Class Up Your Dining In: Make Your Next Meal at Home a Classy Affair!
As much as I love dining out, sometimes a blissfully quiet meal at home is on the agenda. Maybe the babysitter cancelled. Maybe you just had to drop the equivalent of a full Christmas season on new tires for the truck. Or perhaps you’re just plain tired of being around people. Whatever your reasons are for dining in, you don’t have to scale back on the class factor to have a quality, rave-worthy meal at home.
From my place at the table, the factors that make a meal classy when dining in are the same ones that make a dining out meal classy: ease, details and atmosphere. However, how they are applied are different between the two. Here’s how to duplicate those factors at home.
In a restaurant, one of the benefits is that you literally have to do nothing but decide what to eat, then eat it. Sometimes you barely have to do that (prix fixe meals, anyone?) At home you want to duplicate that feeling of ease as much as possible. I do that by planning simple meals that are also delicious.
Keep it Simple
Keeping your meals simple when dining in eases the burden on the chef and the clean-up committee. Sometimes it’s fun to create an elaborate meal that takes a long time and a fair amount of expertise to prepare (at least it is if you like to cook!) but for a weekday or last minute dine-in, keeping it simple is key. Here are a few ideas for combining time saving and clean up.
Slow cook it. Plan ahead and put your meal in the slow cooker. Think roast, soups and stews. It’s ready when you are and there is very little clean up required after your meal to kill the relaxation buzz. Freshen up whatever comes out of the slow cooker by topping it with herbs, nuts or supplementing it with something else crunchy as it often tends to come out all the same flavor and texture.
Think protein and sides. If you pan sear a steak or salmon filet and finish them in the oven (or do the whole thing in the oven as in the salmon recipe below) along with a pan of roasted vegetables, your meal will be fast, simple and elegant. Plus there will be limited clean-up required, which is important to keep the chill vibe of the evening going.
Here are some of my favorite fast, simple and flavorful meal choices when dining in:
Salmon Roasted in Butter. Toss some asparagus spears in butter, ghee or olive oil and add that to the oven as well and everything will be done at once.
Fritatta – the options are endless and it allows you to use up odds and ends left in your fridge in a simple and elegant way.
Whether you go for the fast and easy crock pot method or indulge in a little more effort-intensive endeavor, be sure to choose your food with an eye for quality (there is a lot of inferior food options out there) and prepare it with care and love. A classy meal begins with a classy heart.
Serve in Courses
In a restaurant, one of the things I love is multiple courses. Having smaller portions of a variety of different foods keeps the meal interesting and satisfies our desire for many flavors without an overabundance of food. But how do we replicate that detailed experience at home without adding a lot of additional work, spoiling the mood?
There are several ways to achieve this. First, the obvious, is that you can just buy an appetizer. Shrimp cocktail (please take it OFF that wretched plastic tray and put it on something nice), hummus and pita chips, or even samosas depending on your menu and where you live are items that come to mind. I avoid buying frozen appetizers in the store. First, they tend to not taste very good. Second, they are often made with inferior ingredients that compromise the overall quality of the meal.
The exception to frozen appetizers is….those you make yourself ahead of time and pull out when you need them. I love mini quiches for this. I can make dozens of them at a time and they thaw and reheat quickly without losing too much quality. They are also easy to customize for your personal tastes and preferences. Cook them in a mini-muffin tin to keep the portion sizes small.
Your appetizer doesn’t need to be much. Often a small tray of cheese, olives and nuts (things I have on hand at all times anyway) is all that is needed to satisfy the desire for an appetizer, is ridiculously easy and of course, keeps it classy!
Soup and Salad
Along with a small appetizer, or instead of an appetizer, a soup or salad course is often desirable. For salads, I always have lettuces cut up and washed in advance, as local and fresh as possible. I find that store bought salad mixes fade and rust so quickly that I often end up tossing them before they can be used, not to mention an ongoing food safety problem.
To quickly create a top notch salad, toss all your lettuce together with a vinaigrette, divide onto individual plates and top with shaved or shredded Parmesan and some chopped pecans or walnuts. It looks amazing, tastes like a dream and comes together in a flash.
I love soup. It’s one of my favorite types of food. But soup is one of those things that can take two minutes or two days. For quick weeknight meals, let’s go with Door #1.
Two minutes might be a bit of an exaggeration, but especially if you own a high powered blender, you can create a super classy soup like creamy tomato (this video shows how fast and easy it is, although I’d use Gorgonzola instead of cheddar and chicken stock instead of water and a bouillon cube, but that’s another post…) in a snap without even turning on the stove. An alternative is to make your own soups in advance and freeze them in small batches. For that option, you will need to plan ahead to give them time to thaw.
A bonus for soup: depending on the night, the soup could also be the main course.
For dessert, the simpler the better. Try a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar (don’t laugh – it’s amazing!) or a few squares of high quality chocolate. Or perhaps just a single bonbon. One of the worst things restaurants do, in my opinion, is bring to the table an enormous dessert after serving giant-sized dinner portions.
Treat yourself well – eat until you are satisfied and top off your meal with a few bites of something sweetly delicious. I am very careful about my sugar intake so often I go the French route and dessert is simply a few bites of cheese. There are also a lot of amazing sugar-free deserts like this cheesecake muffin you can make and freeze that thaw out fairly quickly. They satisfy your sweet tooth completely guilt-free.
Presenting the Plate
You can increase the wow factor of even an average-looking meal with a few simple plating steps. We eat with our eyes first – make that presentation count!
First, if you accidentally drip any sauce or oil on the rim, wipe it off. Nothing says “I don’t give a rip” like leaving careless drips on the serving plate. Dining in can be both classy and casual, but casual doesn’t mean sloppy.
Second, pay attention to plating. If you have, for example, two small portions of chicken breast, don’t put them side by side. Overlap them. If you have mashed potatoes or green beans, place the protein slightly over them. Doing this will help give your plate a cohesive feeling. Your meal isn’t just the sum of its individual parts – the protein and sides should work together as a team. With a little practice, you will get good at this so be gentle with yourself when just getting started.
Third, garnish that food! Chop up a few herbs and sprinkle them lightly over the plate. Chives, green onions, parsley and cilantro are good options, but be sure to pair them with flavors compatible with your dish! (Hint: use kitchen scissors to cut them up quickly without dirtying a cutting board.) A single sprig of basil or thyme may do the trick. If appropriate for the dish, a quick drizzle of balsamic vinegar or olive oil looks and tastes rich and delicious. A simple garnish takes a plate from boring to boom!
Set the Table, Set the Mood
There are many ways to level up your at-home meal. In fact, the little details may be the most important, because they show people – including yourself – that you care.
Use cloth napkins. In addition to being environmentally friendly, cloth napkins are economical and of course, super classy. And for clean up? Toss them in the laundry basket. (Hint: if you use a napkin ring you can help disguise a wrinkled cloth napkin if necessary. I really hate to iron! This is less of a concern if you use restaurant quality napkins because they are hard to wrinkle.)
Use a table cloth (or use nice looking place mats made from a natural material). In an instant, you can level up your dining experience. While not always necessary, a table cloth can cover up a less-than stellar table top, provide an attractive contrast between your plate and its background, and help make clean up a breeze – no need to wipe down the table. (Hint: look for restaurant quality cloth napkins and table linens for the longest lasting and most stain resistant products.)
Use charger plates. A charger plate holds your appetizer plate, soup or salad bowl and your main dish plate, providing a consistent look across all courses. It’s attractive and really adds an element of class that you and your other diners will appreciate.
Candles and/or indirect lighting. Don’t ruin all your hard work with harsh lighting! Candles, of course, are the classic addition. If you do candles please make sure they are unscented – you don’t want to compete with the aroma of your food! Also make sure they are a subtle addition to the table and do not interfere with your ability to see your dining companions.
But candles are not a must. What is essential is indirect lighting. Lamps, dimmed overhead lights (dimmer switches can be installed on any outlet), wall sconces or even some types of nightlights are options. They should provide enough light to clearly see your table and companions but not enough to obviously see the entire room.
Clear glass or crystal beverage glasses. You should be able to see and appreciate the color of whatever you’re drinking, whether that’s wine, tea or even water. No logos, etching, or other distractions. Beveling is fine as long as the color shines through. (Secret classy level up: choose sparkling water. I prefer Pellegrino. Add a lemon or lime wedge for subtle added flavor.)
If you can make it special, do it. Don’t wait for special occasions to use the fine china. Don’t hold on to that nice bottle of wine too long waiting for something to celebrate – celebrate being with someone you love right now. Celebrate that token raise. Celebrate it being Tuesday. It doesn’t matter. Use your dining in as a way to celebrate the everyday joys of life. As tomorrow is promised to no one, enjoy the blessings you have today.
Give Your Meal a Soundtrack
I have a wide range of musical tastes. Music is an important part of life that offers health benefits, too, and is essential to topping off the atmosphere of your classy dine in meal! When it comes to your dining music choices, even if you enjoy some heavy metal or rap music (which may be great for working out or house cleaning motivation), opting for something more soothing will set the mood and may even help digestion as it contributes to your relaxation.
You may already have a favorite chillout music station, playlist, mix, Pandora station, etc. I feel like jazz is the perfect compliment for most classy meals, but one of my favorite restaurants plays mostly hits from the 70’s. When I want to channel that experience at home, I’ll opt for some Steely Dan or The Eagles. Keep it chill, though, whatever you choose. You don’t want to spoil the mood of dinner with a music choice that is too distracting, loud or upbeat. Positive is good – it should be a mood lifter – but it should not make you want to hit the punching bag or go for a run. Save that for your workout!
Here’s a sample of some of my favorite songs for a classy meal from jazz artists across several decades in case you need a little inspiration:
A Classy Meal Satisfies All Your Senses
The important thing to remember in a classy meal, whether it’s at home or out on the town, is that it should positively stimulate all five senses. The soft feel of the cloth napkin, the aroma of the carefully prepared soup or sauce, the flavor of fresh herbs, the gentle glow of lighting on the faces of your loved ones and the pleasing sounds of chill-worthy music tickling your ears makes for a memorable and classic experience.
With just a little extra effort, you can make dining in just as enjoyable as going out.