A Peaceful Kitchen: Menu Planning and Mise en Place

by Mary on May 16, 2012

ingredients prepped and ready to go, measuring cup of eggs, chives, garlic, etc. on cutting board with knife

a day when I successfully assembled my ingredients into a ‘mise en place’

One of Shauna Ahern’s recent posts on her beautifully photographed blog Gluten-Free Girl struck a chord with me. She commented that when she first met her husband, a professional chef, her cooking technique made him nervous. She said she tended to turn on the stove and then begin chopping, and “burned a lot of garlic that year.” As she puts it, “Everything grew easier when Danny taught me how to set up my mise en place before cooking.”

Mise en Place

Professional chefs have a system of having everything ready to cook, called mise en place. They do all of their prep first, then concentrate only on cooking when it’s time to work ‘on the line.’ After learning about this concept I’ve tried to do a better job of prepping before I cook. It’s a work in progress.

It starts with a clean and uncluttered work environment, which for me means straightening up the remains of everyone’s snacks which tend to be scattered around by late afternoon (another thing for this household to work on).

Then I need to read or think about my recipe carefully and assemble the ingredients. Slowing down to carefully read or to organize things is not, my family can tell you, one of my natural strengths. So this mise en place is more an aspiration than a practice for me right now. I’ll often notice when I’m doing the opposite, running around after ingredients while I’m cooking, and the resulting stress. If I’m lucky, I’ll have time to stop, create my peaceful mise en place, and begin again.

The parallels in this process for how I should be managing other areas, like my desk and its accompanying paperwork, are not lost on me. But perhaps I can start with the kitchen?

Menu Planning

There’s another practice for creating a more peaceful kitchen that like mise en place, is a no-brainer in theory. It’s menu planning. Here’s one of the better resources I’ve found: a post on weekly menu planning from Ward Street Bistro, the blog of a former professional chef.  To start planning for the following week on Saturday morning, she says she can go through the following mental checklist in five to ten minutes:

What’s in the refrigerator that needs to be used up? What’s on special at the market? What’s in season? What’s our schedule next week?

I can say for certain that I myself can’t do this in anything like five to ten minutes. Probably my refrigerator needs a lot more mise en place–another example of how spending time cleaning and preparing the kitchen could save me time later. At times I’ve spent my Saturday  morning cleaning the fridge, inventorying the cupboard, and scanning the supermarket specials without ever making it to the farmer’s market at all.

While I spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re going to have for dinner, a lot of that thinking is done at, oh, say at 5 o’clock. Even when I do sit down on the weekend to plan ahead, I can spend a long time thinking or looking in cookbooks or online without making firm plans. Certainly not plans for every day of the week. So this is another ‘aspirational’ one for me.

Both the mise en place and the menu planning require dedicating real time to planning ahead. Well-spent time if if it gains, as Leslie Kaufman notes in her NYT piece on menu planning, “freedom from the painfully frequent question, “What are we going to eat tonight?” And replaces the five o’clock rush with something a lot more effective and peaceful.

I hope to report back to you again about how I’m doing in my quest to create a more peaceful kitchen. What are your best tips?

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Kiersten May 18, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I am so bad at this, but I’m getting better. My MO is to do half the prep work, get impatient, start cooking, and then panic because I need the rest of the ingredients and they’re not prepped yet.

I do a weekly meal plan. In fact, it makes me feel a little bit panicky to think about not having one! I actually kind of admire your ability to come up with things at 5pm. If I tried to do that, we’d be getting takeout 5 days a week! 🙂
Kiersten recently posted..What I Ate This Week | Quinoa, Tofu and Other Veggie StaplesMy Profile


mary May 18, 2012 at 11:32 pm

You kind of admire it, well that’s nice to think of! As my grandma would have said, “That’s how we do.” In fact I just looked to see what we have left from last weekend’s farmer’s market. Yesterday the pre-dinner survey turned up Chinese broccoli, and we (actually my husband) cooked that up alongside an entree of quinoa, black bean, garlic chives and the one mango we still had, chopped up. Today I see that we have a couple heads of lettuce, potatoes, and scallions, and I know we have sour cream– so I’ll make a potato dish, a salad, and maybe something else. I know what you mean about doing half the prep work, it always seems like I’m going to save time by doing the rest while things cook.


Richa May 20, 2012 at 7:08 pm

most days i can never work with a plan or prep veggies unless cooking a large meal. with just 2 people to feed i think it is easier to just head to the kitchen and fix something.
But when i am hosting, the prep always helps.(and usually gets delegated to hubbs). 🙂

Do drop by the Auction fundraiser to help VSPCA,India on my blog, to bid or share. Shipping is available in US, India, and some international and some local to Seattle too. They are an amazing org working to rescue all animals and also help feed vegan meals to the homeless.
Richa recently posted..Wheat Bagels – Onion, Poppy seed. veganMy Profile


the wicked noodle May 22, 2012 at 9:36 pm

Because I work as a personal chef, if I didn’t do mise en place I’d be there forever! And even when I’m cooking at home I still make sure all that prep work is done and organized before I turn on the stove. Makes it so much easier and the kitchen is always cleaner!
the wicked noodle recently posted..fire roasted chile & garlic chicken burgers {plus a giveaway!}My Profile


mary May 22, 2012 at 10:59 pm

Kristy, you can be my role model on this one. Keep telling me how much easier and cleaner it makes everything!


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