bone problems and fatigue.

Here’s my advice. Aim for three meals a day, using these general nutrition targets:

  • Fill a quarter of the plate with protein (chicken, fish, legumes, eggs or cheese).
  • Fill a quarter of the plate with whole grains (wild rice, quinoa, whole-wheat pasta).
  • Fill half the plate with vegetables (go for variety and color).
  • Add one piece of fruit, yogurt or both.

I don’t mean that every single meal must have each of these components, just that this is a nice average to shoot for. For example, the following simple meals all are healthy:

  • a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich on whole-wheat bread, with a piece of fruit;
  • an egg atop whole-grain toast, with yogurt and fruit;
  • a whole-grain waffle with a little peanut butter, along with fruit and a small glass of milk.

Another tip is to blend convenience with fresh food. For example, take low-sodium soup stock and add some frozen vegetables. Or buy rotisserie chicken and use it throughout the week in soup, sandwiches or a salad.

Finally, set aside one or two days per month to make a big batch of something — lasagna, soup, stew or a casserole. Divide each into individual servings and freeze for later use. That way, you have something healthy to just reheat on days when you don’t feel like cooking.

The sadness that follows a loss can cause you to neglect caring for yourself, including eating well, and then poor nutrition can make you feel worse. It can be a vicious circle. You may feel like you don’t have the energy to cook, but once you start to eat right, you may suddenly have the energy to see your friends or family more often, go to the store, pursue a hobby — or even cook a healthy dinner.