Tutorial Tuesday #4–Preparing to Shop at the Farmers Market

36/365 Produce

I am a “list person”.

Not to label myself or anything, but I do love a good list (I also have a label maker, so maybe I will label myself). To-do lists, errand lists, shopping lists and yes, menu lists. There is something very satisfying about crossing off something on a list. Also, I am slightly absent-minded (I prefer to think of this as “intensely focused elsewhere”), so lists help me keep track of things that might otherwise get overlooked. I also keep a list of blog topics. And one that has risen to the top is how we plan our meals around local foods. A friend posted in wondering about this as well, so now seems a good time to dive in.

We don’t have a lot of parameters around our eating, but we do have some loose rules for our journey:

  1. At least 75% of our food should come from local sources.
  2. We should keep spending to $100 or under
  3. No processed foods, unless absolutely necessary (see “Girl Scout Cookies”)

In the second week of our journey, I had a major “uh-oh” moment. I had carefully crafted a list of recipes I wanted to try, based on what I thought might be available at the farmer’s market. As it turns out, almost nothing I wanted was available, so I ended up buying all manner of random food and then trying to create a week of meals out of it. If you’re up for that challenge, go for it, but it was a stressful learning experience for me and I discovered that I need more order than that. I’ve developed a system for locavore menu planning over the past year and a half, and I’ll share it with you. It probably sounds more complicated than it really is. I’m not recommending anyone adopt my system, but it works for me. And if it works for me, I am probably more likely to be successful, so finding a system that works for YOU will do the same. Here goes:

Friday–On Fridays, I get an email from The Produce Box letting me know what is in the various boxes for the next week. I usually go ahead and order my box on Friday and, based on what is going to be in my box, I start my menu for the next week, and make a shopping list of the remaining items I will need from the farmer’s market and from Trader Joes. Since what I get in my Produce Box is similar to what is available at our farmer’s market, there aren’t many surprises here.

On Fridays, I also read emails and Twitter posts from our local farmers markets and farmers so I know what will be available over the weekend. These posts help so much. I highly recommend getting on the e-mail lists of any farmers markets or farmers near you. I can find out what vendors will be available, what they will have, what’s coming up soon and (if I want) I can even order specific products or cuts of meat ahead of time.

A note about our weekly menu: I try to make sure we have a balance of vegetables and proteins throughout the week and I try not to have pasta or starchy dishes more than once or twice a week. This doesn’t always work out–some weeks have been heavy on seafood and others heavy on chicken or pork–but mostly it works out ok. I always try to plan at least one meatless meal each week.

Tuesday–On Tuesdays, I do a final tweak to our menu and check my shopping list. I look at how much my Produce Box order is and try to assess how much in our budget I have left for the farmer’s market and for grocery store items. I get my draft post for the blog ready on Tuesday night.

Wednesday–On Wednesdays, I go to the farmer’s market (sometimes I do this on Saturday, but whatever). Since I know pretty much in advance what will be available to me, I pick up what I need as well as any orders I have placed for meat, fish, etc. While I’m at the market, I make a list (!) of new items that are available or anything interesting that I might consider for next week. Then after work, I go to Trader Joes and get whatever else I need.

Unless something happens and I forget something on the list (see “intensely focused elsewhere”), I try to shop once a week, and keep the extra purchases to a minimum. I do make exceptions for canning over the weekend. If I know I’m going to be making jam or pasta sauce, I’ll head out to the farmer’s market Saturday morning (early) to get what I need so it is very fresh.

So far, this system has worked out relatively well. It does mean that I spend a LOT more time thinking about food, although the longer I do it, the easier it is and the less time I spend planning and shopping. I don’t necessarily mind spending the time, but if you don’t like to cook or if you don’t want to sit around and think through a weekly menu, this may not make you happy. To date, we have been pretty good about not wasting food and making good use of the produce and meat we buy. Some weeks are more successful than others, of course. That’s life.

So that is our system for making sure we have local foods and that we eat what we buy. If you are eating local, how do you plan your meals?

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