Emily Stasko, MPH, RD, LDN Outpatient

Just because you live alone, it doesn’t mean you can’t eat healthy meals. UPMC Dietitian, Emily Stasko, MPH, RD, LDN, shares some quick and easy options plus some go-to foods everyone should have on hand.

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– This podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical care or advice. Clinicians should rely on their own medical judgments when advising their patients. Patients in need of medical care should consult their personal care provider. If you live alone, you may not take the time to make a meal for yourself, but cooking for one can be easy and healthy for you. Hi, I’m Tonia Caruso. Welcome to this UPMC HealthBeat Podcast. And joining us right now is Emily Stasko. She’s a registered dietitian with UPMC. Thank you so much for joining us.

– Yeah, thank you for having me.

– So, this can seem like a very daunting task if you’re only cooking for yourself after a very long day. What do you want people to think about, about why it’s important that you might want to do this?

– How we fuel ourselves and the foods that we’re putting into our body are such an important part of, of our health. It gives us energy just on the day to day, but it’s also really helpful in terms of long-term health. So, a lot of different chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, can sometimes be prevented through diet. So, there’s a lot of short-term benefits and also some long-term health benefits as well.

– It almost seems so much easier: “I’ll get takeout instead.” What are the benefits of cooking for yourself versus getting something from a restaurant?

– Well, we oftentimes find that restaurant meals tend to have a lot of extra fat that they use in their cooking. So, whether that’s butter or oil, they’re a little bit richer, so they have some extra fat to them. They also have a lot of extra salt that they’ll add in to give some extra flavor, whether that’s through salt itself or some different flavorings that have salt in it. So, especially for people that have cardiovascular disease, maybe high blood pressure, heart disease, that can be really problematic if you’re getting a lot of extra sodium from those meals. So, when we cook at home, we tend to get a lot less of that extra fat, a lot less of the salt or sodium. And, we also find that we get a lot more fiber. So, typically when we’re preparing a meal at home, we’ll include different things like vegetables or whole grains, which we might not always get at a restaurant. So, we get some extra fiber at home, less sodium, and less fat.

– Where do you begin when it comes to cooking for one? Ease comes to the top of my head of what would be important to me. Where’s a good starting point for folks to go from?

– Yeah, yeah. I always like to think about ease and how we’re going to prepare the meal, but also kind of what that meal is composed of as well. So, trying to include a couple different food groups or types of foods, that’s a good starting point. But, then, how we’re going to prepare it. So, do we have time to put it in the Crock-Pot® in advance? Can we pull something out of the freezer for one of those components of the meal? So, planning a little bit in advance for how we’re going to prepare it, but also making sure we have a couple different food groups involved.

– OK. So you are a fan of the Crock-Pot, correct?

– Yes. Big fan. And, so, the idea there is you can make a lot, and then freeze it, and use it later?

– Definitely, yeah. So, whatever you’re putting into it, whether it’s some meat with a hardy starch like a potato and some vegetables, or if it’s a soup or a stew, you can definitely make a lot of servings at one time, and then you can freeze a lot for later. So, I also really encourage people, when you’re freezing them for later, trying to do just one single servings at one time so you can pull them out individually later and just quickly throw it in the microwave, so it, it helps save a little bit of time later.

– So, I know online you can just google healthy recipes for the Crock-Pot, and so many things come up.

– Yeah.

– What if you’re someone, “I don’t like the Crock-Pot, I don’t like to pull things out of the freezer.” What are some healthy, quick options for someone that doesn’t want to use one of those options?

– Yeah, there’s a lot that’s available to us that we can find, whether it’s just kind of quicker, more convenience-type things. So, an example that I’m thinking of is you can find a brown rice and a quinoa blend that you actually just throw the packet in the microwave for a couple minutes, and it comes out all ready to go. So, that’s just one component of the meal that you can prepare very quickly for yourself. There’s a lot of different ingredients or parts of the meal we can find like that, where we can quickly prepare them. We can also find some resources or recipes that actually are just tailored to one or two servings. For example, there’s a website called OneDishKitchen.com that will just give you a single serving, how you can prepare the meal and the recipe for one single serving. So, there’s definitely some different options if you don’t like freezing or the Crock-Pot.

– Right. So, as a dietician, you mentioned in general some things off the top about having a little bit of everything. What should our plates look like, and what’s, what are like some go-to things that you easily do when you’re cooking for one?

– Yeah. So, I always try to start, again, going back to the five food groups. We have our fruits, vegetables, grains, our protein, and our dairy. So, trying to include a couple different food groups, maybe two or three, with the meal. So, just to make it a little bit more well-rounded and balanced, trying to include a few different components. And I always try to get some protein and fiber in there just because those can be a little bit more filling, so they can help get you to your next meal or your next snack. So, for example, some different ideas I like to do, I’m a big fan of bowls, if you’re familiar with with that. So, you can put any type of, like, grain in there. Usually for this example, I’ll say brown rice. You can add in some type of protein – maybe it’s chicken – and then just some vegetables along with it, throw it together in a bowl, and you have a a nice balanced meal right there. So, that’s one thing. We can also do stir-fries. I know that’s pretty quick and easy. And, again, you can kind of tailor a lot of these. If you wanted more plant-based, you could do tofu as your protein, or you can tailor a lot of these to to what you like. Or there’s, you know, one-pan recipes. You can throw a lot of stuff on one pan just right in the oven. So, there’s a lot of different options that are out there.

– What are the things when you’re cooking for one, that you go to the grocery store, that you try to encourage folks should be on the list, just to make it easy?

– A couple things that can be really easy to keep in your cupboard. One example is something that’s a protein food. We can get some tuna that’s in a can or in a packet. It’s so easy just to open that up and have that ready to go as your protein source for a meal. I think it’s great to always have some frozen vegetables or canned vegetables on your list. Now, we have to be a little careful to make sure we’re not getting some extra salt added to those if it’s canned, or making sure they’re just plain vegetables if they’re frozen. But, otherwise, they can still be great ways to get vegetables or fiber in with our diet. So, having those on hand, you can keep them for a while. Some of the different grains that I had alluded to, like brown rice, or some pastas, or maybe it’s having quinoa or something like that, those can keep for a while in your cupboard. So, having things like that on hand.

– And what about fruits?

– With fruits, I encourage people to find ones that are in water or in their own juice. We can occasionally find ones that are in a heavy syrup that just add some extra sugar to it. But, if it’s in a can and it’s with water or it says it’s packed in its own juice, you’re really not getting any extra sugar beyond what’s already present in the fruit. So, that’s a good way, shelf-stable way. You can keep them for a while, but you can pull them out later to get, get some fruit with your meal. I will sometimes do a canned fruit. An example would be like pineapple – I’ll get pineapple tidbits and add that to cottage cheese. That’s something that can be pretty filling. I like to have fruit with peanut butter. That’s another filling one. So, maybe an apple or banana with peanut butter.

– Right. OK. And everybody wants to know, what are two things you have as a dietitian in your refrigerator?

– One thing I always have is eggs. I’ve lived alone for a couple years, and eggs are, for me, just such an easy, quick thing. If I’m cooking dinner for myself, I do breakfast for dinner, so I can cook those. You can also do them in the morning or use them in baking. So, eggs are always in there. And I try to keep some hardier fruits, or fruits that have a longer shelf life, so maybe apples or oranges, where they keep a lot longer than berries do, for example. So, try to keep some type of fruit that can usually last a longer amount of time.

– And two staples in your pantry.

– Two staples. I will say I always have brown rice. That’s a common one, especially if you get the quick-cooking one, you can really quickly have base or a grain to your meal. Something else I always keep in there: tuna. I know I mentioned that earlier, but there’s always some different tuna packets in there.

– All right, I’m putting you on the spot as a dietitian, so you can refuse to answer. I would imagine life as a dietitian is tough because you’re always thinking about what you’re eating, or aren’t you? What’s like, the bad guilty dietitian, anti-correct diet food that you might eat?

– Oh boy. I don’t know. I like a lot of, because I will say, all about moderation, balance. We can definitely, you know, fit some of these things in. I really like french fries.

– I love french fries, too. Do you just eat them the normal way we’re used to, or do you do something to your fries to make them healthier?

– Yeah, I definitely enjoy both ways. So, I’ll have them plain, but we definitely can prepare them in an air fryer, if you have one of those. That’s a great way to have a little bit less fat with them. Or, you could try sweet potato fries. That packs in the nutrition from a sweet potato. So, a couple different options if you wanted to have them a little bit healthier.

– And can that be a dinner in and of itself, or no?

– Yeah, I think if we plan and have a couple things maybe with it. So, I’m thinking a loaded potato; maybe we had some type of meat added to it, maybe a little like cheese or dairy. I think that could be filling enough to be a dinner in itself.

– All right. And talk about that balance. That’s why I know you’re a dietician because I would just be like, “I could just eat that baked potato.” Why are you always thinking and talking about adding in the other food groups?

– Yeah, that, like you said, balance, it helps to balance it out so we’re not just getting one food group or one type of food because the food groups themselves will tend to have similar nutrients in them. So, a lot of our grains will have similar nutrients. A lot of our fruits will have similar nutrients. You get where I’m going with this. But that’s why I like to try to add in a couple different foods, or like I said, have two or three food groups or types of foods at the meal because then you really do get all the different nutrients from the different food groups.

– Let’s talk a little bit about things like salads and cereals, and as a dietician, is it better that you have one big meal a day, and if you’re out, and maybe that’s your lunch, and then you eat something smaller at home. Or, how important can salads and smaller things like cereal be?

– They can be really helpful for some people. I know everyone’s a little bit different in like what their body needs or the timing of eating, so that can definitely vary from person to person. But I think having something like a cereal or a salad could be a good supplement to, if you’re eating a larger meal, or some people do small, maybe four or five times a day, small mini meals. That can be one of those mini meals. So, I think those are great options for people.

– If I’m at the store and I’m looking for these convenience foods, are there are things that you try to guide people away from and things that you try to guide them to? Like, it’s very easy to just get, like, a snack bar or, you know, maybe some chips.

– Yeah.

– What do you tell folks in that situation?

– I try to consider what’s going to be the most filling, or really provide us with good quality energy throughout the day. So, instead of, like, you’re talking about chips or an energy bar, kind of thinking, is there anything that maybe has some fiber, has protein in it, or it packs in a lot of nutrients. So, this is again, going back to talking about some of those, maybe it’s a canned fruit, or maybe it’s a smoothie or something like that, that packs in a little bit more nutritional quality compared to some of the other items.

– What do you want to say to people about how they should see cooking for themselves as really some sort of self-care?

– Yeah, I definitely approach it in that way, talking about self-care and caring for ourselves. I think this is such an important part of that because going back to earlier, we talked about how you can nourish yourself and really give yourself energy through what you’re eating every day. So, this is a really important part of that. I think trying to encourage people that it is a form of self-care and we can use some of these tips to help make it a little easier, or, you know, use less time out of our day to cook. But, at the end of the day, it may take a little bit of time in the short term right now, but hopefully it helps us more with our health in the long run.

– And we talked earlier just about the nutrition content and, you know, not knowing exactly what you get when you’re at a restaurant. Not only controlling what you get when you’re at home, but even financially, it can be much more economically smart to be eating at home.

– Yes, definitely. A lot of times we can find, especially if we are planning in advance, kind of like we talked about earlier, it can be really helpful to reuse a lot of those ingredients for different recipes or in the coming weeks. So, it can be a lot better, especially if we’re on a budget, to cook at home.

– And, so, what do you say to your clients when they’re just getting into this? Go, like, full speed ahead? Or, is it OK to just ease into, you know, maybe one meal at home instead of like jumping into all five?

– Yeah, I think it’s definitely easier to take it at a slower, slower pace. I think with any changes we’re trying to make, it’s usually going to be more long-lasting, sustainable if we gradually introduce ourselves into it. So, I think yeah, maybe if it’s taking one or two nights a week, you try cooking one of those meals for yourself at home. I think that’s a better way than going full speed ahead all at once.

– All right. So, bottom line, what do you want to say to folks about working this into a routine and giving a try of cooking for one?

– I would say, again, just remember this is an important part of your health and self-care for your health. So, it may take a little bit of time, but it really is worth it in the long run. And, if we take a little bit of time to prep and plan in advance, maybe it is taking an hour on the weekend to plan a couple things you might cook for the week or to plan out your grocery list, it really will help you and make things easier in the long run.

– Well, Emily Stasko, thank you so much for coming in and spending time with us today. We certainly do appreciate it. Some good information.

– Thank you. Happy to be here.

– I’m Tonia Caruso. Thank you for joining us. This is UPMC HealthBeat.

Editor's Note: This podcast was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

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Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.