For years—decades—I was a purist. I raced home after work to get a substantial dinner on the table. None of this convenience cooking for me. Nope. Possibly to assuage any guilt about being a working mom, I made a meal from scratch. Every. Night.
Stir-fries, check. Enchiladas with homemade sauce, uh-huh. Jambalaya. Marinated flank steak. Lemon chicken.
The blender and food processor would whir with pesto, harissa, and coconut-curry sauces. When one kid went pescatarian, I became all-pro with the Dover sole from Trader Joe’s. I deveined shrimp in my sleep. When that same kid went full-on veg, I was there with the wheat berries, tempeh, seitan, and the rest.
We take perverse delight in eating the very easiest of dinners.
Creating what I saw as the all-important, body-and soul-nurturing family mealtime became a somewhat exhausting crusade. Sometimes the food was devoured in moments, so the kids would return to a vital Simpsons episode or a meet-up on Xbox with a friend. But I felt I’d accomplished my mission: homemade dinner; everyone at the table. Done. My parental report card nudged into honor-roll territory, at least in my mind.
Bread. Wine. Repeat.
But that all changed when my husband and I became empty-nesters. I’d warned him that when the kids were out of the house, it would be every man for himself come dinner time. A hunk of cheese, a crust of bread, a bowl of Kashi Autumn Wheat.
I think Chinese restaurants should offer an Empty Nest special.
And I’ve kept my word. Yes, sometimes we cook great meals together, but we take perverse delight in eating the very easiest of dinners on many weeknights. With the time freed up from kitchen prep, we read magazines, chat, call relatives, take a walk out to the water, make significant eye contact, watch old movies on TV, or catch up on White Lotus.
Allow me to share some of my top 10 greatest hits of empty-nester dinners.
- Cheese, crackers, red seedless grapes. Glass or two—or three—of red wine NOT optional (dry January is over!)
- Cheese, baguette, sliced apple. Ditto above re: the wine.
- Bowl of cereal, nut milk of your choice, handful of berries.
- Greek yogurt, smattering of fruit, some honey, granola if you’ve got it.
- Leftover rotisserie chicken, bag of frozen rice, Soy Vey sauce . . . vegetables optional.
- Frozen pizza (I’m partial to Trader Joe’s arugula variety), bag of salad.
- Grilled cheese and tomato sandwich. The tomato counts as your vegetable.
- Bag of salad greens, chopped apple, pre-crumbled goat cheese, walnuts, dried cherries, and salad dressing. Slices of sourdough on the side.
- Microwaved baked potato (regular or sweet). My friend Ginny introduced me to this one, which is oddly satisfying.
- Sliced chicken and broccoli in brown sauce, delivered by the local Chinese place. Takeout is the perfect empty-nest food: no shopping at all, plus leftovers for the next night. I think Chinese restaurants should offer an Empty Nest special, in fact. Show a copy of your cancelled tuition check and get 10 percent off. I would be loyal to any place offering that—as long as it doesn’t happen between 4 and 6 p.m., like those Early Bird specials. We’re not that old!