House prices might be holding them back, but your kids will move out eventually. Here’s how to make the change a positive one for both your weight and your wellbeing.
Young Australians are flying the coop later and later, thanks to a complex mix of financial, emotional and social factors. But when they do, it can be a challenge cooking for just one or two after feeding an adult family for years.
This life change often coincides with other risk factors for weight gain, so it makes sense to be aware of some of the ‘empty nester’ traps — and how to overcome them.
You cook to feed an army
When the kids are at home, you’re often making big family meals for drop-ins and plus-ones. “You might find it hard to stop cooking large volumes of food due to habit,” says Dietitians Association of Australia spokesperson, Milly Smith. “That can lead to eating more, because with fewer mouths to feed, there’s more food available — food you don’t want to waste.”
The fix: Halve recipes, or learn to cook in batches
Before you start cooking, scale the ingredients of your favourite recipes down to serve just one or two people. If the recipe serves four and you’re cooking for two, halve the ingredient quantities — a cup of rice now becomes a half cup. If you’re cooking for one, use one-quarter the quantities — a cup of rice now becomes one-quarter cup.
“But sometimes it’s not economical to cook a smaller batch,” says Smith, “and that’s fine. You can eat the leftovers the following day, or divide them into single portions and freeze. The key is putting any extra serves away before you sit down to eat. Otherwise, you might be tempted to keep picking.”
Research proves the risk is real, showing that when leftovers are visible, we wind up eating an extra 700kJ (168cal) of food.
You buy too much food
When you’re used to loading up your trolley to feed several people, it’s easy to go into autopilot as soon as your hands close around that handlebar.
“Not only can that lead to an oversupply of discretionary foods at home, you could also waste a lot of fresh food, if it spoils before you can eat it,” says Smith. Time for some fresh thinking!
The fix: Shop for your groceries online
Online food shopping has been scientifically proven to reduce the overall volume of food — and the quantity of high-fat foods — you purchase.
Another option is to take with you a shopping-for-one or shopping-for-two list. Monash University researchers have found that this helps you avoid putting things you don’t need into your trolley by reducing impulse purchases. It also makes it easier to remember what you came for!
You lose motivation to cook
“Finding the motivation to cook for just one or two people can be difficult,” says Smith. “Plus, some parents miss the food-prep help that their adult children once provided. Both circumstances make it easy to turn to less healthy choices like takeaway.”
You might also be socialising more, which means more time spent at cafes and restaurants and less time at home cooking.
The fix: Stock your pantry with healthy ‘fast’ foods
Staples like canned beans or fish, ready-to-heat rice and dried pasta last for ages and make healthy home-cooking easy when you’re short on time or inspiration. Canned fish and microwavable brown rice, paired with a bag of steamed veg and a splash of soy sauce, is a nutritious, fast meal.
This is also where frozen leftovers are really handy.
Other big life changes are happening
With kids leaving home later than previous generations, other life changes often coincide with you becoming an empty nester — changes like menopause and retirement, which are risk factors in themselves for unwanted weight gain.
The fix: Make a commitment to daily exercise
Sounds obvious, but the research shows we’re 23 per cent less likely to meet physical activity guidelines around retirement, and that it’s not uncommon for women to halve the amount of exercise they engage in during menopause.
To encourage yourself to exercise more, start wearing an activity tracker. People who do don’t always nail their fitness goals, but studies show they do achieve significantly more weekly exercise, and take more than 750 extra steps a day. Step to it!
You eat to feed emotions
While ‘empty nest syndrome’ has traditionally been linked to triggering feelings of loss, recent research paints a different picture for couples, finding that relationship satisfaction improves once children leave home. Sounds great — but happier marriages also bump up the likelihood of gaining weight, according to a 2013 study.
And if being home alone makes you feel lonely, that’s a risk factor for weight gain too. It can affect levels of an appetite-regulating hormone that makes you feel hungrier. Luckily, there’s something you can do in both cases!
The fix: Keep a food diary
Whether it’s a paper or app-based food diary, studies have shown that, regardless of which emotions might be influencing your food choices, logging what you eat helps keep your appetite and weight under control.
How to shop and cook for one
These tips make sticking to a healthy diet simple and cost-effective for both singles and couples.
Save leftover ingredients
Rather than throwing away liquid stock, pasta sauce, legumes and canned fish when there’s too much for your single-serve meal, get creative. Freeze liquid ingredients and sauces in ice-cube trays and repurpose others.
For example, you can blitz leftover canned chickpeas into hoummos; turn leftover canned tomatoes into a quick pasta sauce; use leftover legumes to bulk up a soup or stew; and process canned salmon or tuna into homemade fish patties by adding some egg, flour and chopped veg.
Start or join a community cooking group
Talk to your neighbours, friends or family about trying meal sharing. This is where you take turns cooking big batches of food, dividing these batches into single-serve containers and delivering them to group members. You get to enjoy a wide variety of meals, without having to cook every night.
Try new recipes
If you find your interest in cooking for yourself is starting to wane, committing to cooking a new recipe once a week will help you stay motivated.
Downsize your purchases
As your household gets smaller, your packet sizes should follow suit. You might find you only need a litre of milk, not two, or half-a-dozen eggs instead of 12. The bonus? Your grocery bill will downsize!
Adopt once-weekly ‘clean out the fridge’ meals
Your kids no longer come home ravenous and lay siege to the fridge, so dedicate a night each week to eating leftovers to stop them going in the bin.
Stock up on frozen vegetables
They’re just as nutritious as fresh varieties, won’t go off, and are often cheaper, too. They’re also pre-cut, so it’s quick and easy to prepare a single-serve veg portion to add to your meal.
Pick a theme
Decide on a weekly theme, such as Mexican or Italian. You’ll get to taste and enjoy different cuisines, but still use up that packet of tacos or jar of pasta sauce.