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This question is partly in response to Joe's recent discussion about the closure of a hiking question, but I have no axe to grind here, I just think it would help to put our heads together and try to work something out in a broader context, as opposed to a specific question.


History

I believe that the actual first recorded reference to menu planning was actually here on meta in the then-controversial, precedent-setting discussion on "serving" questions. I posed the question and hobodave answered with the following:

Pairing an entree with appropriate appetizers, side dishes, and desserts is knowledge an expert chef will have. They are taught this, and are expected to know it.

My original terminology was actually "course planning", not "menu planning", which is probably indecipherable to non-Americans but is also a lot narrower. This subject was first discussed in the context of a single meal - order, timing, portion sizing, flavour pairing, and so on.

"What should I eat?" questions actually have very little to do with this topic, no matter how specific the criteria. However, we seem to have tacitly accepted them anyway, at least in principle.

Current Status

Out of all questions tagged , only three actually fit the original definition:

These questions are literally about menu planning. Most of the other questions in that tag are varyingly about dietary restrictions, recipe/ingredient selection, recipe modification, cooking in restricted environments, and... well, I'm not really sure what this one qualifies as, but there were certainly a lot of votes in support of it.

The Point Is...

If the expanded definition of "menu planning" is going to be on topic, that's okay. However, we've been pretty spotty up to present when it comes to deciding which questions are OK and which ones aren't. Our line in the sand is more of a scribble.

In order to prevent (or at least reduce) future drama with regard to this category, I think we should try to come up with some guidelines for what makes a good menu planning question. Not necessarily to be used as rules, just to help people who have these kinds of questions ask better ones.

The following are not intended to be guidelines, just things to think about:

  • Does the number of meals matter? The original definition was for one meal. Are 2-3 meals OK? What about a week? What about a whole month?

  • Should questions asking what to eat/cook specify a main dish (i.e. limit lists to appetizers/sides/desserts)? This rules out a lot of potential questions, but it does also narrow the pool of answers quite a bit.

  • What about specifying just a main ingredient? We've accepted at least one like this, but it does seem awfully similar to a recipe request, or at least a borderline candidate.

  • Is a dietary restriction (e.g. gluten-free) or equipment restrictions (e.g. outdoor cooking) enough to make the question useful, in the absence of other filters? Note that this is pretty likely to become a list of recipes, or at best turn out like those inscrutable 450-page "XYZ tips and tricks" threads you see on forums, but maybe there's a way to word the question so as to avoid that fate.

  • What about with other filters? ("Cheap, dairy-free meals that you can make in the microwave?") This definitely narrows the answers; does it narrow it down to a manageable/useful subset?

  • Is there a way that an otherwise poor menu-planning question could be reworded as a good one? For example, shopping questions worded as "What should I buy?" can be restated as "What features should I look for?" Is there an equivalent modification for "What should I eat?"

This is just off the top of my head - it's not meant to be an exhaustive list of question attributes, it's only meant as a starting point.

Question

Anybody care to share their thoughts on what makes a menu-planning question "great" or at least "good"? Are any of the above ideas/metrics useful (and if so, how useful)? Are there any that I might have missed?

  • Does this question count as a menu-planning question? I remember there was some discussion about it, but when I read "menu planning", it was the first one that came to mind. – Grace Note May 23 '11 at 19:24
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    @Grace: It's more of a catering question, but you could call it menu planning as well, since it is about portion sizing. The initial controversy was due to the question being about ordering food rather than cooking it, but in hindsight that was a largely insignificant distinction which didn't/wouldn't affect the answers at all (since the question was not about what to order or how, just how much). – Aaronut May 23 '11 at 19:31
  • Gotcha. Thanks for the explanation. Guess the rest of it goes a bit beyond what I know about cooking, haha. – Grace Note May 23 '11 at 19:41
  • This is an important issue, and I hope it gets resolved in a way that allows for menu planning questions but prevents them from devolving into multi-part recipe questions. Also, I'm hoping there are some sous chefs and chefs in the membership that can help answer questions of that sort... since I know I have quite a few but am hesitant to ask at this time. – BobMcGee Jun 16 '11 at 5:05
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Health-related: --how long can XXXX stay on a buffet table without refrigeration? Etiquette: --Is a dinner host required to learn the food allergy/likes/dislikes/yearnings of each guest and then plan her menu accordingly? Best foods to omit to avoid potential allergic reactions b guests? (Nuts, shellfish?)

Kids: When kids are coming? Separate menu? Good dishes adults and children beyond pizza, burgers/fries?

Vegetarian/Vegan: Vegetarian entree all will eat?

Made ahead: Dishes cooked in advance.

Spur-of-monent: Last minute quality dishes for unexpected guests.

Some of these may not be artfully constructed b/c they invite discussion, but I believe they can be tailored for specificity. If this is inappropriate, please discard.

  • I would say food safety related, rather than health, which brings up the notion of the controversial health claims that are off topic on this site. – SAJ14SAJ Feb 9 '13 at 19:25
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    These are really good examples of bad menu planning questions - they're broad and subjective, and as you say, this invites discussion. – Cascabel Feb 11 '13 at 23:11

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