Week 3: Planning & Preparing, Mise En Place

Prep & Planning

One very basic concept that will help any of us become a better cook is practicing better preparation and planning. These go hand in hand with one another to help orchestrate a great meal that is planned and prepared ahead of time; you will have all of your ingredients (no more wondering where an ingredient is, or worse realizing you don’t have it in the middle of the meal!), all the parts of your meal can come together at the same time, you won’t be scrambling to get the onions cut before the pan gets too hot….

I don’t know about you, but I am a planner. It doesn’t always look like it, but I am most “put together” and confident in my day when I know what our three main meals will be. I absolutely hate trying to throw together a healthy meal with minimal time. If I fly by the seat of my pants, I spend way too much time in the kitchen. When I know what we are eating the next day, I usually start my meal prep the night before if I have to. Sometimes prep happens days in advance to reduce the amount of time I and spending in the kitchen during the day.

I have six kids. We homeschool and run a small farm. I can’t spend all day in the kitchen. But we need to eat, so the most logical approach I can take is to prep and plan.

Planning

I prefer to shop once a month if I can. I get all the shopping for the bulk of our goods done at once. If you are unable to do that, weekly shopping is another great time saver. Plan your meals for a week ahead and buy your ingredients at once. Take advantage of sales if you can (or plan your meals around what is on sale based on the sales circulars). By shopping once a week or once a month instead of every day or every few days to buy ingredients as needed, you will save time and money. You will save time, because you aren’t making frequent trips into the same store that you could combine into one, and you avoid impulse buying that may occur on your frequent trips into the store.

I like to shop once a month, so I like to plan a months worth of meals out so I know what to shop for. I don’t necessarily assign meals to days, but you can. If you google “free meal planner” you will find many, many free, printable meal planners you can use to help you plan out a week or months worth of meals.

I make lists of recipes that sound yummy and recipes I know we like, then buy the ingredients that we will need. I prefer creating yummy food out of the most simple and basic ingredients because I find that those simple and basic ingredients can be used in a multitude of ways for different dishes. So if I buy a bag of carrots, I can usually use them in several different meals, rather than picking meals that all require totally different ingredients. Of course, how you shop and what you cook is completely up to you. If you are trying to save money, sticking to basic ingredients may get you the most bang for your buck. This does mean I often make the not so basic ingredients, like condensed cream of chicken or mushroom soup, spaghetti sauce, taco seasoning, etc. instead of buying the already made versions. But this saves me money – and if I am taking the time to make one batch, I might as well make two or more because all of the ingredients are out. I can save time the next time I need it by making enough for future meals and storing appropriately.

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Sometimes my meal planning is messy because I jot down meals I want to make on one side of a piece of notebook paper, than any ingredients I may need to buy for it down the other side. I keep a milk crate full of recipes I’d like to one day try making (recipes I have snagged from magazines before recyling them or giving them to the kids to cut pictures from, recipes I’ve copied from cookbooks or printed from the internet). I visit this sometimes, plus the cookbook collection in my kitchen, and of course pinterest. I probably have more pins on my cooking boards than anywhere else. I also thumb through my master cookbook – a big three ring binder with a cookbook I published a while ago with all of our favorite meals in it. It’s tattered and torn and falling apart now, but I still use it every day and I use it for meal planning when I want to throw our family favorites into the rotation. My husband and I have completely different tastes and ideas when it comes to food, so planning is necessary with us and helps take the stress out of the daily question that asks, “what’s for dinner?”

I use my perishable items in the order that they go bad – so I would eat my lettuce greens before my apples, and my bananas before my oranges. You might find it helpful to keep inventory on a sheet of paper stuck to your fridge to keep track of what fresh food you bought before it gets shoved in the back of the fridge and gets forgotten about (guilty…). You could also learn how to help items last longer that usually perish quickly Sometimes a little prep when you bring food home from the store can help extend their life. I do continue to buy milk as needed. We have eggs on the farm and hopefully will have milk this spring from our goat, which may reduce our additional trips into the store. During the summer when the bulk of our produce is coming in from the garden, my meal planning takes a totally different route from when I buy fresh produce. During the colder months, meal planning is a little easier because I know what is going to be in my house from one day to the next because I bought it. During the summer it’s a little different because there may be a variety of produce coming in on any given day – but I am working on a solution to using that fresh produce quickly.

I have been trying to organize some of our favorite ways to use vegetables in a binder to help with quicker meal planning during the summer. When fresh produce is being harvested, that also means I am spending nearly all day in the field. I don’t have a lot of time to try and think of meals – or cook – so it’s nice to have one main go-to for all of our favorite vegetable uses so that when the zucchini harvest comes in, I know exactly what I want to do with it. Some vegetables I grow mainly to preserve through canning – like tomatoes – or others I grow mainly to freeze because they are so convenient – like okra or peppers. It’s not such a huge deal to use them in fresh meals right off the bat or just preserve them before the next batch come in, if I have other vegetables to eat that don’t preserve so well – like cucumbers. But when cucumbers come in, I know right away to quarter them for the kids to eat fresh, make a cucumber salad, whip up some tzatziki sauce, or any other ways we love cucumber.

If you buy produce from your grocery store, shop at a local farmers market, or stop by your local farmers stand, something like this may be of benefit to you, too. You can utilize fresh produce as it becomes available (or goes on sale) in your favorite ways. How many times have you found a recipe in the winter and thought it looks really good and you save it to try the next year when your garden produces or the farm stand opens… Only to forget what it was or loose it? I did that all the time. That’s why I thought a binder full of our favorite ways and new ways to use vegetables would be handy. It could be a master cookbook specific to the main vegetable used in recipes and divided by such, instead of by meal category. Say your garden produces a bumper crop of squash or tomatoes. You can usually only give so much away before you have to resort to secretly dropping yet another zucchini on your neighbors porch because you don’t know what to do with it. Well, if you keep track of all those great ways to use zucchini you may never need to beg and plead with neighbors and complete strangers to take all the zucchini off your hands.

Most side dishes are based on vegetables, so it would make sense to have a binder or even just a list of where to find your favorite recipes if you don’t want to compile them in one location. I found that by compiling all of our favorite recipes into our master cookbook, it provided an easy go-to for meal planning. While that master cookbook does contain a section of side dishes and has plenty of vegetable dishes, I really want to continue working on a master cookbook based on specific vegetables rather than breakfast, lunch or dinner. So my categories would perhaps be divided by vegetable family, and then further divided if need be, by each specific veggie in that family.

Preparing

One main reason people tell me they don’t like to or can’t cook from scratch is because it can seem to take so long to prepare meals.

There are a few simple things we can all do to make meal prep a little faster.

If you have kids, I can’t stress enough the importance of allowing them to help you in the kitchen. By allowing your kids to be part of the team, they not only learn very important cooking skills, but they can also feel like a contributing member of the family. That builds self esteem in kids, gives them a sense of pride and responsibility, teaches them teamwork and the delight of being a part of something yummy that everyone will enjoy.

From an early age, kids can be helpful in the kitchen. Whether it is bringing vegetables to be peeled, or taking peeled vegetables to another family member to be cut and put into a pot, or taking cut vegetables and putting them in the pot, turning the water on and off to fill the pot, learning to stir food in the pot, helping to put kitchen equipment/utensils away, mixing dry ingredients, etc. these are all things kids of a very young age can do.

Older kids can help with peeling, cutting, mixing, washing dishes, and eventually carry out entire meals themselves or being the leader and discover ways family members can help him or her get dinner on the table. By showing your kids how to prepare meals they learn not only important life skills but they can help you save time as well.

Early Prep:

Preparation for your meals can happen ahead of time. Maybe after your shopping trip you want to prepare your food for the meals you expect to cook with them. You may wish to place some chicken breasts in a marinade before putting them in the freezer because you probably won’t be using them in the next few days but the marinade is on your meal plan. By doing this, you just have to pull out an already marinated package that is ready to cook once it is thawed. Maybe you want to get a few days worth of onions, carrots, celery chopped and set in the fridge for a future mirepoix. Or chop your lettuce for salads. Maybe you added tacos to your meal plan and want to cook the taco meat real quick before putting it in the freezer, too. There are so many preparations you can do after grocery shopping, as you are putting the food away.

Maybe you want to get your weeks worth of meal prep done on the weekend. You can roast squash for the week, cook potatoes, cook your dry beans, roast a chicken for a shredded chicken meal later in the week, brown ground beef for tacos the next day, etc.

The Night Before & Day Of:

There are two main times that I have found most helpful to help you prepare your meals – the night before, and right before you begin cooking.

The night before is a great time to begin thawing meats you may need the next day, prepare vegetables (peeling, cutting), make sure you have everything you need. Read your recipe ingredients and cooking method to make sure you understand everything and how much time it will take to prepare. You might be able to prepare the whole meal the night before and cook it the next day, or just cook the meat and prepare the rest of the ingredients the next day. If meat or vegetables need to marinate, this is often best done overnight. Pie crusts and doughs can even be created the night before.

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The prep right before a meal is called mise en place. It’s a French word that translates to mean “to put in place.” It means gather and arrange the ingredients and tools you will need to prepare your meal. It allows you time to focus on what needs to happen and sets the stage for a hassle free cooking experience. Chefs often set up their mise en place the same every time so they don’t need to look at where they are reaching. They know exactly where their salt and pepper are, and exactly where their tongs should be. There is no searching. No time spend measuring in the middle of the meal, washing a spatula, or ferociously chopping an onion because thought you would have enough time to chop it between browning the meat and sauteeing the onion…. Only to find that you did not have enough time and now your browned bits on the pan (that lend tons of flavor to your dish when you deglaze) are at risk of burning as you chop the onion quickly. When the brown bits burn, it can lend a bitter flavor to your dish so you need to get the onion in the pan as quickly as possible or you will loose a key element of flavor if they burn and you have to do without them. But what if you cut your finger because you are cutting an onion in a rush? Meanwhile, the meat is cooling too quickly because the onion should have already been sauteed and the meat added back to the pan…….. Your cooking experience can get derailed quite quickly if you aren’t prepared.

To avoid this, look over your list of ingredients. Prepare your ingredients up to the point that they are ready to be added to your meal, in the order they will be added. Set out your eggs and crack them into a bowl (to avoid fishing for egg shells later), portion your liquids, measure your dry ingredients and set them in the order you will need them. Also set out all the cooking tools you will need. Having to pause your meal because you forgot to wash your whisk is just as bad as trying to quickly prepare an ingredient in a rush. Have it all laid out in front of you in the order you will be using them. Prepare mentally, as having your mind ready for the task at hand is just as vital as having everything in place.

Once your ingredients are prepared, be sure to allow ample time to preheat your oven, grill, skillets, pots or pans – preheating is vital to making sure your food comes out fully cooked and prevents your proteins from sticking. Also consider time that may be required for individual steps in your recipe – if you are preparing bread, don’t set your yeast in water until you are ready to follow through with the rest of your recipe because if yeast sets too long it can affect the final outcome of your dish.

Most cooking sections in stores carry “mini bowls” or custard cups that hold 1-3 ounces each. These bowls are perfect for holding your ingredients and are often very inexpensive. For larger ingredients, mixing bowls or your usual soup bowls work just fine.

Once you have peeled and cut vegetables, clean up your prep area. Once you have mixed all the dry ingredients that are supposed to be added at the same time, clean up your prep area. Preparing and working with the mindset of “put in place” you will find you have the ability to clean as you go, reducing your mess and clean up.

Setting up your mise en place can be the difference between love and hate when it comes to cooking. It can be the difference between meals prepared on time and in order, or late and not quite right.

Getting Your Meal to the Table:

If you are preparing more than a one pot meal, you will have a main dish and a side or two, or more, that needs to get to the table while the main course is still hot. The key to mastering this is yet more planning. Start cooking the recipe that will take the longest. If you can prep the sides ahead of time and just stick them in the oven with enough time to cook before the main dish is done, that is helpful. Otherwise, organize your cooking and make a plan. Decide what is to be cooked and when – if you need to, make a list or a time line to keep you on track! This is so helpful especially when making large feasts like for Thanksgiving.

This Weeks Challenge:

Try planning out a weeks worth of meals. Whenever possible, try to do some prep the night before. The main goal for this week will be creating your own mise en place. Find or purchase some containers or bowls that you can use to hold measured ingredients. Arrange your prep area in your kitchen so that you can get to know where everything is. Practice setting out your ingredients, prepared to the point of adding them to your meal. Make a list of steps you need to take to get your main dish and all of your sides to the table on time. Set out the tools you will need and be sure that your cooking area is clean. I look forward to hearing how this is working out for you as the week goes on. What challenges did you overcome? Did you find it helpful?

It may seem a little more time consuming when you first begin doing this if you aren’t used to it. Do try to give it a real effort because it can be a life changer in the kitchen. Especially if you have kids – interruptions are so common as moms prepare dinner. Having all of your ingredients laid out in the order that they will be used could mean one of your husband can take over the meal without missing a step as you are called away to address an issue. It means that in the middle of the evening chaos and crankiness, you can bounce a baby on your hip while adding ingredients as necessary because all of the prep work is done. Now all you have to do is cook. Enjoy cooking. It’s an art, it takes practice, it may mean new habits, but it is so worth it.

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