Empty Nest Cooking

Mary Dell writes: What’s for dinner? is our kids way of saying hello to us as they walk into the door from school. Akin to the movie Groundhog Day, we seek an answer to this same old question every 24 hours. But one day, perhaps while sipping a first cup of coffee in our empty nest, we realize the question has ceased to be so very pressing.

After 20 years of grocery shopping an average of 2.2 times a week, preparing family meals 3.5 times a week, many of us are, frankly, happy to say goodbye to the stage in our lives where we logged 2300 trips to the store to cook over 4000 dinners!

But transitioning from pushing baskets overflowing with each child’s favorite foods to shopping for just one or two adults, means thinking about cooking in a new way. Gone are the long lists, junky snacks and super-sized quantities.  We have a chance to reboot our eating habits, ditching tired family favorites along the way.

cooking class, new recipes, pretty dining room table

I needed some advice about empty nest cooking, so I spoke with a friend and neighbor, Rene´e Cohen, who is also the owner/instructor of CuisineArts cooking school. For fifteen years, Rene´e has taught weekly classes of ten students each in her Victorian home just steps from the Long Island Sound. Part demonstration, part participation, each class runs three hours, culminating in a feast where students and teacher sit down together at her round dining table to sample the dozen dishes prepared.

What led you to create CuisineArts?

Cooking is an art that has run in my family for generations.  Twenty years ago, we began selling baked desserts to neighborhood restaurants which led to the opening of our Manhattan bakery, My Most Favorite Food CompanyLater, I earned a Master Culinary Degree at the French Culinary Institute and a Master’s Degree in Education; CuisineArts lets me draw on both my passion for cooking and teaching.

Do you have a favorite cuisine?

I’ve developed over 75 classes including Italian, French, Healthy Eating, Asian, and Southwestern, to name a few. I love so many different types of food, it’s impossible for me to choose just one.

I will soon have an empty nest and, though I fantasize about dining on soup or cereal, I think that is unlikely. What do you suggest?

I love the ingredients that the Mediterranean diet includes; what could be so bad with extra-virgin olive oil, fresh lemon squeezed onto a beautiful whole fish, with a touch of sea salt and freshly ground pepper, perfectly grilled. Wait, and then top it off with a delicious wine!

Speaking of the Mediterranean Diet and the compelling benefits it offers, have you altered your classes or recipes over time, reflecting an interest in healthier eating?

Yes, absolutely. While I still love the traditional way of cooking French food, I have adapted healthier preparation. For instance, in one of my Modern French cooking classes, I teach how to cook “en papiollote” (in paper.) I use parchment paper and cook fresh fish (snapper is yummy), grape tomatoes, lemon juice, fresh thyme and a dash of wine for nine  minutes in a 450 oven. There is nothing highly caloric in that recipe, but as you can see, it’s still in keeping with a “French” theme.  This is also a great recipe for just the empty nesters!

What if there are non-fish eaters in the house and we are bored with chicken, chicken and chicken, again?

Use some whole grains, and there’s nothing wrong with cooking turkey cutlets or ground turkey.  You can also use tofu and jazz it up by throwing in some vegetables, both familiar or new ones that are fun to sample.

After twenty+ years of marriage and cooking for my family most nights, I am burned out on grocery shopping. How can I regain my enthusiasm for cooking?

You can take a cooking class, go on a food walking tour, pick up some food magazines, look through old (pre-kid) recipes. Consider hosting your own recipe swap with friends.

You have one daughter in college and another one in 11th grade.  How are you preparing for your own empty nest?

I don’t think anyone could have prepared me for my first going off-it’s been a huge adjustment for us all, and for her too!  I’m thinking of continuing to do what I love to do, more cooking classes, food walking tours, and hopefully, opening up a restaurant where I can marry my passion of cooking, teaching and entertaining!

cooking school teacher, healthy recipes

Photo credits: CuisineArts, Caren Gerszberg, Carmine Picarello.



  1. says

    I’m going through this right now. This is such great advice, even though cereal is very tempting. When my daughter comes home I feel like a short order cook the entire time, I guess it keeps me on my cooking toes.

  2. says

    This is so relevant for us right now. Soup and cereal sound so good right now although I don’t know that my husband would be all that impressed if I dished that up for dinner on more than the odd occasion !!!
    Have the best week and thanks for some great ideas in this post.

    • says

      Yes, while my husband prefers simpler meals for dinner, it meals a “meal” not a bowl of soup from a can…..oh, well, better for us, too!

  3. happyoutlook says

    What a mouthwatering post!

  4. Emily says

    That is my number one reason for looking forward to an empty nest — no more scrambling to cook meals and yes, all those mind-numbing trips to the grocery store. I find that we don’t eat as healthy as we’d like now, because we need to make meals that satisfy a teenage boy’s pallet. Once we’re on our own again, I envision meals like healthy salads for dinner, fish, etc. No more tater tots! :)

  5. says

    As a single person I struggle with finding the energy to prepare a ‘real’ meal. I tend to cook simple foods, often using a chicken breast in several ways over the course of a couple of days.
    As a former caterer I love to read and talk about foods-enjoyed this interview.

    • says

      Thanks, Walker. I don;t know what I would do without rotisserie chickens that I pick up around town for at least one meal a week. that qualifies as home cooking, in my mind. Did not know that you had been a caterer, too. Interesting!

  6. says

    When you put it in perspective, gee. How many shopping trips was that? I’m still in the middle of it all with a seven- and ten-year-old. I hope when they leave I can get back to cooking what I really want to eat! Good advice.

    • says

      Even as the kids grown up the range of cooking expands, at least for me, it did. Be gone, chicken nuggets!!!

  7. says

    I’m a lazy, lazy cook these days. Sometimes Diet Coke and popcorn for dinner. If I don’t feel hungry – there are no mouths to feed and that’s so liberating – although it took me a while to adjust to it. I love now, when my kids call or text for a “mom” recipe or have a special request when they’re home from their favorites. My husband eats like a 12-year old boy (his descriptor – not mine – although it’s true) so I usually chop and broil and steam for one – talk about adjustment. And that’s when I’m not eating boxed foods from the deli and lush salad/soup bar at Whole Foods. And it’s cappuccino and a torta or protein bar – maybe a hard boiled egg for breakfast.

    • says

      You said it best – it is “liberating” to be free of the obligation of cooking (every night for a family for soooo many years) and enjoy the fun of cooking/food prep as the spirit moves you.

  8. says

    I always liked cooking dinner for the kids-every couple of weeks it would be out to dinner just to have some time away from chores, homework, phones. now that denise and i try new recipes, they’ll try them and like them when they are home but the always want the old favorites. i’m one of those odd people who has always loved grocery shopping. something about walking in with that empty cart and all the possibilities.

  9. says

    Not having to cook as often is one of the best things about the empty nest. The very, VERY best thing: Not have to grocery shop as often. It’s my most detested chore.
    Rene´e sounds like a delightful friend and neighbor and a wonderful cook. Thank you for the introduction to her.

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