Meal Planning Without Shopping Lists

by | Feb 15, 2012

Photo by evelynishere

Photo by evelynishere

Food shopping can be intimidating, especially if cooking is new to you.

A common approach to this problem is to pick your recipes beforehand, make a list of what you need and then shop until everything from the list is in your basket. But being comfortable shopping without a list is a valuable skill worth adding to your healthstyle toolkit.

Lists can come in handy, especially when you’re planning a large meal or event where organization is essential. But at a farmers market, shopping lists aren’t nearly as useful.

You can never be 100% certain of what you’re going to find at the market each week. Sure there are things you can usually count on (I know I can find kale at my market year round), but having a long catalog of ingredients for a particular recipe is likely to be frustrating.

A shopping list you can’t fulfill will leave you scrambling, running around the market looking for absent ingredients or inferior substitutes. No fun. The last thing you want to do is turn the farmers market into a source of anxiety.

Still the best reason to avoid lists at the farmers market is that discovering new and interesting foods is what makes shopping there such a treat. It takes an open mind and curious eyes if you hope to find the next tree tomato.

So how do you free yourself from the shackles of shopping lists without ending up with a pile of random vegetables and no obvious meals?

When shopping at a farmers market, the best meal planning strategy combines both structure and flexibility. Start with an idea of what you want to accomplish, then let the season’s offerings nourish your spirit of adventure and round out your menus.

Meal Planning at the Farmers Market

Step 1. Quantify

Think about how many meals you want to get from your purchases (e.g. 4 dinners, 5 lunches), and be sure to have that many main course ideas (vegetables being the centerpiece) given that a few will probably repeat.

At this point it is okay to have one or two things in mind you know you want to make, but the rest of your meals should be inspired by wandering through the aisles and seeing what catches your eye.

Step 2. Visualize

As you discover which foods will be the focal points of your meals, start to think about how you might like them cooked (even if you don’t know how). Think about what other flavors usually taste good with what you’re buying–consider herbs (parsley, thyme, mint, cilantro, etc.), proteins (meats, fish, eggs, legumes) and side dishes.

If you can’t think of anything, try to remember how these foods have been served to you in a restaurant. If you still aren’t sure what other flavors would be a good choice, ask the vendor you are buying from. Farmers are usually pretty good at cooking the foods they grow.

Step 3. Consolidate

For all the different ideas you had for meals, think of those with common flavors. Look for similarities between the dishes and overlapping ingredients. For example, most dishes will need some kind of onion, garlic or both. The farmers market is also a great place to get herbs and spices.

Look around and see what is available, purchasing the ingredients that are the most versatile. Flavors that can be included in several different dishes also give you the flexibility to change up your meal plans in middle of the week if you are suddenly struck with inspiration.

Step 4. Collect

As your ideas solidify, be sure to collect all the elements you need. iPhone apps can be particularly helpful with this if you want to double check ingredient lists. Because most popular recipes are born from available seasonal ingredients, it is likely you will find everything you need while shopping at the farmers market. If not, you might need to pick up the rest of your ingredients at a regular grocery store–not the end of the world.

To make sure you don’t forget anything, think about each dish individually and deconstruct each of the elements in your mind. This will jog your memory if you forgot to grab a lemon or some garlic.

Step 5. Plan

It is good to have a rough idea of when you are going to eat each of the meals you visualized. Some vegetables hold up better than others over the course of a week in the refrigerator. Plan to eat the most delicate produce in the first day or two, and save the hearty kale and broccoli for later in the week. Here are some tips to keep produce fresh.

Conclusion

Creative shopping without lists takes some practice, but you don’t have to be a master chef or flavor expert to get it right. When cooking with delicious, seasonal ingredients you can’t go wrong with simplicity. Start with the basics and work your way up as you get more comfortable in the kitchen and at the market.

Do you use shopping lists?

Originally published January 20, 2010.

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Top 10 Food and Health Podcasts

by | Oct 14, 2009

podcastFor busy urbanites, audio resources are priceless. Here I’ve ranked the 10 Food and Health podcasts I can’t live without.

The amount of time I spend each day commuting, doing lab work, shopping, cooking, waiting for people and avoiding pointless conversations would be unbearably painful without my trusty headphones. Now instead of wasting all this time, I use it to learn about my favorite things: food and health.

Podcasts are wonderful audio resources, perfect for keeping up on foodie news and finding inspiration for new culinary adventures. (I’m also addicted to audiobooks from Audible.)

Great podcasts are defined by the personality of their host. Foodies are passionate people and the best hosts effortlessly broadcast their love of everything culinary through a medium that transmits neither taste nor smell. Amazing when you think about it.

These podcasts are truly inspiring and always leave me hungry for more.

ST_symbol_25x25 Tip! Set your iTunes settings to play back at 2x speed to cut your listening time in half. Videos only play at standard speed.

Top 10 Food and Health Podcasts

Times listed are at standard play speed

1. KCRW’s Good Food

(1 hour)

KCRW Santa Monica has an amazing weekly podcast exploring all things food. Host Evan Kleiman shares stories and food narratives from around the country, while Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold explores the vibrant LA food scene. I especially like Laura Avery’s Market Report from the Santa Monica farmers market, a glimpse into what ingredients LA chefs are excited about through the seasons.

2. Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie

(30 minutes video)

Though we were all devastated by the news of Gourmets closing, it hit me extra hard when I thought we might be losing their brilliant podcast as well. Luckily, Diary of a Foodie is scheduled to stay. If you love to travel and explore international cooking you will be instantly hooked on this utterly brilliant glimpse into native cuisines around the globe. But be warned, this podcast is a video and can make short time of your player’s battery.

3. APM: The Splendid Table

(50 minutes)

Lynne Rossetto Kasper is an enchanting radio personality with a seemingly limitless knowledge and appreciation for food. Some of the most fascinating bits of information come from her answering callers’ questions about interesting dishes they’ve discovered or what to do with a special ingredient.

4. Nutrition Diva

(5-10 minutes)

I have yet to find a nutrition expert on the internet I trust more than Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva. This quick and informative podcast is a fun and convenient supplement to her spectacular Nutrition Data blog.

5. The Restaurant Guys

(40 minutes)

Smart and irreverent, Mark Pascal and Francis Schott, tackle food issues big and small. The New Jersey based radio team has been described as “Car Talk for food.”

6. Munchcast

(30-60 minutes)

Though far from healthy, this junk food based podcast with San Francisco radio personality Cammy Blackstone and geek foodie Leo Laporte is both hilarious and informative, and definitely worth working into your listening schedule. Haven’t you ever wondered who invented the Jello shot?

7. The Minimalist

(3-5 minutes video)

I love Mark Bittman (New York Times) for many reasons, not the least of which is his ability to bridge the gap between culinary decadence and mostly-healthy delicacies. These short videos are perfect mini cooking lessons for urbanites on the go.

8. NPR: Food Podcast

(5-40 minutes)

National Public Radio has a knack for putting together quality radio shows, and NPR Food is no exception. Food stories from around the nation are interesting, informative and inspiring.

9. Epicurious

(3 minutes video)

Guest chefs and mixologists share their quick lessons on how to cook, shop, mix drinks and live like a foodie.

10. NPR: Your Health

(15-30 minutes)

Not exclusively food-related, but filled with useful health news and information.

What food and health podcasts do you love?

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What’s For Dinner? Ask Your iPhone

by | May 11, 2009

locavore-app

Healthy eating can sometimes seem like a daunting task. You know you should be eating local, seasonal ingredients and lots of vegetables, but how do you know what to get? Once you have it, how do you cook it?

Enter iPhone. I can confidently say that my iPhone has made my life more convenient than any single electronic device since my first laptop. Sure plain cell phones are great, but honestly text messages annoy me more than they improve my quality of life.

An iPhone offers so much more than calls and texts, especially when you delve into the world of applications or “apps.” Apps are third party software programs that can be downloaded to your phone to perform specific (usually awesome) functions. Apps are what set iPhone apart from all other phones. Today I’m going to tell you about two apps in particular–Locavore and Epicurious–that can be used together to help you decide what to do for dinner.

Locavore ($3) is an app that finds all the farmers markets near you along with the produce in season in your area. It does this according to your physical location on earth using the built in iPhone GPS. Isn’t that brilliant? (Yes, I’m totally jealous that I didn’t make this app myself.)

I get questions every week about how to find a good farmers market in a given area. Honestly I had never had an answer much better than “Google it.” With Locavore’s “Markets” feature, you get a list of farmers markets in your area ranked by their distance to you. If you click on the market you want to visit it gives you all the essential information, such as what time of year it runs and its hours of operation. Locavore also allows you to browse by region (U.S. only) or specific food to find seasonal availability.

The farmers market information used by Locavore is from a website called Local Harvest. Even if you do not have an iPhone Local Harvest is a fantastic resource for finding farms, markets and CSAs near you. When you have located the market you would like to go to be sure to check near the bottom of the information paragraph for the last time the site was updated. In my experience farmers are not particularly tech savvy and often forget to update their websites. I always recommend calling before you go, just to confirm the market still exists and hasn’t changed its hours.

In the Locavore app, once you have found your market you can check the “In Season” feature. This will give you a list of items that are supposed to be in season in your area (information gathered from the Natural Resources Defense Council website).

Unfortunately, the list is more an approximation of reality than a true market browse through. I’ve been following my own market on Locavore since I first downloaded the app several weeks ago, and I’d say it is about 90% accurate. Definitely I have seen the list include some items that are not available and I would not expect to be available this time of year in my area (e.g. boysenberries). Also, my market is large and specialized enough that there are always unique finds that the NRDC does not know about.

You can, however, get an idea of items that should be easy to find. To avoid hunting down ingredients that may not be available, be sure to check the pie graph icons to the left of each item. These represent the number of months left until that specific vegetable or fruit goes out of season (again, this is approximate and depends substantially on the weather). If there is less than one month left, you probably shouldn’t plan your entire meal around that one ingredient since there is a good chance it won’t be there. If the pie is full (green), that means you can find the item year round in your area. In general, the Locavore produce list is fairly thorough and accurate and can be used to create a seasonal dinner menu.

One of the coolest features of Locavore is its connection to the recipe website Epicurious. If you find a seasonal ingredient you would like to try but need ideas on how to prepare it, simply click the item and a page will open to show you all the states it is available along with the its Wikipedia listing (in case you aren’t sure exactly what it is) and a link to Epicurious. If you follow the Epicurious link it takes you to a list of recipes using your ingredient. Click the dish that sounds the most delicious and get a complete recipe and shepicurious-appopping list. Use this to make sure you get all the ingredients you need at the market.

Conveniently Epicurious has its own app (free) if you already know the ingredient you want to use and do not need to find a farmers market. You can search by meal, event or specific ingredient, and create shopping lists for your favorite recipes. As you can imagine, I’m particularly fond of the “Healthy Lunches” option. Another bonus is the Epicurious app contains the entire contents of the Big Yellow Cookbook by Gourmet.

Overall Locavore and Epicurious are both fantastic apps for anyone interested in cooking local, seasonal meals. Together they are a powerful resource for finding ingredients and cooking the best seasonal meals possible.

Have you used either the Locavore or Epicurious iPhone apps?

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