Pantry List on colorful background

The Spruce Eats / Sabrina Tan

READY: The 7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Stepping Into the Kitchen

A personal chef shows us how to set up our kitchens (and ourselves) for success.

Welcome to our four-week cooking school—Ready. Set. Cook. EAT! In that order, The Spruce Eats is here to guide you from the very beginning to the last bite with tips, guides, and, of course, recipes. We want you to have fun while learning and wow yourself at what you can accomplish. Thank you for joining us.

I began my tenure at The Spruce Eats in 2020, in my 18th year as a food entrepreneur and private chef in New York City, cooking for busy clients and their families in their homes. During those years, I have honed my skills in menu planning, grocery shopping, prepping, cooking, food storage, and more. 

We begin with READY to set you up for success before you even purchase your first ingredient. You will glean knowledge of you and your household’s food habits, assess your kitchen, and develop an actionable menu plan. 

To be able to share my seasoned skills here in order to help you have great success in the kitchen is a privilege and an honor. Let’s begin.

Ingredients on a table

The Spruce Eats / Kevin Norris 

The Household Assessment

In my very first newsletter for The Spruce Eats titled "Getting With the (Meal) Plan," I outlined some of the important questions I ask new private chef clients in order to determine how we can best work together. We get into everything from necessary kitchen tools and stocking the pantry to the types of foods I would shop and prepare for the week.

Of the 15-plus questions I ask new clients, the following can help to inform everything from menu planning to the final plate:

What are your food likes and dislikes and your dietary lifestyle? 

This question asks basic food demographics. A dietary lifestyle is a hard fact—vegetarian, gluten free, paleo, etc.—it is what it is. Likes and dislikes are more soft, the starting line of what can be explored as you continue on this journey.

What cuisines do you eat out/order in often?

This will inform everything from grocery shopping and pantry stocking to recipe searching and menu planning to related cooking techniques and, of course, eating!

Are you “routine” or “try new things?”

No judgment here! If you know, you know. Being routine-oriented allows you to refine all parts of this process and become a well-oiled machine. Trying new things means you enjoy exploring and, as a result, must always account for a learning curve–ingredients, recipes, cooking techniques.

What types of recipes do you enjoy cooking?

There are many types of cooking like grilling, wok cooking, and roasting. Leaning into your favorite familiar cooking techniques and recipes provides a safety net where you can always return while you begin to build a bridge to new techniques and recipes. In the interim, balance out “home base” recipes with simple side dishes.

What do you consider meal variety within a week?

This question asks your thoughts on the diversity of meals in a week and your tolerance for leftovers. While this tends to vary depending on the size of your household, your answers directly affect the timing of every step of the process from menu planning to prepping and cooking. In my experience, the sweet spot is three main dishes and at least three side dishes. This means eating leftovers once per main dish, at least, and saving time. Otherwise, planning, shopping, prepping, and cooking seven different dishes for the week can become too much for some.

Are you brand conscious or cost conscious? Quantity or quality?

Answering these questions are very important to the financial bottom line and might be a household reckoning of sorts. It can vary depending on the category of food, like canned and boxed versus produce and meats. However, there are both seasons and reasons for all thinking. Make sure to know who you are before grocery shopping.

What is your level of cooking skill (beginner, intermediate, expert)?

Meet yourself where you are and grow from there. Cooking should be engaging and fun. Set yourself up for success by perfecting your favorite types of cookery and gradually scale up one recipe at a time.

cabinets adjacent to the stove with items used most frequently

The Spruce / Rachel Vanni

The Kitchen Assessment

Now that you have asked and answered these important questions of your household, it is time to assess your kitchen. I created two inventory checklists for my clients, one for the pantry (Pantry Police Sheet) and one for kitchen tools (Kitchen Supply Inventory). It is quite exhaustive, but absolutely necessary for me to know my clients’ kitchens like the back of my hand as you should know yours.

The Pantry Police Sheet outlines everything in the pantry–spices, oils and vinegars, canned, grains and pastas, dry goods, and other/specialty items. Next to each item, there are two columns–HAVE and NEED. As I go through the pantry, I tick the correct column, sometimes both if they are low, and discard old and expired items. If there are multiple of the same item, I arrange in the FIFO (First In First Out) method so those items expiring first will be used first. 

The Kitchen Supply Inventory Sheet, like the pantry sheet, outlines all of the non-food items in the kitchen–pots and pans by dimension, volume, and cooking surface (nonstick or not); bakeware and sheet pans; knives, utensils, and varied tools; appliances; household items like foil, plastic wrap, and storage containers; plus tabletop and serviceware for home entertaining. And like the pantry sheet, I go through the kitchen ticking what they have and need, and pulling worn, unused, or unneeded items.

These two inventory tools inform so much about your current kitchen status, and mark a starting point to refer down the line. You also will also have a list of kitchen tools to purchase and pantry items to add to your shopping list. 

Removing or adding any of the products will generate more confidence in the kitchen. Along with the answers to household assessment questions, you will have all the information needed to begin the next step of menu planning.

Best Classic Lasagna ingredients

The Spruce / Cara Cormack

Define Your Menu Planning Needs

Now that you have assessed your cooking and eating needs with the answers to the questions and the current status of your pantry and kitchen above, you are almost set to grocery shop. The last key to being READY is menu planning. When doing so, here are some key questions I ask myself and you should be too:

  1. What meals are you planning? Examples: breakfasts, lunches (to go), dinners, weekend meals.
  2. How long do you want to spend in the kitchen actively cooking (stovetop cooking)? (More about active versus inactive cooking to come.)
  3. What can be prepped in advance for needed, and easier, in the minute cooking or assembly? Examples: salads, vegetables, seasoning meats.
  4. What are my main dishes? And what sides can compliment all of the main dishes? For example, if the main dishes are meatloaf and roasted chicken, sides of roasted potatoes and buttered broccoli would go with both of them.
  5. Are there some pre-made items that you can purchase to add value, or give you back time, to a meal? For example, packaged heat-and-eat rice or your favorite pre-made side dishes at the grocery store food bar. 

My general practice when menu planning is to create permutations of what I call Trilogy Meals. That is a protein, a green vegetable, and a starch. Yes, it is old school but also a great foundation for success. Every week I prepare three protein main dishes and three to four sides, one of which is a starch. This way my clients can put together weeknight meals as they wish. 

So are you ready? It’s time to get SET!