Defining Menu Courses

Defining Menu Courses

Courses & Formalities

A meal can be as simple as one plate of food or as complex as multiple courses. The formality of a meal frequently determines the number of courses to be served and often a more formal meal means more courses. Some restaurants offer multi-course tasting, or degustation menus that include numerous small courses each only a few bites in size. These courses are designed to complement each other and usually increase in richness and intensity as the meal progresses. Most cultures have their own norms when it comes to coursing a meal and therefore a traditional dinner in Italy is most likely much different than one served in China, Morocco, Mexico, or even France. In the United States a meal often consists of an appetizer, an entr´┐Że, and a dessert but this formula is not set in stone and there is really no right or wrong way to do it. How many and which courses are served can be determined by the diner, the chef, or the host and often depends on what the occasion is or where the meal is taking place.

Guide to Meal Courses

The Amuse Bouche

At certain restaurants, before the meal begins, diners are presented with a complimentary hors d'oeuvre called an "amuse," which is typically very flavorful and intended to "amuse" or stimulate the palate. These are usually offered as a gift from the chef and are intended to get the diner excited about the meal by offering a bit of insight as to what the chef is capable of.

Culinary Arts


Appetizers, also called starters, are the first course of a meal and are served in small portions because more courses usually follow. Because they are smaller in size, appetizers are usually heightened in flavor and, like the amuse, are intended to get your palate and internal organs stimulated in preparation for the remainder of the meal.

The Salad Course

The salad course is sometimes served in addition to an appetizer--sometimes it is the appetizer and sometimes it is served at the end of the meal following the entree, before the dessert. Salads are light enough to satisfy, but not fill up a diner before they get to the rest of their meal. When served at the end of a meal, a salad aids in digestion and cleanses the palate before dessert is served. It is traditional in many European cultures to eat the salad following, rather than preceding, the entree.

The Soup Course

The soup course, much like the salad course, is served either in addition to the appetizer or as the appetizer itself. A soup can be anything from a light, clear broth to a hearty puree and the type of soup being offered is often determined by what is to follow in the meal.

The Pasta Course - Traditional Italian Menu

In Italian dining the pasta course is a traditional part of the meal and is served following the appetizer, prior to the entree. The Italian pasta course is much smaller than a typical American sized portion.

The Main Course

The main course, often referred to as the entree, is the savory culmination of the meal that all of the other courses have built up to. The main course usually consists of the largest portion of the meal and in many cases features some type of protein. Sometimes a meal is divided into multiple entrees, such as a fish and a meat course, but generally there is only one main course.

The Cheese Course

If a cheese course is being served, it is usually done after the entree and before, or in lieu of, dessert. The cheese course can be as simple as one piece of cheese on its own or as elaborate as a sampling of numerous cheeses and various accompaniments such as bread, fruit, and nuts.

The Dessert Course

Dessert is the final course and often the one people most look forward to. The dessert course always features something sweet and is designed to round out a meal and satisfy the craving for sweetness that many people have after eating savory foods.

The Mignardises

Mignardises are tiny, bite sized desserts like cookies, candies, or tarts that are sometimes presented at the end of a meal as a final small treat.

About the Author

After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.