5 Easy Ways to Step Up Your Dinner Game

It’s almost Valentine’s Day my lovelies! While I’m not a big fan of the holiday, I do love that it’s an excuse to indulge in chocolate and wine. And to break out a few “fancy” recipes.

Fancy, in the world of food, is often synonymous with “complicated”. I don’t believe that for a second. Sure, there are a few “fancy” recipes that I won’t touch because they take hours or even days to make, but there are also a whole host of delicious recipes that can step up your meal game without getting complicated. If only relationships could be as easy as food, right?

For those of us that need a little kitchen inspiration to take our meals from “average” to “special”, here are my top five tips for stepping up your dinner game:

1. Upgrade your ingredients.

All cheeses are not created equal, my friends. If you find yourself stuck on what to make, reaching for a new recipe might not be the answer. Instead, take a look at your favorite recipe and see what ingredients you can swap out for higher quality. My go-to swap is on Parmesan cheese. I confess, I normally cheap out and buy the pre-grated store brand because I use so much cheese all the time. When I really want to pull through flavor, or when I’m making something that depends on the Parmesan for flavor (like alfredo sauce), I’ll splurge and buy either a wedge of Parmesan and grate it fresh, or sometimes I can find freshly grated cheese in the deli of the supermarket. Other upgrades can be as simple as switching from frozen to fresh produce, or going for completely organic ingredients.

2. Make it from scratch.

Sure, it’s easier to use garlic powder than it is to actually press a clove of garlic but for some recipes, that extra work pays off. In this particular example, you can even fall somewhere in the middle and use pre-chopped garlic. Find what works for you. Maybe even try making your own pasta! I’ve already mentioned this, but I’ll say it again – fresh produce is better than frozen. Always. No question.

3. Get creative.

Sometimes I swap boring fettuccine noodles for tortellini when I make alfredo. Sometimes I toss in shrimp, or asparagus. Or both! The key is to keep it simple when you start “layering” ingredients – pick a protein, add a veggie, done.

4. Add a side dish.

How often do you spend so much time focused on the main course that you forget about the sides? Forget microwave vegetables. Roast some Brussels sprouts in the oven or saute some fresh asparagus to go with that meal! Two sides is usually perfect for a “complete” at-home meal. I usually shoot for a veggie and a grain, potato or a squash side. Rice pilaf, couscous, and quinoa all make great complementary sides to fish, chicken, and pork. Potato sides go well with chicken, pork and beef. Autumn squash (think butternut, acorn) pairs well with chicken and fish.  Summer squash (think zucchini) goes great with chicken and beef. Of course, there’s room for more crossover here, this is just to get you started! You do you, my fabulous four. I know you’ll do amazing things.

5. Presentation, presentation, presentation.

My dad always used to say that my sister and I would only eat something if it looked good. (His favorite saying is actually from my grandpa “it’s not burnt, it’s just browned” – happily recited even if the bottom of our biscuits looked like charcoal.) It’s kind of true though. We are much more likely to eat something new if it’s been well plated. “Pretty” dishes also seem tastier, don’t they? I am by no means a master of plating, but here are a few tips for making that homemade dish look like it deserves to be served at a 5-star restaurant:

Choose your plate size wisely. A friend made me dinner not too long ago and it was fantastic! While he was plating it he said “I suck at presentation” and I laughed because I do too! His meal would have been easy to fix though. We used my normal sized dinner plates for a small strip of salmon, a side of asparagus tips, and a little couscous. The empty space between all of the elements is what knocked down his presentation. A smaller plate would easily have fixed that or…

Embrace those layers. Mentioned above as an opportunity to upgrade your recipe, layering is also an excellent way to upgrade your plating skills. In the case of the salmon, I would have made a bed of couscous, placed the salmon on top, and either layered the asparagus over that or set it to the side. Boom. Instant presentation upgrade.

Garnish! You know how you get that little sprig of fresh parsley on your plate when you go out to eat? That’s pretty much there for presentation purposes. That little splash of green makes a plate pop! Other options include sprinkling spices (paprika on top of macaroni and cheese, anyone?) or ground pepper, or freshly grated cheese on the dish. Bonus points for doing it in front of them. Don’t be afraid to think “off the plate” either. What are you serving to drink with this classy meal? How is the table set? Could you add candlelight or a fresh cut flower to the table? Ambiance is half the charm of going out to eat, so how can you copy that in your own home?

What other ideas do you have for stepping up your dinner game and taking a meal from “average weeknight” to five-star fancy? I’d love to hear your thoughts!



photos courtesy of: pixabay