In planning a meal, four elements are key: nutrition, flavor complementarity, timing, and appearance. Let’s take those one at a time.
Nutrition is the most important thing. You need your meals to provide healthy fuel to keep you going. So, you want to make sure that each meal provides protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and vitamins. In case you were wondering, there is no rule that says a meal is meat + a starch + a vegetable. You can skip the meat. you can skip the starch. You can (and should) have more than one vegetable. In fact, at least half of your plate should be vegetables. You can also add to the nutritional value of your meal by starting with a veggie-rich salad, lightly dressed and topped with toasted nuts for extra protein or a big bowl of homemade vegetable soup (a great way to use up leftover veggies or partial bags of frozen vegetables).
You want to make sure that the flavors in your meal are complementary. Certain foods just seem to go well together. Think pork and apples, tomatoes and oregano and balsamic vinegar, or potatoes and rosemary. Now, extend that concept to a whole meal. Maybe have a single flavor that goes throughout the menu. For example, a salad could be dressed with a lemony vinaigrette, to accompany chicken piccata with roasted broccoli topped with lemon zest, followed by berries over citrus sorbet. That may seem like overkill, but since the flavor is subtle, it won’t be. Or you could have bruschetta, followed by pasta with chicken, spinach and sundried tomatoes, and strawberries with balsamic vinegar for dessert. The pasta picks up the tomatoes in the bruschetta and the dessert picks up the balsamic vinegar.
Timing also matters. You want to be able to put the food on the table at the proper time. An appetizer needs to be ready before the main course, etc. You also need to make sure that you have enough burners and oven space to get all of the food cooked and on the table at the proper time. If you have one oven, you can’t be roasting potatoes at 450 while you are cooking a pork roast at 350 at the same time, so they can’t be part of the same meal. So braise the pork or make garlic smashed potatoes.
Finally, appearance matters. You want your food to look appetizing. If everything of brown or gray or white, who wants to eat it? Make sure your plate has many colors – green and yellow and orange and red and purple! Even better? Eating the rainbow is a great way to eat healthy – as long as the food gets its color naturally!