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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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For The Love Of Food

by | Nov 18, 2011

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

Lots of talk this week about the pros and cons of local foods. Also, congress says pizza is a vegetable, heritage turkeys are the greatest thing since bacon and coffee/tea may reduce your risk of mercury exposure from fish.

Want to see all my favorite links? Be sure to follow me on on Digg. I also share links on Twitter (@summertomato), Google+ and the Summer Tomato Facebook page. I’m very active on all these sites and would love to connect with you.

Links of the week


What inspired you this week?

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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Seasonal Shopping

by | Apr 13, 2009
Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom Tomatoes

Every Saturday morning I wake up as early as I can (usually not very early) and head to the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to buy my vegetables for the week. Seasonal vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet, and buying them each week is the single most important step you can take to upgrade your healthstyle.

(This post is part three of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry and part two is Essential Groceries. Subscribe to Summer Tomato to get more free healthy eating tips)

Why Vegetables?

Decades of research on diet, nutrition and health have universally confirmed that a vegetable-based diet can reduce your risk of (and even reverse) almost every disease. Debates still rage regarding the mechanism by which vegetables improve health (Is it because they replace bad foods? Contain antioxidants? Are low in calories? Low in fat? Low in protein? Have low glycemic index?), but for you and me the reason doesn’t really matter. The important point is that vegetables are proven to make you healthy. Those other questions are only important to people who want to bottle that benefit and sell it to you at a premium.

Interestingly, one of the most consistent findings in nutrition science is that any attempt to isolate a specific element of food and create a useful dietary supplement fails to mimic the benefits of the whole food. The lesson from all of this is that you are much better off spending your money on vegetables and other whole foods than on nutritional supplements.

Why Seasonal?

If you have ever wondered how much vitamin C is in a tomato, please stop. The idea that one tomato is the same as the next is ludicrous, yet this is the kind of logic we have accepted from grocery stores and the food industry in general.

Anyone with taste buds can immediately tell the difference between a sweet, ripe heirloom tomato at the height of summer and a mealy red beefsteak from your grocery store in December. These foods taste wildly different because of how they were grown, so doesn’t it stand to reason that they may have different nutrient levels as well?

In fact, there is a tremendous difference in nutritional quality of foods grown in the correct season and in good soil. Seasonal organic produce is substantially better for you than the conventional produce at Safeway, and this difference is reflected in how your food tastes.

For these reasons, shopping in season can do wonders for how you think about vegetables. A salad may sound boring to you, but how about miner’s lettuce tossed with arugula, Tokyo turnips, Mediterranean cucumbers, ruby grapefruit and sliced almonds? If you are more excited to eat vegetables because they look, sound, smell and taste delicious, then you will lose weight and become healthier by default. Your daily greens will be a joy, not a chore.

Seasonal produce is also more affordable than out of season produce that was grown in a greenhouse or shipped halfway around the world.

How To Shop Seasonally

Farmers Markets

As I mentioned above, my preferred place to shop for vegetables is my local farmers market on Saturday. Farmers markets are wonderful because you have access to the freshest local and seasonal vegetables available, usually just picked the day before. This means that not only are you guaranteed vegetables at the peak of their season, you can even go from stand to stand and find the batch you like best. You can also discover interesting and unique offerings (like the chocolate persimmon), and build relationships with local farmers. If you are lucky enough to have a weekly farmers market in your area, it is certainly worth it to commit yourself to go every week.

Read this blog on Saturdays to keep up with local finds in the Bay Area and California in general.

CSAs

Unfortunately, farmers markets are not practical for everyone. Some people have time constraints that prevent them from attending a weekly market. Luckily there are some alternatives available. One option is the CSA, or Community-Supported Agriculture. When you subscribe to a CSA you have pledged support for a particular farm (or sometimes a group of farms), and in exchange receive a box of seasonal produce each week or on an agreed schedule. The biggest convenience of joining a CSA is that the times arranged for delivery or pick up are much more flexible than the weekly market. There are CSAs for vegetables, as well as meat and dairy.

From what I understand, individual CSAs can vary substantially in how they are run and what they provide. If you are interested in finding a CSA in your area, I recommend spending some time researching your options and deciding what works best for you.

I have personally never belonged to a CSA and would love to hear about your experiences if you have.

Local Produce Markets

Even without a farmers market or CSA it possible to shop in season. Most cities and suburban areas have local produce markets and/or health food stores that focus on fresh vegetables. While not everything in these markets will be seasonal and local, they usually provide a nice alternative to large chain grocery stores to at least supplement your produce shopping. For more information you can read my article about how to find local produce markets in your area.

Grocery Stores

Even if none of these options are available in your neighborhood, it is still likely that the most affordable and best tasting food at your regular grocery store is whatever happens to be in season. Thus it is still worth it to keep up on local produce trends in your area.

Conclusions

Eating your vegetables is the most important thing you can do for your health, and neither nutritional supplements nor regular workouts can substitute for a healthy diet. Whether you have access to farmers markets or not, you are better off eating any vegetables than no vegetables at all. The same is true if you are considering conventional vs. organic produce.

If farmers markets are not available to you year-round there are many ways to get seasonal vegetables and fruits. But the first step is committing to your health and your future by making sure seasonal, fresh vegetables are a part of your personal healthstyle.

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Is Organic Food Really Better?

by | Mar 23, 2009

organic artichokesIt seems all the nation is abuzz with organic fever. The number of farmers markets has increased dramatically in the past several years, sales of organic products have more than doubled and even the new First Family has jumped on the organic bandwagon.

But in uncertain economic times, some people are asking if the higher cost of organic foods is worth the benefit. And when it comes down to it, what benefit are we really talking about anyway?

When discussing organic food, most people are referring to food that complies with and has been accepted as “Certified Organic” by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). USDA’s Organic Standards were set in 2002, twelve years after the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

In order for a food to become Certified Organic, the grower of the food must be inspected for compliance with the USDA’s “Organic Standards” by an accredited state or private agency. Generally this means the foods are free of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, and have not been irradiated or genetically modified in any way.

There is extensive evidence that adults and children who eat exclusively organic foods have lower levels of pesticides in their bodies. How these pesticides can affect your long-term health is not clear, but they are unlikely to make you healthier and may in fact have lasting, negative consequences. If pesticides are a concern to you, organic is certainly a better option.

Beyond pesticides, the benefit of organic foods becomes a little murky. As recently pointed out by Mark Bittman in the New York Times, organic certification offers no guarantee that foods are either better for you or for the planet.

But that is not to say that how food is grown is not important. Soil quality is in fact one of the most significant determinants of the nutrient value of foods. Another important factor is the genetic make up (the strain and variety) of plants being grown. That is, ice burg lettuce will add little value to your diet whether it is organic or not.

But as Bittman points out, the reason Certified Organics “fall short of the lofty dreams of early organic farmers and consumers” is because Organic Standards make no mention of how far food may travel from soil to sale, nor do they promise anything about a food’s safety or nutrition. In other words, organic food is not local food.

It is generally accepted that the farther food travels to reach your plate, the less nutrients it has and the bigger its carbon footprint. Slapping a Certified Organic sticker on it does not change this fact. Better than buying Certified Organic is shopping at smaller, local farms that may or may not have the resources to comply with costly organic regulations.

But these subtle distinctions are largely irrelevant to most American’s who consume little, if any, fresh vegetables and fruits. At a certain point, arguing about the costs and benefits of organic produce is of little value. For most Americans, the first step in eating healthier is to focus on freshness.

That being said, there are many good reasons to avoid big agriculture whenever possible, organic or not. Whole Foods organic peanuts were not immune from the recent Salmonella outbreak. Large processing plants come with their own unique set of risks in food production.

Local produce is also better if money is your biggest concern. The fuel cost of shipping organic asparagus from Chile to San Francisco is substantial, as is the price of becoming a Certified Organic grower. For these reasons, locally grown but non-organic foods are less likely to carry the hefty price tag that most of us associate with Certified Organic.

Do you buy organic produce?

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