Food & dining

Empty nesters: free to cook and eat . . . whatever

Mikiko Kunitomo and her husband eat more noodles (with the vegetables here) with their daughters no longer at home.
Mikiko Kunitomo and her husband eat more noodles (with the vegetables here) with their daughters no longer at home.

Russell Young is cooking more and more like his late mother-in-law did. With extra time on his hands now that his youngest is in college, the physician, who lives in Shrewsbury, often makes Mama Min’s Italian recipes. Just as his wife Nancy’s mother, Minnie, did, Young pan-fries batches of breaded chicken tenders and pairs them with sauces for chicken Parmesan, Marsala, piccata, and lemon chicken. Tucked into the freezer, they’re convenient weeknight meals.

The Youngs are empty nesters. When the kids fly the coop, routines change. Dinner is no longer squeezed in after sports and before homework. Meal planning is easier (and usually more haphazard) and there are fewer groceries to buy. But dinners can also become less interesting. Sometimes the family cook doesn’t feel like working as hard. On the flip side, some feel inspired to try new recipes once the picky eaters are gone (although immature palates are not necessarily age-based).

It’s an opportunity to eat more healthfully, to fill the plate with more vegetables, and less meat, to put leftovers to good use with last-minute dishes dreamed up as you root through the fridge and pantry. For some, it’s time to eat out more. “The hardest thing at first was learning to cook for two,” says Nancy Schoen of Franklin. A mother of four, ages 20 to 29, Schoen still makes large meals on occasion, but then she and husband Scott enjoy the leftovers. The two are eating more fish and vegetables and less beef and starchy foods. “I’m using local farms more often,” says Schoen. “I never did that before because it was just an extra trip.”


When her kids were home, she’d make a weekly meal plan and shop on weekends. Now, shopping is more sporadic, dinners are often salads, soups, sometimes a big pot of chicken curry or turkey chili or pork chops. Her husband, she says, is “pretty easy to please and when all else fails he’ll have a peanut butter sandwich.”

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Linda Gotthelf of Needham also enjoys the greater flexibility. “It gives me so much more time when I don’t cook,” she says. When her two daughters lived at home, the family had more pasta and pizza dinners. Now on Sundays, Gotthelf usually makes a pan of roasted vegetables and uses them as a side dish for a few days. Depending on the season, she might cook Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, peppers, onions, broccoli, and squash. In winter, she makes soups: minestrone, lentil, or squash. “We love leftovers,” says Gotthelf. Mealtimes are easier, she admits, because her husband, David, “isn’t a meat and potatoes guy.”

Spontaneity is the operative word for Rina and Bruce Caldwell of Westford. “If we’ve had a big lunch, we can scale back and tailor [dinner] to just the two of us,” says Rina Caldwell. “We can go out or have a light dinner or eat later.” With her two daughters — and their friends — out of the house, she says, “I have to concentrate on buying less food.”

When Mikiko Kunitomo’s two daughters were home, dinners were a balanced meal of miso soup, meat or fish, rice, salad or vegetables. Now, says the Wellesley resident, “cooking became simple. When it’s just two of us, we cook more noodles.” To bowls of udon, she adds a little pork, beef, or chicken, vegetables, and a drizzle of ponzu and tahini sauce. When the weather turns cold, they often have “hot pot” or shabu shabu, where dipping thinly sliced meat or fish and vegetables into a pot of boiling water cooks them quickly. Sometimes her husband, Shotaro, likes spending time on long-cooked dishes, such as beef stew, braised pork belly, and Japanese-style curry with meat, potatoes, carrots, and peas.

One of the benefits of an empty nest is getting to enjoy foods the children don’t like.


“We eat a lot more vegetables, especially roasted Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli,” says Russell Young. “We eat brown rice instead of white, less pasta and bread, and less red meat.” And the kids never liked fish, he says.

Now, he says, they eat it weekly — or whenever they want.

Lisa Zwirn can be reached at