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How to Plan a Meal Like a Master Chef

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Is this a perfect plate?

Is this a perfect plate?

Have you ever sat down to a perfectly executed meal at a fine restaurant and wondered "how do they do that?" What technique, what bit of magic makes all of the components of the meal fit together so perfectly?

What is it about dining out that makes the experience so special? What brings out the "oohs" and "aahs" when that plate arrives?

In Paris...I learned why good French good is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating.... Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn't use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushes through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture.... But a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience.

— Julia Child, "My Life in France"

If I Can Do This

I have prepared romantic candlelit dinners for two, a Thanksgiving feast for 50, helped cater an event for 100 ... and everything in between.

No, I'm not a professional chef. I've not even taken a cooking course (unless high school freshman Home Economics counts). But I do love to cook. For me, cooking is more than warming up food to eat. There's a little science involved, a touch of art, and (Grandma's secret ingredient) a huge dose of love.

You Can, Too!

You want to prepare a nice dinner for a special occasion—maybe a birthday, anniversary, promotion, or a new job? Whatever the occasion, I need to ask, "what’s for dinner?" Before you answer, let’s start with a simple test.

Do you detect any problems with the following menu?

  • Appetizer: Butternut squash bisque
  • Main Course: Macaroni and cheese
  • Dessert: Warm vanilla rice pudding

May I see a show of hands? (...Anyone? ...Anyone?)

Oh, class, I'm so proud of you. Yes, the appetizer, main course, and dessert are the same color, texture, and temperature.

Of course, each of these dishes on their own would be wonderful.

Imagine (if you can) a silky smooth soup of sweet butternut squash with just a touch of heat from chili powder and cumin, or creamy macaroni and cheese flavored with aged Gouda and sharp cheddar cheeses, or a rich rice pudding fragrant with cinnamon and vanilla bean and studded with plump rum-soaked raisins. Sound great, don't they? But put them together—all of them are yellow(ish), warm, and lack any texture or crunch (baby food?).

When planning a meal, you need to consider contrast—what I call the “four Ts”—taste, texture, temperature, and tone.

The 4 Ts of Menu Planning

Let's get right to it. What are the four Ts of menu planning?

1. Taste

First, a bit of science. The human tongue recognizes five distinct tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. The first four you are probably familiar with:

  • Sweet is a pleasurable sensation produced by sugars. Sugars are more than the sweetener in your coffee or syrup on your waffles. They can include ingredients with natural sugars such as fruits (fructose) and some foods that we classify as vegetables (carrots, yams, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes).
  • Sourness is the detection of acidity—the most common foods that contain the sour taste are citrus fruits, some melons and berries, vinegar, and pickled items.
  • Saltiness is mostly from the presence of sodium and can include cheeses, smoked or cured meats, breads, and crackers.
  • A bitter taste can be deemed unpleasant or disagreeable—a little bit goes a long way. Black coffee and unsweetened chocolate fall into this category.

And then there is umami. Umami is a Japanese word for "pleasant savory taste"—a meaty taste. But meaty does not necessarily require “meat.” There are several natural, non-meat foods that have an umami flavor--tomatoes, mushrooms, soy, potatoes, and Parmesan cheese are a few of them.

Rule #1: Create a balance of flavors.

2. Texture

In cooking, texture is the way food feels in your mouth. The sample menu shown above is a failure because the main course, side dish, and dessert all have the same (creamy) texture. Instead of butternut squash bisque, why not a crisp green salad? Instead of pudding, you might offer a slice of pie, cake, brownie or, (if you really want to go ‘healthy’) a piece of fresh fruit.

Rule #2: Vary the textures.

3. Temperature

Looking back at our introductory menu again, you will note that everything is the same (boring) temperature. Offer a variety of temperatures (hot and steamy, crisp and cool)—a hot main dish paired with a cool/cold salad, cold summer soup, or crostini.

Rule #3: Vary the temperatures.

4. Tone

Monochromatic might be a great look in black and white photography, but not on the dinner plate.

Aim for a variety of colors—this is where fruits and vegetables can come to the rescue (and we usually don’t eat enough of them, do we?).

Rule #4: Offer a variety of colors.

But Be Realistic

So now that you have some idea of the types of foods you want to prepare (let’s say that you have zeroed in on a salad as your opening entrée, a main dish (made with your favorite protein), and the type of dessert, you still have hundreds of items from which to choose.

Daunting? It needn’t be. There are several other things to consider which will help you further streamline the possibilities:

  • Skill level: Be honest about your skill level—If your baking skills are limited to opening a can of biscuits, a homemade beef wellington will be beyond your abilities. If you’ve never made a soufflé this is not the time to experiment. No new recipes. Keep it simple and stick with what you know.
Many, many recipes from which to choose

Many, many recipes from which to choose

Read Your Recipes

  • Read recipes carefully. At least twice. Make sure that you understand every step, that you can obtain all of the ingredients, and that you have the equipment (food processors, blenders, etc.) required.

What About the Ingredients?

  • Availability of ingredients —Fresh is best. For example, don’t plan on a salad or dessert that utilizes fresh strawberries in the middle of winter. Stick with seasonal produce.
A homey but very small kitchen

A homey but very small kitchen

How Big Is Your Kitchen?

  • Size of your kitchen: Consider your workspace. Do you have a large six-burner professional range and a double convection oven, or is yours a modest apartment-size kitchen with one oven and a two-burner range? If the latter, don’t plan a menu that requires two baked dishes prepared at different temperatures that need to be prepared just before serving. Trust me on this.
  • Size of your refrigerator: Do you have space available in your refrigerator to store all of your supplies (and pre-cooked foods) safely?

And Be Easy on Yourself

  • Time: Finally, consider how much time you have. Remember, not everything needs to be homemade. Consider take-out or deli salads, a fabulous loaf of artisanal bread from the bakery, or an amazing dessert from a bakery and focus your attention on the main course.

One Final Step

The tastes, texture, tone, and temperature of the foods are all in balance and ready to serve. You've mastered the four Ts. Now, there's one more bit of alphabetical knowledge to employ—the three Ps. Actually, whether you realize it or not, you have already accomplished the first two:

  • Planning
  • Preparation

And the final P?

Stacked cobb salad

Stacked cobb salad


Plating is artfully arranging food on a plate so that it is visually pleasing. (The opposite of plating, of course, is the school cafeteria.) But, you don't have to be an artist. Just keep these few simple rules in mind:

  1. Be odd: I don't mean "quirky." Our brains prefer odd numbers on the plate; it's that simple. Three tacos. Five meatballs. Seven carrots. Don't ask why. (Really, I don't know, but I know that it works).
  2. Start with a blank canvas: A white or unpatterned plate will be more appealing than the plastic plates covered with a bright daisy pattern. Save those for picnics or every day.
  3. Add height: A cold, crisp cobb salad on a plate tastes wonderful. A cold, crisp cobb salad vertically stacked on a small plate is visually stunning—and that "wow" factor makes it taste even better!

Mom was wrong. You have my permission to play with your food!

© 2015 Linda Lum