This summer when my mom had hip surgery, I flew out to New Jersey to help her settle back into her home. A highly organized and fiercely independent widow, she made it clear that there wasn't much for me to help her with.
To be honest, I went more for my own sake than hers. I wanted to provide some comfort, her favorite food, conversation and company. So I cooked for us through the week and stocked her freezer with meals that she could microwave or heat quickly in the oven on her own.
Though once a gregarious host and adventurous cook, she now prefers plainer fare. So I kept to familiar dishes that didn't require much effort and allowed us time to chat as I puttered. We'd watch the birds at the feeder or listen to a piece of music. With just the two of us, the meals provided plenty of tasty leftovers that became soup, curry, stew and pasta dishes that I wrapped into single portions to freeze. Pot roast was turned into beef-barley soup; meatloaf became lasagna; roast chicken and potatoes became chicken pot pie. By the time I left, she was walking on her own and the larder was stocked. Hard as it was to return to Minneapolis, I felt I left a little of myself in the meals I'd made and stored.
Tips for the cook
This winter a friend called to say she was heading out to see her parents and wanted to stock their freezer so her dad wouldn't have to drive through bad weather. Here's what I suggested she do:
• Don't be too ambitious. It's no good sacrificing time you might have together sipping tea and watching birds to slaving over the stove. Keep it simple, be calm, don't fuss.
• Package up balanced meals. Put protein, starch and vegetable in single-serving containers available in grocery stores.
• Don't feel you have to do everything yourself. Splurge on restaurant takeout soups or stews that can be divvied up into single-sized containers and frozen for backup.
• Look for treats. There are wonderful single-serving ice cream novelties, yogurt, cookies, crackers or cheese, so stock up on those. They are a little more expensive, but there's no savings on big packages of things that get stale.
• Think of meal components that can be mixed and matched. One pot roast dinner can provide three additional meals -- shepherd's pie, caramelized onion and beef casserole, beef and barley soup.
• Splurge on seasonings and fresh herbs. They make a real difference, even after the meal is frozen.
• Think color! Make it pretty -- chopped carrots, red peppers, green beans, peas for accents.
• Date everything you freeze. Then insist things be thrown out after 3 months. Even if it's safe to eat, it won't taste very good.
Back in my own kitchen, I realize that what works for my mom works for me, too. With teenage kids and a husband who travels, I find myself often eating dinner solo. I've been storing away the very same dinners for the nights I'm on my own, and it's those nights, I call my mom. We both go through our stash, sometimes picking the same meal, and it feels to us both as though we are not eating alone.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Northern Heartland Kitchen."