Pesach is the holiday of freedom — and nothing says freedom like a table buried under a bountiful spread of delicious holiday favorites. But as anyone who has prepared a lavish yom tov menu knows, there is a real cost in time, effort, and of course, money, to create that never-ending array of food. Part of the cost, though, comes from wasted food, whether it’s the fourth salad that hardly got touched or the forgotten kugel in the back of the fridge.
The solution is simple: menu planning.
Serving fewer, more thoughtful dishes for each meal cuts down on kitchen time and effort, reduces waste, saves money, and does it all while impressing your guests just as much (if not more!) than the traditional more-is-more approach. “Planning your Pesach menu should be simple and to the point,” says private chef Mushka Haskelevich. After all, she points out, “the idea is to leave slavery behind!”
We talked to some expert chefs and home cooking moms for all the tips you need to make the switch.
- Less is more. Chef Mushka recommends, “Think about the salads, mains and sides and how they relate to each other, rather than an abundance of dishes that lose their spark and are overshadowed by excess.” Aim for a maximum of four sides—one starchy, one cooked vegetable dish or kugel, one salad, and one bonus (perhaps a dip or second fresh vegetable dish) that pair in flavor or texture with the main being served. For example, grilled proteins pair well with a creamy slaw, while a braised meat in sauce is begging to be served with a bed of simple mashed potatoes to soak it up.
- Honor traditions while leaving room for innovation. Shira Rose, the author of the viral “Good Mood Kitchen Passover” e-book and a former Chabad on Campus co-director, recommends sticking largely to the same menu year after year to build nostalgic food memories and reduce decision fatigue. “Cooking special foods that are only for Pesach forces everyone into loving it and waiting for it,” she jokes, “like your Pesach food is the Disney Vault of recipes.” She recommends trying just a few new recipes every year to keep things interesting.
- Quality over quantity. Remember, this is a yom tov dinner, not a tasting menu. “I keep my menu really light and pared back,” says food stylist and chef Chaya Rapoport. “I’ll do one or two side dishes with a main dish.” She recommends making either the fish course or the meat course the star of each meal. When planning for a three-day chag like this year, remember that no one is all that hungry on that third night of yom tov — sometimes a hearty soup is more than enough.
- “Cook once, use twice.” That’s the motto of Deena Freedman, a Jewish mom blogger. “When I create my menu,” she explains, “I look for ways I can cook smart — maybe I will serve meatballs in sauce for the first seder and then repurpose them in a soup for Friday night.” You can also cook in double batches and freeze for the second half of yom tov.
- Good menu planning happens in the kitchen. Break your to-do list down by oven temperature and cooking method rather than by dish — that way when the potatoes are in at 425F you’ll realize you can toast the nuts and roast the pears at the same time, and when you finish blanching the broccoli you can reuse that same pot of boiling water to cook eggs. Rose recommends slow-cooking your braised meats overnight in the oven — freeing up the oven space for daytime cooking at higher temperatures.
- Cook seasonally — it is Chag HaAviv after all! “Keeping your dinners seasonal will help you narrow down the menu, so you don’t feel like you have to ‘do it all,’” says Haskelevich. She recommends a trip to the farmer’s market to get inspired by what is in season in your local area — in New York, that’s ramps, leeks, rhubarb, strawberries, and asparagus. Plus, the fresher the produce, the less you need to do to it. A platter of blanched fresh asparagus with flaky salt and olive oil is just as appealing to your guests as a broccoli kugel and takes a fraction of the time to prepare.
- Visualize the plate. Every dish you serve during a meal should play a role in creating a composed plate that offers complementary flavors as well as contrasting colors and textures. “Remember to have salty, sweet, crunchy, spicy, fatty, bright, zesty, and acidic in each meal and you will be golden,” says Haskelevich. For example, if you are serving a wine-braised brisket (which is sweet and fatty), pair it with mashed potatoes (creamy and salty), a tangy raw shredded carrot herb salad (crunchy and bright) and braised leeks (tangy and soft).
- Set yourself up for next year’s success. Freedman starts every Pesach season by taking out her notebook from the year before where she has helpfully jotted down detailed notes about what ingredients were and weren’t used, what appliances need to be replaced, and which recipes were a hit with her family. (If you don’t trust yourself to locate said notebook in 12 months’ time, do what I do and use Google Docs.) “Looking back at last year’s notes a few weeks before Pesach gives me time to order and tovel new dishes if needed,” she says.
With some planning, a little creativity, and a dose of inspiration from some of these talented kitchen stars, you’ll save time and money—and impress your family and friends more than ever. Here’s to a holiday of freedom for all of us!
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