How to Plan a Meal

Last weekend I posted a four course meal that I made for Betsy and I for Valentine’s Day. Well, actually I made it the week before, but I made it. Here is the entire meal:

First Course – Artichoke Fritters
Second Course – Pear and Pecan Salad
Third Course – Mussels and Frites
Fourth Course – Chocolate Lava Cakes

After I posted this I got a few emails and comments from people asking how I organized this meal because it was kind of a lot for one guy to do. One reason why I think people get frustrated with cooking is that it seems like a lot of work. I think a lot of the stress can be taken off though with proper planning.

In this post I’ll give a few tips in case you ever find yourself planning a meal. These tips will help streamline any dinner you have to cook be it four courses or one.

Know Your Make-Befores

The first thing I do when I’m planning a dinner like this is to write down everything I can make in advance and how far in advance I can make it. For this meal, my list looked like this:

Day Before
Green Goddess Sauce (for fritters)
Quick Shallot Dressing (for salad)
Lava cakes (They’ll keep in the fridge)

Earlier in the Day
Cooking Artichokes
Clean mussels
Pear and Pecan Salad
Fries soaking
Make Mayo
Clean mussels

1 – 2 hours before
Blanch Fries
Fritter Batter (1 hour before max)

Dinner time
6:45 – Fry fritters
7:00 – Start Tomato broth for mussels
7:00 – Serve/eat fritters
7:15 – Check tomato broth (If it is getting to thick, just add some white wine or water)
7:15 – Serve/eat Salad
7:25 – Pour a big glass of wine for your guest(s).
7:25 – Throw mussels in the sauce
7:30 – Flash fry French Fries
7:40 – Serve/eat mussels and Fries
8:00 – Put in dessert
8:20 – Eat dessert

With the proper prep, this really wasn’t that hard to pull off. I was able to sit down for each course and eat with my girlfriend.

Group your ingredients

I’m not the best at this, but in theory it is a time saver. If you need onions for three different courses then chop the total amount you need and save it in a bag or something until you need it. This may sound like common sense, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been prepping and thought, “How many times have I chopped onions today?” The answer is usually more than one which is way more than you should chop onions for one meal if at all possible.

The cooking cushion

The times listed on recipes are false. At least I am very often over them when I try and I’m not bad with a knife. I like to give myself what I like to call the cooking cushion.

As a rule, I add at least 15 minutes to any prep time listed in any recipe. I’m pretty good at prepping ingredients, but I can never meet their times. Ok. I might be able to if I chop furiously and have no fun at all. But that’s not how I cook. I like to relax when I cook – not freak out over the time. A “30 minute meal” takes me at least 40 minutes.

I’ve found that when I do this, my food usually comes out better as well. I don’t want to get all philosophical but sometimes I think I can taste rush in my cooking. Maybe it’s just me, but if I don’t give myself enough time, I never feel that my dish comes out its best.

This is reason number 47 why I could never be a professional chef!


This is the most important thing I can think of when it comes to cooking. Some things may not go as planned, but that’s okay. Most likely your guests will expect a few things to go wrong and that is okay. It’s a lot of stuff to keep track of. The best thing you can do is just relax about it, have fun, and if something goes wrong then make the best of it.

An example: In the above meal, I actually undercooked the mussels the first time around. I’m not really sure how I managed this as I’ve made mussels a dozen times. Nevertheless, when they got on the plate, half of them weren’t open and the ones that were open were not quite firm enough. Did I freak out? Well, maybe for a second, but then I took both plates, tossed them back in the pan, and cooked them for a few more minutes. No worries. The second time around they were perfect.

With a bit of planning, getting a lovely meal together isn’t all that hard at all. Even if something goes awry, try to take it in stride and have fun with it.

Does anyone else have tricks or tips they use to make meal planning a bit easier?

4 comments on “How to Plan a Meal

  1. Make sure you can see the TV from the kitchen. If you start your prep when Wheel comes on, you can usually finish cooking right around the time Jeopardy! does. To watch Wheel, you only need to glance up occasionally, and Jeopardy! you can do entirely by ear. This does not work on Saturdays, since COPS is something you really have to sit and watch.

  2. I love planning and making multi-course meals, and I agree with everything you've said here in terms of planning ahead. It's also really important to think about making sure you have a balanced meal–you don't want to have five heavy, rich dishes in a row, but you also don't want a bunch of salads in a row. Keep a balance between rich and light, hot and cold, filling and refreshing and each course will go down more easily and be much more enjoyable.

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