May 05, 2012

The At Home Cook Series, Installment #8: Menu Planning

Continuing with my The At Home Cook Series, today we'll look at menu planning. So far I have covered: Mise en Place, Knife Skills, Searing and SauteingMother Sauces, Grilling Perfect Steaks, Umami and Soups and Stocks. For the at home cook, menus can be a challenge, especially when planning a week of home cooked meals for you and your family. The easy way most at  home cooks deal with the task, especially if they work outside the home and are pressed for time, is pre-packaged meals that can often be high in sodium, preservatives and may not be the healthiest choice for your family. It is sometimes difficult to keep the family’s palate stimulated week after week, especially if you have to do the 9-5 thing as well. Choosing menu options, budgeting, shopping, preparation, cooking, service and cleanup is a full time job in and of itself! But, with a little help with proper menu planning, cooking for your family, a special holiday meal, or even a dinner party of 8, will be a much more pleasurable experience!

What’s for dinner? First and foremost, understand the task at hand, and create a plan. Menu planning does not have to be complicated. A small investment can reap great rewards. The biggest challenge is remaining organized throughout the week and sticking to your plan. When preparing meals for your family, take only one week at a time. Spend an hour at the end of the week with a piece of paper and a pen (and a glass of wine…believe me it's inspiring!) and jot down ideas for the coming week.

Start with the Sunday newspaper flipping through until you find the right coupon or deal of the day that sparks your interest. Don't forget the numerous websites, twitter and facebook options to find recipes as well. This is the first step to budgeting and an important way for you to be cost effective throughout the week. But, don’t just jump for the deal because it’s cheaper; quality of ingredients should play a very important decision making role. Organics, all natural, gluten free and dealing with food allergies is also an important thing to keep in mind when  planning meals, especially when party planning for large groups, so always check with your guests to insure you don't spend the majority of your evening at the hospital emergency room feeling guilty for almost killing one of your guests.

Begin with proteins, then add vegetables, starch, sauce and any other fun plate additions you can think of. Create an ingredient list, which will become your final shopping list. Check around the house to make sure you don’t purchase something you may already have, then head off to the supermarket. This is where the real fun begins!

Now there are two types of shopper; the spreadsheet type, that has all the information they need, allowing them to be in and out of the supermarket in 30 minutes with the food they need for entire week. They do this, usually, by learning what’s on the shelves at their local food store, planning their menu out ahead of time, then executing their shopping list in a timely fashion. This would describe my mom. She has lists...of her lists. Then there is the shopper who walks into the food store with some idea of what they'll need for the week ahead, usually the staples; bread, milk, eggs etc., but, when it comes to menu planning for the week, they let inspiration guide. This would describe me. I start in the produce aisle, then to the fish and meat departments immediately after that, finding myself visualizing the plates as I then go from aisle to aisle. I can spend hours learning about new products, quality checking, or just creating new ideas right there while I'm shopping. I like to allow the things I find on sale, or the specials, inspire me as to what may be my menu for the week. Remember, you don't always have to stick to what’s on your list. Enter into the shopping experience with a very open mind and be prepared to find substitutions for the food you may have predetermined for dinner. This is how the experience can become fun. Get the family involved with you as well, bring the kids along and make it a challenge to prepare the best meal yet! It will ultimately take the stress off of you (well maybe not the 'taking the kids with you' part of it) and make the ever so irritating question of "What’s for dinner?" disappear.

Now that we have made our purchases, it’s time to get down and dirty. Break out the cutting board, your favorite set of knives, an apron, and start chopping! There are certain ingredients in the kitchen that can be prepared a few days in advance in bulk, to speed up the preparation of each meal. For example, you may slice onions and chop garlic, or even squeeze a few fresh lemons ahead of time and store them in airtight containers in the fridge. Learn how to time your prepping and begin the cooking process at the right time. Get the roast in the oven first, then prepare and cook the vegetables and pasta. This will ensure that you are being efficient in the kitchen, not wasting any time at all. Get the rest of the family involved with washing vegetables, seasoning the steaks, even cutting and chopping. The more they are involved, the more exciting dinner time becomes and they come to understand what goes into preparing the meal.

Ok, so you’ve mastered the art of cooking for your family, but how do you impress your friends? It seems much harder than it is. As a part of this type of menu planning, it is important that you learn more about your guests. Find out what their likes and dislikes are and more importantly, find out if they have any food allergies. At home chefs can have an eye for presentation just as much as the professionals do and with the food TV shows so popular, I’d be apt to say that some of them could hold their own in the industry. Cooking can be very competitive as well, but learning about all the pleasures of cooking is what really makes a successful meal mean more to you and your guests.Don’t worry so much about impressing your friends with "outside of the box" presentations and a list of strange ingredients that none of you can pronounce. Focus on flavor, timing, classy presentations and your guests will appreciate the effort.

As with everything in life, practice makes perfect. Start slowly and get some good practice in before attempting to "one up" your neighbor and invite them over for dinner. Learn about the ingredients you are cooking with, understand how to cook them and the timing will occur naturally. This is the true meaning of menu planning, as it is just as important to plan on paper, as it is in the kitchen.

As always, Bon Appetit!

Sources : winnond

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