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.