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Course simply refers to a part of a meal. A course is presented during a meal, at a specified time and usually in a particular sequence. A meal could be made up of a number of courses. One may come across a 3-course meal, a 5-course meal, or even a 7 or 8 course meal. As such, the terminology "course meal" is incomplete without specifying how many segments or courses are actually involved. This is because that is the whole idea behind using the word "course" in the very context of a meal. As an example, a 3-course meal could include an appetizer which may be a soup or salad, a main course (more elaborate with meat and also a starch such as rice or potatoes) and a concluding dessert course. Meanwhile, a 5-course meal might comprise of individual soup and salad courses and an additional fish course apart from the main meat and dessert courses.

Therefore, an elaborate meal served in sequential courses, starting with a salad first, then soup, followed by a "palate cleanser" such as a fresh light sorbet, followed by an entree, then a dessert, and then finally a coffee and/or brandy, would make a complete meal. This 7-course meal would probably be the most common number of courses one may come across, but the French are known to traditionally serve cheese as a course in itself. While this might be the most structured of meals, there exist even simple two course meals. A two course meal consists of only an appetizer and a main course or alternatively may include a main course and a dessert. Beverages may or may not be included as a course in a meal.

Structure of a Multicourse Meal

Most multicourse meals in the Western-world follow a definite sequence, influenced by traditional French Gourmet or “haute cuisine”. Each course is meticulously designed with a particular size and food genre that justifies its position in the sequence. Depending on location and customary practices, variations do exist. Nevertheless, the following is a universally accepted sequence set for multicourse meals:

1. Appetizer

The meal usually begins with an appetizer, also called Hors d'oeuvre in French. “Zensai” is Japanese and "antipasto" in Italian form the first course of a meal. It is generally a small serving and as the name suggests revs up or stimulates the appetite for the main meal that lies ahead. At times, it may be a soup course, since soups – both warm and cold, bisques, and consommés are popular ways of commencing a meal. In Italian custom, antipasto which is usually finger foods consisting of vegetables or cold cuts of cured meats etc. are served in the first course.

Appetizers are important as these sustain guests as they wait for the main course to arrive. Sometimes appetizers may also work well for weight watchers who intend to give the heavy main course a miss for health reasons. Some healthy appetizers are-

  • Grilled Tofu
  • Mini Veggie Frittatas
  • Baked Spinach and Cheese squares
  • Bruschetta
  • Steamed Dumplings

A possible fish course or other lighter courses known as relevés, including some kind of vegetable may act as intermittent courses. The size and of number these depends on local customs.

2. Main Course

The main course or ‘entree’ comes next. As the name indicates, this is the most important course and usually the largest too. The main course is called an ‘entrée’ in the United States and is the most substantial item on the menu. It usually consists of poultry, meat or fish and vegetables, tofu etc. for vegetarians. Some common main course dishes include-

  • Roasted, grilled or baked lamb, fowl or fish are popular healthy main course dishes depending on their method of preparation.
  • Steaks, barbecued meats (pork or beef)
  • Indian, Thai curries both vegetarian and non-vegetarian and many more

The main course may be considered the back-bone of a meal and is placed right in between a meal. From the health perspective, a healthy main dish must provide a good lean protein source along with some healthy carbohydrate such as whole grains or starchy vegetables. Adequate use of fruits and vegetables could help keep the calories under check while increasing the nutritional content of the dish. Fat intake must be restricted to ensure healthy heart and maintain normal cholesterol levels. Some healthy main dishes are-

  • Grilled Salmon with whole wheat couscous
  • Herbed Lemon Chicken with mushrooms and wild rice
  • Spicy Pork Tenderloin with Pineapple salsa

Although red meat was customarily eaten as main course, with increasing health awareness, a shift to white meats and fish has been observed over the last decade. Fish provides an excellent source of lean high-quality protein, with good amounts of healthy omega-3 fats that assist in various important physiological functions.

3. Side Course

While opting for main course dishes, side dishes that complement main dishes may also be selected. The nutritional significance of a side dish is in that it completes a well-balanced meal. Some heart-healthy side dishes are-

  • Grilled Asparagus
  • Vegetable Stir-fry
  • Tofu tossed in burnt garlic sauce
  • Tomatoes and Green Beans

4. Dessert

The meal will often culminate with a dessert, which could be either hot or cold, at times followed with a final serving of fresh or frozen fruit accompanied by a suitable dessert wine or after-dinner drinks (brandy, cognac, and liqueur) in gourmet meals. Sometimes other beverages like tea or coffee and sometimes chocolate may be served. This course caters to the sweet cravings that many experience towards the end of a meal, to balance the salt and spice consumed earlier.

As desserts are usually calorie-dense and often high in fat content, these may be skipped by weight-watchers and particularly by diabetics, although a meal is considered incomplete without dessert. Some healthy options are-

  • Fresh Fruit Salad with Honey and Almond Crumble
  • Lemon Tarts
  • Apple-Cinnamon Oats Pie
  • Strawberry Fruit Yoghurt

5. Beverage

The Beverages served during the course of a meal may be categorised into-

(a) Alcoholic Beverages such as distilled spirits, liqueuers, wine, beer among others and

(b) Non- Alcoholic Beverages include carbonated drinks, fruit juices, dairy and yoghurt-based drinks, energy drinks, coffe, tea and enhanced water such as spakling water etc.

At times, fat-free Sorbets may be used as palate cleansers served in between courses.