How to Plan a Meal

Whether it’s a special meal for the holidays or just a regular weekday dinner, planning out how to cook your own meals is a great skill to have.

Whilst it can be great fun to try new recipes, I find that learning to cook individual ingredients gives you more freedom in the kitchen. (And doesn’t leave you wondering what to do with half a jar of whatever you bought for that one recipe you don’t want to repeat…) But turning those individual ingredients into one meal requires a bit more thought.


1. Know who you’re cooking for

How many people are you cooking for? Is anyone a picky eater, or do they have any allergies? Is everyone hungry already, or have you got time to spare? If it’s a special event, do you want to be spending all your time in the kitchen?

Questions like these can really help you narrow down what to cook. If you’re cooking for a lot of people, remember that chopping twice as many ingredients takes twice as long, and it takes longer for the heat to reach the middle of a larger (or fuller) pan. If everyone’s hungry already, pick techniques you know well and can cook quickly. And if it’s a big event, think about things you can prepare ahead of time.


2. Pick your main ingredients

For a special event, there may be traditional foods you want to serve. It’s also a great idea to cook produce that’s in season – it’s tasty, economical, and environmentally friendly! If you’re trying to pick from ingredients you’ve already bought, start with the things that go off fastest (like fresh fish, seafood, and green vegetables).

A balanced meal should contain a good source of protein (such as meat, poultry, fish, beans, or nuts); a source of carbohydrates for energy (pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, dumplings, or noodles); and a lot of yummy veggies! Try and think about colour and texture, as well as taste, when choosing ingredients.


3. Pick your seasonings

Seasonings such as herbs and spices are what take a meal from nutritious to delicious! It can take some time to learn which seasonings go with which ingredients, and with each other. Try and notice which seasonings are in your favourite recipes, sauces, and spice blends. Don’t be afraid to try a little experiment, but remember to smell and taste before serving.


4. Pick your method(s)

Now that you’ve chosen all your ingredients, think about how to cook them. You can pick different cooking methods for each ingredient, or cook everything in the same pot. If you want to use multiple different techniques, make sure that you have enough pots, pans, and oven space for them all. The methods you choose will also have a big impact on how long your meal will take to cook.

One thing you might not think to consider when planning a meal is the weather. Your cooking methods can change with the seasons just as your ingredients can. In winter, hearty dishes like soups are great, and roast dinners can warm you and your house. But for hot weather consider lighter dishes that don’t need much cooking, like pasta or even salad.


5. Work backwards from serving time

Getting a whole meal served up on time is a difficult thing to do. Even if you think you’ve planned everything, it’s very easy for one small thing to throw you off, so don’t worry too much if it doesn’t all go according to plan.

That said, it does really help to have a plan. Make sure you know how long it takes to prepare and cook each of your elements. (If you’re trying a new technique, allow yourself plenty of time.) Think about whether you can prepare some ingredients while others are cooking, or if you need to prepare them ahead of time. Then work backwards from your serving time, to make sure everything is ready at the same time.



There is a lot to think about when planning a meal, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Not every meal you invent will be a masterpiece, and it doesn’t have to be. Any mistakes you make can become something to do better next time. And as you practice, you’ll find things you once found difficult become almost automatic.

I’d love to hear about your culinary (mis)adventures in comments πŸ™‚

Bonus Post – How to Break The Second Rule of Knife Safety… Safely?!

You may have noticed that, at the start of every β€œHow to Chop” tutorial, I keep plugging my post on knife safety. In fact, if you haven’t read it yet, here it is again (link).

The reason basically boils down to, I would hate for anyone to get hurt. And, particularly relevant to this blog, I would hate for anyone to be put off learning to cook because of it. But I have a slight confession to make: I break my own rules of knife safety.

Are you shocked? Anyway, the rule that I break on a regular basis is rule #2 – Always Cut Away from Yourself.


Now if you are going to break rule #2 of knife safety, it’s extra important that you have a good, sharp knife (rule #1). (I would also recommend you use a smooth, rather than a serrated, blade.) I know it seems counterintuitive, and I don’t mean razor-sharp, but you need to be able to push your knife through whatever you’re chopping with gentle pressure.

Which brings me to my second point – don’t slice. The type of motion you use with a knife will make a big difference to how safe it is. You are unlikely to cut yourself using just gentle pressure, but if you use a back-and-forth, sawing motion you probably will.


The safest way to cut towards yourself is actually to use your knife and thumb like a pair of scissors. This is a great way to peel or cut the blemishes out of vegetables. (My mum taught me this technique after I found out the hard way that I’m no good with a kitchen peeler…)

To make a ‘scissor grip’, hold the handle of the knife in the palm of your hand. Support the back of the blade with your forefinger for control, and use your other three fingers to make sure you have a solid grip. You can then use your knife and thumb like a really flexible pair of scissors! Why not try out the grip and pincer motion a few times to see how it feels, and if you want to try it on a vegetable?


If you are just getting to grips with basic knife skills, you may want to save this one for later. (I certainly didn’t start out breaking any rules – I was already quite confident with a kitchen knife before I tried this one!) But if you can master this technique, it can help you cook faster, and quite possibly freak out your friends in the process…


Food Safety – How to Prevent and Treat Food Poisoning

There are so many great things about food, but unfortunately foodstuffs can also carry germs that can spoil our food or make us sick. In healthy people, it takes a lot of these germs to make us sick, but they can grow quite quickly. There is a lot that we can do to stop them though.


Aside from the obvious (don’t eat rotten food), here are my top 5 rules for food safety:

1. Keep your tools, hands, and kitchen clean

It’s important to make sure that all the things you use for cooking stay clean. All of your kitchen equipment should be washed after use, especially if it’s been used for raw meat or fish. Your worktops and even your cooker need wiping down too. You don’t need to use antibacterial cleaning products; just hot, soapy water and a clean cloth is fine.

Your hands are just as important to keep clean. Wash them before cooking and after touching things like raw meat, eggs, bins and pets. (You shouldn’t wash the meats themselves though, as this is more likely to spread germs than get rid of them.)

2. Keep different kinds of foods separate

Different kinds of foods can carry different kinds of germs, so it’s important to keep them separate from each other. Try and keep animal products separate from vegetables, and dairy products by themselves too. It’s particularly important to keep foods that are ready to eat away from foods that still need cooking. In fact, it’s best to keep raw foods on the bottom shelf of your fridge, as they can sometimes leak onto other foods. Make sure to seal up opened packets and containers, and keep all your leftovers in sealed containers.

When you’re preparing ingredients for cooking, it’s still best not to mix them. You might even want to consider having separate chopping boards for meat and seafood.

3. Cook food all the way through

From a food safety standpoint, it’s better to have food that’s over-cooked than under-cooked. There are a few exceptions – whole cuts of beef and lamb, and vegetables that can be eaten both raw and cooked will be fine a little under-done. Don’t be afraid to cut foods (especially processed meats) in half to check that they’re done in the middle.

On the other hand, it’s best to leave most ingredients in their natural state until you’re going to use them. Once you’ve chopped something up, it will start to spoil faster. If you want to pre-prepare ingredients, you’ll need to add an extra step like blanching or freezing so they stay good to use.

4. Don’t leave food out at room temperature

Foods spoil much more quickly when they’re warm, because germs can grow faster. Make sure to keep fresh ingredients chilled, and keep foods in the freezer if you’re not going to use them in the next few days.

Once you’ve cooked your food it’s important to either eat it or chill it, ideally within 1-2 hours of cooking. You can then reheat most foods, as long as you heat them all the way through and don’t leave them sitting in a warm environment. Surprisingly, it’s especially important to cook and cool rice properly, and only reheat it once.

5. Trust your nose

Most foods do start to look and smell different the longer you keep them, especially after chilling or freezing them. However, most of us can tell when something is ‘off’. Some good indicators are if the food is slimy or sour, has gas bubbles where there were none before, or you can see mould growing on the food.

Most foods also come with best before and/or use by dates. Best before dates are indicators of food enjoyability, so you can safely eat food that’s past the best before date. However use by dates are indicators of food safety, so please do pay attention to them.


These five tips should help keep both you and your food safe, and you can find more information on food safety from organisations like the Food Standards Agency (link) and the NHS (link). Even following best practices at home, it’s hard to entirely eliminate the risk of food poisoning. So you can read more on that down below.


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Heat Safety – How to Prevent and Treat Burns

Whenever you’re cooking, you’re going to be dealing with hot temperatures. This is important to make sure the food you make is good to eat, but does carry a risk to us as cooks. However, as long as you follow some basic safety guidelines, you needn’t worry too much.


Aside from the obvious (don’t play with fire or a hot cooker), here are my top 5 rules for heat safety:

1. Pay attention to your cooking

Carelessness in the kitchen can cause burns and even fires. When you’re cooking it’s best not to leave it unattended, especially if it’s on the hob or on a high heat. Some slow cooking methods can be left for a short time, but make sure to set a timer and check up on it every so often.

2. Be patient

It’s best to start with slower cooking methods; they take longer because they use lower temperatures, which makes them safer. Don’t try and jump right into something like deep-frying – this is pretty much the most dangerous way to cook food.

Remember too that ovens and pans will take a little while to get to the right temperature. Be patient rather than cranking the heat all the way up – it’s better for dinner to be a little bit late than for it to be burnt. If your pan does get a bit hot, I find that the best way to cool it down is to surround the outside with cold water – the sink is usually the best place to do this. Adding water to the inside can ruin your food and if there’s oil in there it’ll hiss and spit at you horribly.

3. Know how different materials respond to heat

Heat conductors like metal get hot really easily and can easily transfer heat to you too, but they also cool down quickly. Heat insulators like plastic, fabric, and glass take much longer to heat up but also take longer to cool down than conductors.

Flammable materials like fabric, paper, hair, oil, and some plastics, can catch fire if exposed to too much heat or (if you have a gas stove) an open flame. Make sure all hair and clothing is tied back, and keep things like tea towels, oven gloves and packaging materials away from the stove. Try not to use a lot of oil, and never mix hot oil and water.

4. Be aware of the heat sources in your kitchen

The rings on a hob and the inside of an oven will of course get hot, but the areas around these can too. Any pans that you’ve been cooking with can stay hot for a surprisingly long time, and electrical appliances like kettles and toasters will get hot too. Make sure you turn your cooker and electrics off after use, and take extra care if you’re not the only person using the kitchen.

If you’re not sure how hot something is, try feeling the air around it to see if that’s hot. Never touch something that might be hot with the palm of your hand – this can trigger your grip reflex. Instead, you can use the very tips of your fingers or the back of your hand. It’s a good idea to use your other senses too – if you can hear a sizzling sound, see steam or smoke, or if something smells hot, it’s probably too hot to touch.

5. Be prepared

Although I hope none of you ever have to deal with one, there is a risk of fires in the kitchen. Make sure your smoke alarms stay in good working order (more information here), and have a plan in case something goes wrong (link).

You might also want to consider investing in safety equipment like a fire extinguisher or a fire blanket (more information here). Don’t be afraid to call the emergency services, and always value your safety over your stuff.


These five tips should help keep you safe in the kitchen, but even following best practices accidents can happen. You can find great first aid advice from organisations like the Red Cross (link) and the NHS (link), or you can read on for basic first aid for the kinds of burns you might get in the kitchen.


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Knife Safety – How to Prevent and Treat Cuts

I consider a good knife to be one of the most important pieces of kitchen equipment. Although any sharp tool can be dangerous, if you make sure to use it properly you needn’t worry too much.


Aside from the obvious (don’t run with, throw knives or wave them around), here are my top 5 rules for knife safety:

1. Use a sharp knife

It’s a little counterintuitive, but a sharp knife is safer than a blunt knife. This is because when you use a blunt knife, you have to put a lot more force behind the blade. This makes you more likely to lose control of it.

2. Always cut away from yourself

Not putting any part of your body in the path of the knife is the best way to avoid cutting yourself. There are some advanced techniques which break this rule, but you need to be comfortable handling a knife before you try these.

3. Cut downwards

Don’t try and fight gravity – it makes it harder to keep control of your knife. Some more advanced techniques do involve cutting sideways, but you should never cut upwards.

4. Use a flat surface

It’s important when you’re chopping ingredients to have a stable, flat chopping surface. A chopping board or plate can help with this, but also make sure that your table or worktop is steady, and your ingredients aren’t going to go rolling off by themselves while you’ve got a knife in your hand.

(This flat surface is also the best place to put down your knife when you aren’t using it.)

5. Stand up if you can

For most people it’s safest to cook standing up. This is because if you drop anything it’s much easier and quicker to just step back than to push a chair backwards.

If you find standing difficult, I would recommend using a chair with wheels. If your kitchen is adapted for it a wheelchair is great, but if not I can recommend a wheeled office chair. If you are cooking sitting down, you might want to consider putting something solid like a tray over your lap.


These five tips should help keep you safe in the kitchen, but even following best practices accidents can happen. You can find great first aid advice from organisations like the Red Cross (link) and the NHS (link), or you can read on for basic first aid for the kinds of cuts and scrapes you might get from kitchen knives.


Continue reading “Knife Safety – How to Prevent and Treat Cuts”

10 Pieces of Essential Kitchen Equipment

When you first start cooking, it’s difficult to know what sort of equipment you need to buy. I’ve put together this list based on what I find most useful in the kitchen, and on the techniques and recipes I’m planning to teach.

Since you’re on a cooking blog, I’m assuming you have a fairly standard kitchen with a stove, a sink and a microwave. I’m also assuming that you have some basic crockery (cups, bowls, and plates) and cutlery (knives, forks and spoons), so I haven’t included any of these things on my list.


Here are my top ten pieces of essential kitchen equipment:

1. A good, sharp, knife

It can be very tempting when starting out to buy a bargain set of five knives AND a knife block, but you’re actually better off starting with just one good quality knife.

I recommend a knife with a handle about the same length as your palm, and a blade of similar length. It should feel comfortable in your hand and you should be able to grip it firmly. I personally find that I use just one lightly serrated blade for chopping pretty much everything, however some people prefer a smooth blade. My mum’s advice is to get one of each.

2. A saucepan (or two)

A good saucepan (with a lid) lets you cook a lot of different dishes on the hob. Most beginner’s sets come with four different sizes and a frying pan, but you don’t need that many pans! Not only is it very difficult to keep track of four different pans at once, you’re likely to find that you have one pan that is the right size for almost all your dishes.

I recommend starting out with just one saucepan – our favourites are about 20cm (8”) across. If you can, find a good quality pan with a glass lid. (It’s great to be able to see what you’re doing, after all.)

3. A wok

This isn’t a standard beginner’s tool, but to me it’s invaluable. Naturally you can make all sorts of dishes from East Asia in a wok, but you can use it to cook pretty much anything. The large size is perfect for holding all your ingredients at once, and the rounded shape makes it a lot easier to stir during cooking and clean afterwards.

If you can’t find a good wok (with a lid), you can substitute a large, deep frying pan.

4. A metal sieve

I prefer to use an all-metal sieve instead of a colander for draining and rinsing vegetables, rice and pasta because it drains better and doesn’t let little bits escape with the water.

And, if you can find a metal sieve that neatly fits into your saucepan, it can even double as a steamer!

5. A (set of) silicone spatula(s)

I find that a silicone spatula is the single most versatile kitchen implement I own. You can use it for stirring or turning food, and scraping out jars and tins. This is one of the few things on this list I would recommend you have more than one of!

Not everyone likes silicone tools, though, so as an alternative you might want to consider a wooden spoon or spatula, a metal spoon or a fish slice.

6. An oven-proof dish

A good oven-proof dish can be used for pretty much anything that you bake in the oven – this includes things like casseroles, pot roasts, and pasta bakes.

My personal favourite is a pyrex dish, because you can easily see what you’re cooking, but you can also get ceramic dishes, or metal ones (which tend to be lighter).

7. A baking tray (or two)

A flat metal tray that goes in the oven is a good kitchen staple. I would definitely recommend a tray with sides as opposed to a baking sheet, as it stops your food falling off the edges. You can use a baking tray for a variety of savoury dishes, and of course for baking!

8. Oven gloves

If you’re going to be taking hot dishes out of the oven, you need a pair of oven gloves! There are a couple of different designs – two-handed mitts can be useful for handling large pots, while gloves with opposable thumbs can be better for handling trays. Most people will have a personal preference, so why not try them on before you buy.

9. A measuring jug

A measuring jug is very useful for making sauces and gravies, and (my personal favourite) pancake batter. I would recommend a pyrex jug as it can handle hot and cold liquids, and can be heated in the microwave. Although, if your budget’s tight, a plastic jug works just fine for most things.

10. Storage boxes

It’s a shame to waste any food, and it’s great to have leftovers at hand when you don’t feel like cooking. A good set of storage boxes is a really good investment, though they needn’t be expensive. In fact, I’ve found some of the most useful storage boxes are the ones that takeaway comes in!

You may also want to consider tin foil (which can be used for cooking as well as storage), plastic bags, and cling film.


These ten pieces of equipment should be plenty to get you started in the kitchen. Read on for ten more pieces of equipment that you might find useful, but you can make do without.


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