MENU PLANNING—How to do it? By Robert Neroni

Apr 20th, 2007

We are often asked where we get our inspiration for our menus. Then after describing the many periodicals we read, the food network shows we enjoy, and the desire to recreate what we have enjoyed eating out, we realize that there is more to the question than how we do our menus. The real question is “how to do it?” The answer is not so simple because there are so many choices and influences. We think there is more than one successful approach, for sure. No doubt though, whatever the style of menu planning a cook does, it corresponds proportionally to their success and satisfaction. So we thought we’d discuss a few menu planning methods that seem to work and provide some structure for the cooks that use them. Maybe you can identify your style or one you might like to try.

Of course, when consulting a TEXTBOOK or cookbook on the subject, we are advised that the key to a good menu is variety, as in variety of everything: cooking methods, colors, textures, temperatures and flavors. This is typically followed by a case in point example: Which is more appealing menu A or menu B?
Menu A
Steamed halibut Menu B
Mashed potatoes Pan-fried Potato Crusted Halibut
Steamed cauliflower Steamed Fresh Asparagus

Clearly variety of color, textures, and even method of cooking are important in this example.

As we gather our thoughts on the subject a pretty great example comes to mind from Lenore’s mom, Bette. As it turns out, it is a viable way of how one might tackle the job of making up menus.

We call it, “Monday is Meatloaf,” or the “Meat & Potato Method.” If you can tell the day of the week by what’s on the table, you may be already using this style. Notably here, Lenore’s mom was not an adventurous cook by any means, but the dishes she made were just like they’re supposed to be! I had the pleasure of eating Bette’s meals and told Lenore how great they were. And why not, Lenore laughs, “Mom, made 52 meatloaves a year, so she got pretty good at it!” So if Monday is Meatloaf, here is how the remaining week filled out according to Bette.

Tuesday was chicken, always in a tomato sauce, sort of cacciatore style served with egg noodles. Wednesday was stuffed bell peppers with mashed potatoes or some other hamburger dish—Bette always bought enough ground beef for meatloaf and one other meal. Of course she’d skip a day between. Often the second hamburger dish was called goulash as it was a one dish meal and had a sloppy joe consistency. Thursday was polish sausage or hot dogs with sauerkraut and came with macaroni and cheese. Lenore said she and Mom would gladly eat just the macaroni and cheese, but Dad had to have meat on the plate, even if just a hot dog! Friday consisted of one of two extremes: it was either in celebration of the weekend with steak and baked potatoes or it was leftovers from the week. Saturdays was about eating out—fast food or one of dad’s favorite restaurants where baked potatoes came with everything! Sundays was pot roast with carrots and potatoes and dark brown gravy. Least you think there were not many veggies, to Lenore’s mom credit every night had a different veggie as long as it was frozen peas, frozen corn, or the occasional fresh broccoli. Salads came later after Lenore had some Home Ec at school and it became her job to make them.

I deem the next the “Menu Trinity Method: Protein Starch & Veggie.” Of course this is clearly a spin off “Monday is meatloaf,” with the only difference being it doesn’t repeat by week day. The decision making is still based on protein as the center of the plate. Most restaurant menus are designed this way. Easy enough to pick the protein category—beef, chicken, pork, fish; a bit more challenging to choose the cut and the cooking method. The starch is easier still, choosing from potatoes, rice or pasta. Lots of variety comes in from the choice of vegetable—from asparagus to zucchini, you can make it raw, fresh, frozen or canned. To modernize this method, we suggest adding tofu, beans, lentils, quinoa, and other vegetable proteins to the animal proteins as center of the plate. And choose from the “newer starches” like barley, kasha, farro, and Chinese imperial black rice.

“WHAT’S IN THE MARKET METHOD” is a favorite of ours. We usually start in the produce section because produce is the center of the plate at our house. At least for us it is the biggest category of food on the plate. From there proteins and starches are added. To best work within the seasons, its good to start in the produce section or at the fish counter of the supermarket.

“THE MULTI-TASKING MENU PLANNER” is a contemporary approach. Multi tasking is just one of those phrases we all seem to use these days. And no wonder, with so much to do and so little time. The cooks who choose this method typically have one or two good prep days a week, with no time to scratch cook the rest of the week. Here’s a for instance, they might bake a chicken; (eating the breast meat that night) then pick the dark meat for a quick chicken enchilada, and maybe a third night it is chicken noodle soup.

If you even have less time for food preparation during the week, you might be a prime fit for the trendy “what’s for dinner” kitchens (www.whats4dinner.ca) that are springing up in America’s malls. There you choose from 12-15 recipes, already cooked, package them in amounts you need, and carefully take them home to your freezer. Now you have a different meal each night ready to heat and serve.

And finally there is our personal menu planning method. We ask ourselves a series of questions about the menus we create to for our Small Plates with Wine classes, as well those we might create for company at our house.

First, does it reflect sustainability—did we choose products close to home and locally produced? Are portions smaller, (nutritionally supported), and are the flavors bold and distinctive? Does it work within our budget and the available time to cook? Note: often the more economical the dish, the more time it takes. What will it look like on the plate?

Then we throw it past the “variety question.” Does it have different cooking methods, various textures, temperatures, colors, shapes, sizes, and flavors within the menu? We feel pretty strongly about giving our taste buds a work out so we become satisfied with the size portion and don’t require seconds. The more variety the more likely our taste buds will go the distance. It prevents “tongue fatigue.”

Before we close, let’s not forget to consult cookbooks and other resources. Remember when you used to buy a cookbook and none of the recipes worked, or you decided you would need an army of cooks or credentials to prepare the labor intensive items? Today you can trust that many chef authored cookbooks have teams of people testing their recipes before they are published. Also, go online and check out “Cook’s Illustrated” (www.cooksillustrated.com) or the “Food Network” (www.foodnetwork.com). Customers tell us they love “Epicurious” (www.epicurious.com) which claims the world’s greatest collection of recipes.

Recipe testing is notably what makes it possible for the success of today’s resources. I have simply “googled” an ingredient followed by the word “recipe” for a list too long to read. Sometimes the recipes found in this manner tell you whether or not they have been tested or even rated by users.

We think this is an immerging menu planning method too easy not to use. Let’s call it the “GOOGLE METHOD.” One might find a year’s worth of menus on line complete with recipes and even shopping lists!

One thing is certain; the resources to get menu planning done have increased ten-fold from when I started out. I am confident that many formulas work. Feel free to email your thoughts as well as questions for us to answer. Lenore and I would love to hear from you. info@evoo.biz.