Cooking for one: how to enjoy the ultimate pleasure of eating alone

crab holding wine and cutlery 
Instead of resorting to ready meals or beans on toast, celebrate solo dining by eating all the things you (and no one else) love Credit: Haarala hamilton & Valerie Berry 

I’d gone to see my GP about a minor ailment, but as I was leaving, she asked ‘And how are you otherwise?’ ‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I’ve separated from my partner.’ I paused and pictured my kitchen.

‘You know, I have eight place settings and now I only need three.’ I burst into tears. ‘What am I going to do with all those plates?’

I realised, in that moment, that cooking for others is how I structure my life and how I make a home. It’s partly because meals impose a timetable – every day we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner – but also because when we eat, we sit down with other people and we talk. My life had got smaller and the keenest way I felt it was at the kitchen table.

That same summer my children went away for over a month. Now I needed only one plate. What was I going to put on it? I’d never cooked just for myself. I’d been a daughter, then a serial girlfriend, then a wife and mother, then someone’s partner.

Initially I joined those who jostle for space in Little Waitrose and mini M&S stores to pull meals-for-one off the shelves. It was partly because I was exhausted – I was trying to finish a book and was working terrible hours – but also because I wanted lasagne and moussaka and everything that looked soft and comforting.

‘It’s a thrill to make things my family don’t like but I love – like Asian salads so hot they burn my mouth’ Credit: HAARALA HAMILTON 

But it wasn’t long before I got ready-meal fatigue. They all tasted the same and I hated the sad process of tipping the molten contents of silver cartons on to a plate. Every meal looked flat and brown. But cheese on toast – my favourite meal for one – just wasn’t going to cut it for a whole month.

I thought about why I was reluctant to cook for myself. I love breakfast, mostly because I eat it alone. Whether it’s boiled eggs or toast with jam, I taste and appreciate every flavour – the tang of the bread, the saltiness of the butter, the dark bitterness of the coffee – and look forward to the day ahead.

So, I enjoy solo dining – I just had to shift this enjoyment to the evening meal. I started cooking things I’d never cook for a crowd (mostly because of expense): I griddled scallops, tossed crab with spaghetti, made veal saltimbocca. 

I refused to succumb to the solo diner’s basics of scrambled eggs and baked potatoes with beans. Instead, I had eggs en cocotte with mushrooms and cream, baked potatoes filled with smoked trout, sour cream, dill and a spoonful of salmon roe (so there was a salty pop in every bite).

I revelled in ‘treats’ because no meal for one, no matter how luxurious, is going to be as expensive as cooking for six or living on ready meals. It was a thrill to make things my family don’t like but that I love – dishes salty with anchovies and capers, and southeast Asian salads so hot they hurt my mouth.

Some dishes don’t work well for one. A big casserole is great for six people but eating the same dish on your own for three nights in a row is about survival, not pleasure.

Others – risotto, pasta, small baked fish, salads based on a big chunk of creamy burrata (I never want to share burrata anyway) – are perfect. By the time the children returned I was fully into this sybaritic lifestyle and had started to pour myself a glass of wine every night and even light the odd candle.

I felt grown-up, empowered, in charge, deserving. The eldest was shocked by my new-found indulgence. ‘You really can’t drink wine on a Monday night, Mum,’ he said. ‘Oh, but I can,’ I smiled. ‘It’s my dinner.’ I had discovered the heady pleasure of cooking for myself.

Read Diana Henry's latest recipes on telegraph.co.uk every Friday from 1pm ​