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 🙂

How to make Beef Casserole (with Beer and Dumplings!)

This casserole may take a while to cook, but it’s a real treat! It’s a little harder than my sausage casserole from last year (link), so you might want to check you’re familiar with the different techniques, which are all linked in the recipe below.

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • an oven-proof dish
  • a measuring jug
  • a kettle
  • an oven
  • oven gloves
  • a mixing bowl
  • a couple of spoons

and the ingredients (for four people):

  • 1lb/500g beef (something like braising steak)
  • dried sage
  • garlic powder
  • 4 medium carrots (about the length of your hand)
  • 1 big leek
  • 1 large or 2 small sweet potatoes
  • 1 parsnip
  • frozen spinach
  • 1 pint/500ml beer or beef stock
  • 4oz/100g self-raising flour (or plain flour and baking powder)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1tsp dried sage
  • 2oz/50g suet

 

Start by turning on your oven to Gas Mark 3, 160°C.

Chop your beef into cubes about 2 inches (2.5cm) on each side. If you like your meat browned, dry fry the beef with a sprinkle of dried sage & garlic.

Photograph of dark red cubes of meat, with a sprinkle of dried herbs & spices, in a casserole dish

Using clean hands and utensils, chop your carrots into chunks (link). Add your carrots and beer (or stock) to the oven-proof dish. (I love the flavour of beer in this casserole, but not quite all of the alcohol evaporates during cooking. So if for whatever reason you prefer not to use alcohol, use stock instead.)

Photograph of a casserole dish filled with chunks of carrot and meat, and beer

Put your dish into the oven. (Don’t forget the lid!) It will take about three hours to cook from this point.

While your meat and carrots are cooking, chop your leeks (link), sweet potato (link), and parsnip (link) into chunks. After an hour and a half, add them to the casserole.

40 Beef casserole (3)

While the casserole continues to cook, make your dumplings. I wrote a detailed method last week (which you can find here), but basically mix together flour, salt, dried sage, and suet, then add water to form a smooth dough that comes away from the bowl easily. Shape this dough into eight round dumplings.

Half an hour before serving, add your frozen spinach (if using) and your dumplings.

Photograph of a casserole dish filled with chunks of meat and vegetables, topped with balls of frozen spinach, and dumplings

Once the dumplings are cooked, the casserole is ready to serve!

Photograph of a brown bowl filled with beef casserole, topped with two dumplings

This beef casserole is definitely not an everyday dish, but if you’re after a warming dish on a rainy day you can’t really do much better! You can of course use potatoes instead of dumplings if you like (add them at the beginning), or any other root veg you fancy! And for a veggie version, try using red kidney beans instead of beef.

If you make beef casserole with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

How to make Leek & Potato Soup

A lot of you really liked my Vegetable Soup post from last month (link), so I thought you might like another soup recipe. Leek & potato is a classic, and deliciously warm and filling on a cold day!

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • a large saucepan
  • a measuring jug
  • a kettle

and the ingredients (for four servings):

  • A little oil
  • one large leek
  • herbs and spices
  • four medium potatoes (about the size of your fist)
  • 2 pints/1 litre stock (link) or 2 stock cubes

 

Start by placing your saucepan on a gentle heat. Add a little oil (less than a teaspoon is fine), and chop your leek. (For soup that cooks quickly slice your leek, but for slow-cooking chunks are quicker. You can find both techniques in last week’s post here.)

Add your leek to the pan, along with any dried herbs or spices you want to use. A little garlic helps to bring out the flavour of the leek, and both thyme and rosemary go great with potatoes.

Photograph of a saucepan containing sliced leeks & dried herbs

Gently fry your leeks until they’re soft and slightly see-through. Then add your stock.

Photograph of a saucepan containing sliced leeks in stock

Chop your potatoes into chunks (you can find my chopping tutorial here) and add them to the soup. If you don’t have a food processor, you might find it worth your time to peel your potatoes, but if you’re going to blend your soup at the end it makes little difference.

Photograph of a saucepan containing sliced leek and chunks of potato in stock

Put on the lid and bring your pan to a gentle bubble. Boil your soup for 20-30 minutes. I like this soup best when the potatoes are soft enough to blend into the sauce. If you don’t have a blender, you’ll need to boil the soup until the potatoes are really soft. In fact, using leftover potatoes is a great way to do this.

Don’t forget to taste your soup before serving – I find that potatoes like quite a lot of salt, though this will of course depend how much salt is in your stock.

Photograph of a white bowl filled with green soup, topped with grated cheese and thyme
A sprinkle of grated cheese and fresh thyme makes a simple bowl of soup look fancy!

You can of course add other ingredients to leek & potato soup. Green vegetables like spinach or celery are great because they complement the earthy taste of the potatoes and the green of the leeks. Root vegetables like celeriac, parsnip, or beetroot would be great winter additions too!

If you make leek & potato soup with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

How to Make Vegetable Soup

As the weather cools down, I’m looking forward to cooking some more warming dishes. And what’s better on a cold day than a hot bowl of soup?

There are so many different kinds of soup, that I thought it would be good to start with the general technique. If you’d like some more specific recipes, let me know!

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • a large saucepan
  • a measuring jug
  • a kettle

and the ingredients:

  • A little oil
  • onions
  • herbs and spices
  • vegetables
  • stock (link) or stock cube

 

Start by placing your saucepan on a gentle heat. Add a little oil (less than a teaspoon is fine), and chop your onion. (For soup that cooks quickly, dice your onion (like this), but if you’ve got a bit more time slices (link) or even chunks of onion (link) are fine.)

Add your onion to the pan, along with any dried herbs or spices you want to use. I like to use garlic and ginger in most dishes, and the other spices I use depend on what vegetables I’m using. For example tomato and basil is a classic combination, as is carrot and coriander.

Photograph of a saucepan containing a mix of diced onion, herbs and spices

Gently fry your onions until they’re slightly golden and see-through. Then add your stock. You need about as much stock as you want soup – I recommend about 250ml or half a pint per person. Put the lid on, and bring it to a gentle boil.

Photograph of a saucepan containing a mix of diced onion, herbs and spices, and stock

Chop your vegetables and add them to the soup. So that everything cooks evenly, start with the vegetables that take longest (like carrots), and end with the vegetables that need the least cooking (like green vegetables). If you’re not sure how long something takes to cook, check out the Techniques tab here on How to Chop a Carrot.

Photograph of a saucepan containing a mix of diced vegetables and stock

Once all the vegetables are soft all the way through, your soup is cooked. But if you want to make it thicker or stronger, you can leave it cooking for a bit longer. Before serving, make sure to taste your soup and add any salt or fresh herbs you want to add.

Photograph of a white bowl full of soup

A hearty bowl of vegetable soup is great with melted cheese and a slice of toast, or why not spice it up and serve with egg and noodles?

Soup is such a versatile dish; it’s great for using up leftovers. (Even those half-used jars of sauce lurking in your fridge.) You can even blend everything together after cooking to make a really thick, smooth soup.

If you make soup with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

 

 

How to Make Coleslaw

This is the last of my trio of summer side salads. Coleslaw is a simple mix of carrot, onion, and cabbage in a creamy sauce, but they complement each other perfectly!

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • a mixing bowl
  • a spoon or two

and the ingredients:

  • carrot
  • cabbage
  • onion/spring onion
  • mayonnaise
  • salad cream (or vinegar)

Start by slicing your onion as thinly as you can. (You can find my cutting tutorial here.) If you find white onions too sharp, red onions are milder, and spring onions are milder still.

Thinly slice your cabbage (tutorial here), and grate your carrot (grating tips here). Put your sliced onion and cabbage, and grated carrot into a large mixing bowl.

Photograph of thinly sliced cabbage and white onion, and grated carrot in a stainless steel mixing bowl

(Save the carrot for last because, once cut, it can oxidise and turn brown. It’s still perfectly edible, but it doesn’t look as good. The sauce, which is the next step, will prevent air getting to the carrot and so prevent oxidisation. )

The sauce for coleslaw is very similar to that for potato salad (you can find my potato salad recipe here). Simply mix equal parts mayonnaise and salad cream. Alternatively, use mayonnaise and a little vinegar for a tangy sauce.

Photograph of thinly sliced cabbage and white onion, grated carrot, two large dollops of mayonnaise and a splash of vinegar in a stainless steel mixing bowl

Mix everything together really thoroughly – using a fork will help break up the onion and cabbage. And it’s ready to serve!

Photograph of coleslaw in a white ceramic dish

Coleslaw is a really refreshing dish, and even though it’s a classic it’s fun to play with too! Try using different types of cabbage, or even brussels sprouts! Or you could add beetroot to complement the carrot, or some finely chopped nuts to make the sauce even creamier. And of course, you can add herbs and spices to make it even more flavoursome!

If you make coleslaw with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

How to Make Potato Salad

Just like the pasta salad from two weeks ago (link), potato salad has been a firm favourite of mine since I was little. I love the creamy sauce, with just a little tang to it.

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • a saucepan
  • a mixing bowl
  • a spoon or two

and the ingredients:

  • potatoes
  • mayonnaise
  • salad cream (or vinegar)
  • spring onions

Start by chopping your potatoes into chunks (full instructions here). You can use any potatoes, but my favourites for potato salad are small, firm ones like new potatoes.

Boil your potato chunks for 20-25 minutes, or until just cooked. They should be soft enough to poke a fork into, but still firm enough to hold together when you mix them with the sauce.

Photograph of a saucepan containing cooked potato chunks

While your potatoes cook, slice your spring onion. (If you’re not sure how, check out the tutorial from last week here.)

Once your potatoes are cooked, drain the water off and allow them to cool. They don’t have to be completely cold, but if they’re too hot they’ll ruin your sauce. (If you’re in a hurry, try putting the potatoes in the mixing bowl on top of a freezer block or ice pack.)

Mix together your potatoes, spring onion, and equal parts salad cream and mayonnaise. (for a creamier sauce, use more mayonnaise; for a tangier sauce, more salad cream! And if you haven’t any salad cream, try mixing a little vinegar into your mayonnaise instead.)

Photograph of a mixing bowl containing cooked potato chunks, sliced spring onion, and a spoonful each of mayonnaise and salad cream

And that’s it! Potato salad is a great summer dish, for barbecues and picnics, or even to go with your favourite sandwich!

Photograph of a white dish containing potato salad

If you make potato salad with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!

How to Make Pasta Salad

Pasta salad has long been a favourite summer side dish of mine. It’s full of rich tomato flavour, but it’s light enough to eat even on the hottest days!

You will need:

  • a sharp knife
  • a chopping board
  • 2 saucepans

and the ingredients (for four portions):

  • A little oil
  • 1 onion
  • 1 tin chopped tomatoes
  • mixed herbs
  • basil
  • pasta

Start by placing your larger saucepan on a gentle heat. Add a little oil (less than a teaspoon is fine), and dice your onion. (You can find more detailed instructions here: onion)

Add your onion to the pan, along with a generous sprinkle of mixed herbs and basil. (A little dried garlic also helps add to the flavour.)

Photograph of a saucepan containing diced onion and dried herbs

Gently fry the onion until it becomes translucent, and a slightly golden colour. (A little splash of vinegar can help speed up this stage.)

Photograph of a saucepan containing diced onion and dried herbs. The onions are now slightly golden and translucent

Add your tinned tomatoes. (Remember to wash out the tin with a little water so as not to waste any.)

Photograph of a saucepan containing a mixed of diced onion and tomatoesHeat your sauce to a gentle simmer (a constant, quiet bubble), and let it bubble away while you cook your pasta. (If you’re not sure how to tell when your pasta’s cooked, check out last week’s post here.)

Photograph of a saucepan containing cooked macaroni pasta

Taste your sauce. The great thing about this sauce is that you can cook it really quickly and keep the flavours of the individual ingredients, or cook it long and slow so it all blends together. (Just make sure to put a lid on it, and make sure it doesn’t dry out.) I usually cook it for about 20 minutes, then add a little tomato puree (or ketchup) for richness.

Once you’re satisfied with your sauce, mix together the sauce and pasta. You could also add some chopped olives or pickles, if you want.

Photograph of a saucepan containing macaroni pasta in a sauce of tomatoes and onions

And it’s ready to serve! Perfect for picnics and barbecues!

Photograph of a white bowl containing pasta salad, with a single olive on top

This is quite a simple recipe, so it’s a great one to experiment with! Why not try adding paprika or chilli along with the herbs, or adding some bell peppers in with the chopped tomatoes?

If you make pasta salad with this recipe, I’d love to see a picture of your finished dish!