We are very excited to introduce our newest recurring column, The Resident Baker, with Jill Denton! Jill is a classically trained chef from Le Cordon Bleu who is going to be talking all things food, cooking and kitchen. In addition to providing us with insider tips and tricks, Jill is also willing to answer any questions you have about food, whether it’s the best way to cook chicken or how to actually implement a meal plan. Leave your food questions in the comments or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get your burning questions answered (no pun intended). Enjoy! Mangia!
Take a second and consider what’s in your cabinets. Even if you’re not home, I bet you have a good idea of your kitchen staples. Allow me to guess the pantry contents for the average American family: Dry pasta, canned vegetables, rice, canned/jarred sauces, frozen processed meat, milk of some sort, condiments stuffed into the fridge door, and assorted herbs with ½ tsp. missing in each.
I’m no stranger to family kitchens. As an at-home caterer, I see the sad truth on a weekly basis. My clients welcome me in, show me around, and I suggest ways to improve their health and wellbeing by making simple changes to the foods their families consume. Think of it as in-home culinary counseling, and as you may be aware from other, more conventional types of counseling, some of my criticism is tough to swallow. But if you’re determined to improve health, increase energy and up the quality of the food you’re serving for the fifteen meals a week that typically happen in the home, we have to start somewhere. And yes, the average family eats out about six times a week.
In my heart of hearts, I can understand why eating out is so appealing. I go out for a few meals a week, I’ll admit. I love a good hoagie and I’d rather let the deli handle the prep, and my local Italian restaurant makes great pasta. But I also have a culinary education, no children and a significant other that is willing to share responsibilities in the kitchen. I tell my clients this and eyes roll, let me tell you, because in their house, it’s the cook against the family, the lone wolf in the kitchen trying to make heads or tails of the havoc that will be when dinner hits the table. I, regrettably, ask for details, and am usually overwhelmed with drama by the time I can get a word in edgewise. This kid eats one thing, that kid won’t touch it, the other parent comes home later and food’s cold, etc. It’s no wonder that stopping for drive-thru on the way home or piling the kids into the SUV and taking them for pizza are such popular notions. But eating out that often can total up to $300-$400 per month for a family of four. With younger Americans growing up without kitchen skills, the expense of dining out is now officially higher than the expense of buying groceries.
Let me use the title of this article as an entrée into my thought process, and maybe, just maybe, it’ll help you calm the maelstrom in your own cooking situation. Mise en place means “putting everything in its place,” in French, and in culinary kitchens, this is the majority of the work a cook does. (As a side note, “cook” does not equal “chef,” as the media implies. Cooks do the work, the chef runs the operation). Cooks arrive many hours before service begins, and the miraculous process of setting up for your meal begins. They check out the menu, they plan their prep and work ahead, readying one ingredient at a time. Cooks slice, chop, sauté, boil, poach, roast, dice, mince, feed themselves and coordinate with servers before a single customer is seated. Why? Because imagine them trying to make food for a table of four without any of those tasks being done in advance. Your fifteen-minute wait for plates just turned into a forty-five minute wait, the server’s apologizing a hundred times as her tip plummets, and you’re so hungry, you’re considering eating the sugar packets, paper and all.
Now, close your eyes and open your cabinets again. See clear, cook-approved containers of pre-portioned starch and cans sorted by recipe, cordoned off from the rest with a circle of tape. Open the fridge door to see labeled, airtight containers of ingredients stacked by meal and date, with Monday night’s dinner alongside Tuesday’s breakfast prep. The freezer is organized by ingredient type, portioned and labeled so your kids or significant other can grab exactly what they need and nothing more when they help you with dinner. And your spice rack has assorted seasonings on it that you’ll actually use, with stickers on them to help you decide which herb goes with which meal.
Welcome to the world of the at-home cook, with a few little tweaks thrown in. And I know your first thoughts, I bet. When am I going to have time to prep all that stuff? How am I supposed to find the time to pre-chop, pre-cook or pre-sort anything when I can barely get a cohesive dinner on the table? And I barely know what I need to buy for the stuff I throw together now. I get twenty minutes in the store, less than that to make food, so this will never work for me. I reply the same way every time I hear of these hurdles. I go back through my notes, which are usually extensive by this point in the consult, and repeat back to the client every lost second pondering in front of an open pantry door, every moment wasted making multiple meals for a single service, the time spent circling the grocery aisles searching for forgotten ingredients, all the labor cost you’re losing out on by letting the family sit out on the prep process, and the fact that it all adds up in the “health and consequences” column at the bottom of the symbolic page.
Freshly made is better nutritionally than processed in nearly all cases, and “eating close to the dirt” is the only way to feel real accomplishment with cooking. Your waistline and your family will notice the difference, and as new technique becomes old habit, you start pre-prepping everything without even considering it to be “extra work.” And teaching the next generations to prepare their own meals will save their wallets and waistlines in the future, encouraging future generations to keep up the tradition of the family meal with their children.
Consider taking a moment to go through the cabinets tonight. Move aside the items that have been in there for months, unused and neglected. Did you buy them because you had a grand recipe idea that never happened? Do you remember why you bought those items that are now sitting off to the side? Imagine only buying what you know you’ll use, and actually using it, leaving empty cabinets behind to fill with the next week’s menu items. That’s the direction to walk in, with me at your side.
So follow along with my future articles on eating better, organizing meals, and making the most of your time in the kitchen and in life. Feel free to ask me questions, follow me for recipes and suggestions, and let me know other kitchen ideas to make the daily ordeal a little easier.
Jill Marie is a classically-trained French chef, certified by Le Cordon Bleu and possessing both a Grand Diplôme in culinary arts and Pastry Certification. She’s been cooking professionally in hotel,restaurant and catering kitchens for fifteen years, and specializes in comfortable, everyday food. She also earned a Master’s degree in Human Resources and a Bachelor’s degree in Finance. In addition to running Delivery Dinners of Delaware, she works full-time in Human Resources. Jill is also a published author of women’s fiction/romance, and her current series, Second Saga, is in print. Visit her site jillmariedenton.com for book info and writing samples.