After my husband died, eating a meal at home changed from a pleasant occasion to a little house of chagrin and horror. It morphed from being balanced nutrition, with at least one veggie and lots of conversation, into a lonely, tasteless thing you only do because you’re supposed to.
Thanks to that new life change thing, and to a panicked, adrenaline-fueled enrollment in an arthritis swim class at the local YMCA, I lost weight the first six months after the funeral. I’ve gained it all back lately by indulging in all the sweet things my local grocery store bakery entices me to buy. After all, it’s on sale, and cinnamon rolls . . . and chocolate anything . . . fill up that lonely hole in your heart for at least 15 minutes.
I have done nearly everything the grieving books tell you to do in the eating department.
- Instead of sitting across the table from the empty chair that once belonged to my husband, I changed places and took away his chair. That failing, I made an even more drastic move, relegating the round oak table to the basement for crafts and sewing and installing a breakfast bar with my seat facing a window on the front of my house. Then I realized that my silhouette behind my metal blinds would make my solitary existence even more obvious to the neighbors who pass by on their dog walking and errand rounds.
- I tried cooking for one, but how many times can a person eat warmed over country-style ribs before they begin tasting like sawdust? No amount of barbecue sauce can transform those leftovers into something as good as when the same fare was shared with a spouse. In fact, everything I tried to cook for myself seemed to expand in volume rather than diminish as it was sampled.
- I have responded to every invitation to eat out with friends and family and truly relished each morsel in those circumstances. Food always tastes better in a crowd. Plus, every church supper and donut Sunday were always circled on the calendar. Thankfully, some extended family members who live an hour away invited me to spend my first Thanksgiving as a widow sharing in their sumptuous feast. But even if you are alone, you can’t eat every meal with friends or family. You just have to face that solitary breakfast bar, put your lonely little plate on it and catch up with Facebook posts or read a book while eating. Please don’t sue me for unhealthy widow advice but what nutrition cop is going to arrest me for mindless eating and telling others that it is okay? You gotta do what you gotta do and get away from the table as fast as possible.
- I have always been the chief cook in the family, which offers an advantage as a surviving spouse. I can go through the motions at the chopping block and the stove, even cleaning messes as I go. So it’s never been a matter of ineptitude, but now more a lack of motivation. Why bother to cook?
My higher self knows the answer to that hypothetical is, “To stay healthy.” Sadly, grabbing a pizza slice and a Coke at the gas station does not count as healthy. The times I haven’t given in to lazy fast food cravings and fixed a chef salad, I’ve been proud of myself and slept better at night.
Speaking of sleeping better at night, it is true that it’s best not to eat much at all after 8 p.m. so that when you go to bed you won’t be suffering from indigestion. My late husband had a horrible habit of late night snacking . . . one which I merrily adopted, especially when watching a movie always led to one of us saying, “I want something,” and heading to the kitchen while pressing the pause button on the remote. Old habits die hard and I’m still pressing the pause button for a quick trip to the fridge. Not good. Maybe if I gave up television at night and read a book instead, my gut would sing my praises instead of protesting at 10 p.m. I promise to work on that.
Meanwhile, here are some things that worked for me in the food and cooking department, at least for awhile until I backslide into bad habits:
Small portions and single serve versions: The food industry knows there are many of us who are flying solo and trying to eat right. They have responded by making single serving sizes of many foods. While I’ve been taught to shy away from food in boxes, there are some relatively healthy processed foods. The pizza that I sometimes crave comes in flatbread, vegetarian single portions. Many brands try to limit the sodium content, thankfully. The same goes for “TV dinners,” which come in low-fat, low-sodium and fairly tasty versions. Even desserts are now packaged in single serve freezer containers. The bakery at my local grocery store will also occasionally offer up a four inch pie, as well as containers of a single slice of pie or cake.
The deli: The local deli, whether a neighborhood ethnic spot or a section of your grocery store, is a great spot for widows and widowers. Don’t feel like cooking? Go grab a rotisserie chicken and concoct your own take home salad from the fresh food bar. They even serve fruit, already cut up, and you can select just enough for one or two meals.
The outside aisles of the store: Savvy food shoppers have all heard the mantra about shopping on the outside aisles of a store for healthier purchases. That’s where all the fresh food is, from dairy to produce, from meat to cheeses. I love it that fruit juice companies are selling smaller bottles of the “not from concentrate” products. And you can drink straight from the bottle in your widowhood without worrying about giving cooties to your mate.
- Special food delivery boxes: In my better, more motivated and self-righteous months as a surviving spouse I had boxes of healthy food delivered to my door. It was like Christmas every Saturday when the FedX man brought my pretty green box with its ice-packed and healthy foods. The box contained enough to make two servings of the three meals so leftovers didn’t become too ubiquitous. The best thing was that cooking those meals made me feel like a gourmet chef because the included instructions took me step by step through reductions, pan-searing, homemade dressings and exotic things that I don’t normally cook with, like shallots and fresh herbs. All the vegetables were oven-roasted and my new stainless steel cooktop got quite the workout when those boxes arrived. I was so proud of myself, I even took pictures of my plates.
The only drawbacks to the food boxes, besides lots of dirty pots and pans and an oil-spattered stove, were the boxes. I now have a tower of them in my basement waiting to be filled with yet another load of stuff for the City Union Mission. And they’re so sturdy and potentially handy I can’t bear to just recycle them. So I’ve put the food boxes on hold and gone back to prowling the bakery specials and loading up on quick and easy.
Someday soon I will probably hit rock bottom and admit I have a widowhood-induced food problem. But I know I have plenty of company, and not just from fellow widows. All the single people I know fight the same lonely eating battles.
Perhaps the only long-term solution is to adopt an attitude of gratitude for the ample offerings of tasty fare we have to choose from in this country, no matter if we eat in a crowd or alone. When I am tempted to over-indulge and excuse it as a misguided need to take care of myself, I can recall that in Venezuela right now people are starving and fighting each other as they stand in food lines for eight hours to get their meager weekly rations. And that’s enough to make me instantly food sober and ashamed of my lazy, self-indulgent widowhood.