Menu Planning 101 ~ Kristen Desmond
I often get asked what to serve for this or that occasion. I always make a point of asking a few questions before making any sort of recommendation. For example, how many mouths are you feeding? Is it formal or casual? Will you be indoors or out? Do you prefer to serve your meal on a buffet, in courses, or family style? Will there be seating for everyone or will people be expected to stand and eat? Of course, other considerations include your capacity in terms of slicing, dicing, roasting and refrigeration. As you can see, a lot goes into menu planning and it is, in my experience, an essential part of any delicious meal.
Start by considering the setting. For example, imagine a social gathering around a football game, where guests will arrive and depart at different times, possibly helping themselves to food whenever they are ready. In this case, it might be nice to keep a pot of chili simmering on the stove. To round out a menu, it always helps to consider the other major food groups – dairy, fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Ask yourself, “What’s missing?” A seasonal mixed green salad would be a great compliment to the chili. In terms of introducing whole grains, corn bread goes well with this menu too.
You might also want to consider special diets. Will everyone eat the chili? Not everyone eats beef, so if it is beef chili, possibly not. It might be nice to make two smaller portions of chili – one beef and one vegetarian. Or, go with one big crowd-pleasing batch of turkey chili.
As simple as it sounds, a meal of turkey chili, salad and corn bread offers all sorts of appeal in terms of meeting the basic elements of menu planning. For example, a variety of cooking methods are represented. There is something boiled (chili), something raw (salad), and something baked (corn bread). In terms of color, which always makes a meal more appetizing, there is brown/red, green, and orange/yellow. In terms of texture, we have soupy, crispy, and soft. There is also variety in terms of shape, which matters more than you might realize. The chili is served in bowls (round), the salad is mounded in pieces and the corn bread can be cut into squares or pie-shapes. There are a variety of flavors present as well. The savory chili offers spicy and salty, the corn bread is a bit sweet and the salad could offer sour in terms of a vinaigrette dressing. Temperature matters too. You don’t want to serve all hot or all cold items – again – it is nice to offer variety. The chili can be held hot on the stove, the salad can be served cold and the corn bread is delicious served room temperature.
Of course, there is a fine balance between using a variety of tastes, textures and shapes to enhance a meal without turning it into a circus. Just use your best judgment. What would you enjoy? When serving a meal in courses, don’t serve an appetizer, a soup and a salad. It’s too much. Choose two out of the three options. Try not to repeat ingredients. Think about the colors that will be on a plate; aim for two or three.
To recap, the key elements of menu planning include:
- Event setting/structure – formal/casual, indoors/out, large/intimate, buffet/courses
- Food groups – meat, dairy, vegetables, fruit, whole grains
- Special diets – something for everyone
- Flavor – sour, bitter, sweet, spicy
- Color – green, red, orange/yellow, white, brown/black/blue/purple
- Texture – creamy, soft, chunky, crispy, chewy, grainy
- Temperature – hot, cold, frozen, room temperature
- Shape/form – round, square, pie-shaped, pieces, mounded, chunks
- Cooking method – roast, bake, stew, boil, sauté, steam, poach, raw
- Seasonality – winter, spring, summer, fall
Despite all there is to consider, my best advice is – simplify. And no matter what, enjoy yourself! – Kristen Desmond
Read Kristen’s Recent Blogs & Guides
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° Healthy Breakfast Ideas
° Ways to Create the Best Salads – Not Just For Lunch
° How to Cook Tomatoes – The Chef’s Way
° Back to School – Meal Planning Ideas
° Kitchen Organization – Like a Pro
° Pantry Staples – The Essentials for your Kitchen Cupboard – Part II
° Pantry Staples – The Essentials for your Kitchen Cupboard
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