Do you hate to cook daycare meals? Or do you love to cook? Seems as though everyone falls into one camp or the other, with only a few falling into the middle. I clearly remember wanting The Joy of Cooking by Irma Rombauer as a wedding gift...that giant tome of over 4,000 recipes. Small print, no pictures, complicated techniques.. let’s just say it has set on the shelf for most of my married life. But I love to cook! I find I am happiest when I am cooking. I delight in trying recipes (for the first time, of course) when guests are coming for dinner.
My skill and cooking intuition has grown over the years and I now have a few tips to share with you.
As a home daycare provider, we have to make sure we’re getting all the required components in the meal (protein, dairy, grain, fruit, veg). However, that doesn’t mean we have to use a recipe for each meal. You’ll always serve fluid milk, so we don’t have to include that in a recipe. Guidelines also stipulate that you can combine 3 of the other 4 components into one recipe. For example, if you serve pizza that includes a protein, veggie, and grain, be sure to serve the last component (fruit or veg) on the side.
You only need your eyes to read a recipe, but try using all of your senses to learn what to combine together. Look at your ingredients closely, touching them while you inspect for damage or spoilage. Smell your ingredients as the cook. Listen for the different sounds they make during the cooking process. Best of all, taste your ingredients as you blend them together and learn how they interact. Paying attention with all of your senses will help you to develop your cooking intuition. When cooking becomes intuitive, aka, “I know just what this dish needs”, that’s when the real joy of cooking takes hold!
When developing your cooking intuition, it helps to break down the recipe to the essentials to know which parts you HAVE to keep, and which you can play around with.
Let’s take Lasagna, for example.
What are the main ingredients of the dish? They are most important. These ingredients often change the consistency (thickeners, sauces, etc.) and volume of the dish.
In our example of lasagna, what are the main ingredients? Beef, Cheese, Pasta, Sauce. Nearly all lasagna recipes will have these four ingredients. Compare a few different lasagna recipes and count how many ingredients each has. Now take note of the differences across the recipes.
Will the beef be seasoned?
How many types of cheese are used?
Does the pasta require prior cooking?
Does the recipe have you making your own sauce, or simply purchasing a can of premade pasta sauce?
The answers to these questions will determine how many additional ingredients your recipe really needs to have. I have often compared a few recipes for the “same” dish.
Ingredients that simply season a dish are the ones that you can play around with with less risk.
I keep the ingredients that are common to all the recipes I looked at, but for the odd ingredients that only show up in one or two recipes, I get to decide what to keep.
Do I have that ingredient on hand? Keep.
Is it an expensive ingredient that I may not use again? Leave out.
Is it an ingredient that I think will complement the final product? Keep.
Is it a flavor that I am not fond of? Leave out.
Is there another flavor or ingredient that comes to mind while reviewing these recipes that isn’t even listed? A technique you personally love? Add it! Using this process will allow you to actually develop your own recipes.
Another way to develop your cooking intuition is to “makeover” a pre-made ingredient or meal (it could be made by you i.e. leftovers or purchased, as in the example below). Again, this is a lower risk way of learning how to combine ingredients to make a dish off the top of your head.
Last week I bought a bag of Avocado Ranch Chopped Salad. I mixed it up as usual, spreading it on a long platter instead of a bowl. I sliced half of a fresh avocado and laid it along the top of the salad, then sprinkled on a generous amount of crispy fried onions. The presentation was wonderful and the dish tasted great.
The friend who was visiting for lunch said she would never have thought to add those extra ingredients, but that she loved how it finished out the dish.
Some people think “meal makeovers” are not real cooking. I completely disagree… starting with a convenience product and adding your own creative touches is a great way to save time and money. I really didn’t have time to buy a head of cabbage, a bag of carrots, a can of corn and a bottle of dressing and start from scratch. Not to mention the fact that most of the unused cabbage and dressing would probably have died in my refrigerator.
Just be sure that the convenience food(s) you are purchasing are still mostly natural – made without a lot of processing. We never want to trade fat, calories and chemicals for a few minutes of time savings; not when there are so many good, healthy convenient options available to us today!
Here at The Kid Menus, we love easy, simple modifications that really don’t even rise to the level of an actual recipe. We call these “Serving Suggestions” in our Gold level meal plans and each week we include at least three super simple ideas that are fast and easy. I pulled these serving suggestions straight from our menus and our team compiled them into a free resource for you all!
The prep time for these are minimal, but the end result is something even Irma Rombauer could be proud of! You’re welcome to download the FREE serving suggestion ebook here!