The first thing that future chefs are taught when they first step into culinary school is the soon-to-be-ubiquitous term, mise en place, a phrase of French origin that literally means, "putting in place." In the culinary world, mise en place refers to the act of setting up the ingredients of a particular recipe before one starts cooking. This could mean measuring out the required ingredients (eg. a cup of flour), separating the egg white from the yolk or as easy as having the required vegetable ready to go in front of you. In a commercial kitchen like in restaurants, mise en place refers to "setting up the line," that is having all the required elements ready and in place for a busy lunch or dinner service.
So what happens when you are at home cooking for the family? Is mise en place needed? For trained chefs, they can't help but be prepared for whatever dish that they are going to be cooking. What about the home cook? I think it is a good routine to get into--know what you are cooking and get all the required ingredients ready before starting. However, there are times when winging it in the kitchen is not only necessary but can be fun as well. And this happens to many of us more often than we imagine.
Most of the time, I plan out what I'm going to be cooking and buy the needed ingredients accordingly, preferably a day or two before. Other times, I don't even bother planning and just look through the fridge for whatever is available and think about what I can do with them. The good thing about this exercise is that I get to use up most of the produce that have been hanging around in the refrigerator more days than they should. Sometimes leftovers can even be combined to make a soup or something. The important thing to note here is nothing should be wasted. This is the "waste not-want not" mentality that I learned from working in restaurants and is perfectly transferable to the home kitchen. And who knows, out from the ashes of those tired leftovers, an exciting phoenix of a dish might rise up and surprise you! Try it and you might be surprised at what you can produce with just a pinch of imagination and a dash of inspiration.