IN a busy supermarket here, a 27-year-old advertising representative, who identifies himself only as Peter, wheels a shopping cart slowly along the meat counter.
In the poultry section, he picks up a 4-pound package of boneless chicken breasts and waves it back and forth to catch a butcher's eye. ``This may sound like a dumb question,'' he says, ``but can I microwave this?''
Later, in the same supermarket, Audrey Burke, a graduate student, hovers over the salad bar, piling cold pasta primavera into a Styrofoam carton.
Between her part-time job in a clothing store and long nights at the library, eating here ``is usually the best I can do for dinner,'' she says. ``I cook when I have time, but I'm usually in too much of a frenzy.''
On occasion, Ms. Burke admits she skips dinner completely. ``That's probably not very smart,'' she adds.
Peter and Audrey are just two of a growing number of single Americans who would like to eat better, but lack the time or the tutelage to do so.
Because more young people than ever before grew up in households where both parents worked, many of them are struggling to overcome the idea that cooking, outside the holiday season, is an inconvenience to be avoided. Some of these folks still haven't figured out if the light stays on when they shut the refrigerator door.
But there's hope.
Paulette Mitchell, a cooking instructor from Minneapolis, has penned a new cookbook called ``The 15-Minute Single Gourmet'' (Macmillan, 247 pp., $15).
``So many people who are single are so into fitness,'' Ms. Mitchell says. ``They work out, then they go home and eat fast food. It defeats the whole purpose.''
Single people have the worst diets of all, she says, because they tend to rely on commercial processed foods. Mitchell, who sometimes teaches cooking seminars for corporations with young workers, says she's heard stories of singles standing over the sink eating takeout food to avoid making a mess or dirtying a dish.
One of her students once admitted that his kitchen is so sparsely equipped, he uses banana peels as potholders.
But Mitchell points out that not all singles are young people. Some adults, many of whom are experienced cooks, suddenly find themselves cooking for one. These singles face a different dilemma: ``After years of cooking for a large family, suddenly cooking for one looks impossible,'' she says. ``Dividing recipes for four people doesn't always work.''
To complicate matters, Mitchell says more people are used to eating fine food in restaurants that they can't duplicate in their own kitchens. Her book aims to change that by teaching readers how to cook ``simply and efficiently, but with gourmet flair.''
For the most part, Mitchell's strategy works. If you're a kitchen klutz, or even if your kitchen is poorly equipped, Mitchell has not forgotten you. With her cookbook, all you need to cook Caribbean sole, Mexican taco soup, or rice-paper spring rolls with spicy peanut sauce is a skillet or saucepan and a couple of spoons.
Even those who don't know the meaning of the word ``saute'' can navigate through these recipes. Mitchell includes detailed tips printed next to the directions (``Long fusilli are long curly strands of pasta'') that help ease the transition from gosling to gourmet. Also, in keeping with the age of aerobics, each recipe includes the total fat content.
But there is a downside: You have to plan ahead.
Although many singles complain about time constraints and the fact that items like meat and lettuce only come in family-size quantities, Mitchell insists that ``shopping is the key.''
She recommends making an advance menu plan and visiting the store once a week to buy the necessary foods. She advises shoppers to opt for fresh foods over frozen whenever possible. As a rule, she says, it's far better to rely on food that was plucked from a vine than something that was engineered in a laboratory.
With shopping, cooking, and eating included, she says, total time spent should average out to about 30 to 40 minutes daily.
Despite his confessed ignorance of cooking, and maybe because some people giggle at the contents of his shopping cart, Peter says he is determined to stop spending his good money on bad food.
``I've had it with Miracle Whip,'' he says. ``From now on, it's nothing but Grey Poupon.''