Is it possible to meal plan and eat seasonally?

I love order, probably beyond a healthy level.  When I plan meals for the week, I take comfort in knowing what exactly I will buy at the grocery store, being certain that we have all the ingredients we need.  But I also love supporting local farms and tasting the delicious fresh bounty that the perfect soil, good weather conditions, and the right timing make possible.  I have struggled: Can I honor both?  Is it possible to maintain my meal plan but also eat seasonally and locally?

It's not exactly easy.  There is inevitable chance that accompanies a commitment to seasonal and local eating.  Sometimes the weather doesn't cooperate or pests destroy lots of the crop or things otherwise just do not go according to plan.  The risk inherent to seasonal and local eating complicates attempts to impose structure on my weekly menus.

But, after a few years of learning to go with the flow without letting go of the idea of structure completely, I have found a few strategies that enable me to keep a (relatively) tidy weekly meal calendar and appreciate the sweet fruits of the summer and root vegetables of the fall.  

Here are my tips:

1.  Subscribe to a weekly local produce delivery service or CSA.

If it is automatic, there's less temptation to skip the trip to the farmers market and rely solely on the grocery store.  We use a doorstep delivery service because we've discovered that traffic is too much of a deterrent to picking up a CSA box each week.  While I love going to the farmers market, it's not feasible for my schedule right now to go every week.  The subscription option is a painless solution to our complaints about lack of time.



2.  Customize your local produce options if possible.

We can swap a few ingredients out of our weekly box.  I know that we don't enjoy spinach very much, so I might opt for extra kale or butternut squash the weeks that it makes an appearance.  That said, I do try to stretch our tastebuds.  I'll usually give every ingredient a try at least once during the season.  Sometimes experimentation with cooking method or repeated exposure leads us to acquire a taste for less loved vegetables.



3.  Follow several favorite food blogs or earmark recipes to try in current magazine issues.

Food bloggers tend to highlight seasonal flavors, as do magazines.  Commit to adding a few into your meal rotation.  I'll bookmark recipes that sound intriguing and then place them into my Google calendar.  I can play around with exactly when I make which recipe, but reading about current food trends means that my menu naturally features stews in the winter and crisp salads in the summer.



4.  Be flexible with your ingredients.

Compare your local produce for the week with your tentative meal plan and tweak accordingly.  Swap out sweet potatoes for butternut squash or arugula for baby kale.  What I find to be key with playing with vegetables is water content: Any vegetable of relatively similar water content can replace another.  The flavor may differ, but a shepherd's pie with parsnips and broccoli totally can work, as can enchiladas with peas and carrots (In other words, don't substitute mushrooms for potatoes).  You may choose to scrap some recipes altogether and take your cue from the produce, but often times recipes can be reinvented depending on what you have on hand.



5.  Make extra and freeze.

On weeks that you end up with more produce than you know what to do with, double your recipes to freeze.  Soups and pasta sauces work beautiful, as do pureed fruit and vegetable cubes for smoothies.  If you have the freezer space, greens freeze fine without any preparation: next time you make a smoothie, simply grab a handful of frozen leaves and add them to the blender for extra nutrition and a thick, icy texture.



6.  Build in an improv night.

Most people have leftovers night, so consider also adding a night to improvise based on what you have in your fridge.  You may want to designate a certain day of the week to do this--every Thursday, for instance, is your wing it meal--or flex it depending on the particular week's rhythms.  Some meals will be better than others, but I guarantee you will end up with a few favorites.  My family never would have never discovered how much we liked oven baked flatbreads with pizza sauce and roasted vegetables if not for this principle.



7.  Vegetables aren't just for dinner, and fruit isn't just for snacks.

Make it easy to load your entire day up with produce by prepping ahead of time.  Roast the parsnips and delicata squash from your produce basket for salads, grate the tough September zucchini for zucchini bread, and add finely chopped apples to slaw.  Thinking beyond the dinner meal means that produce is less likely to go bad after weeks of sitting in the crisper drawer and opens up new recipe and preparation ideas.

We're definitely not perfect over at my house, but we're learning, and we're getting better as the years go by.  How do you balance the unpredictability of local harvests with your grocery shopping and cooking routines?