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.
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.
Out of all questions tagged menu-planning, only three actually fit the original definition:
- From which culture did our North American meal progression (soup/salad/appetizer + meal + dessert) come from?
- Do popovers serves as the starch and the bread in a meal?
- I need help to plan a Menu: 10 people, dinner with lovely friends at home
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.
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.
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?