Meal-planning is hailed as the number one tip for saving money in the kitchen and avoiding food waste. And it really does do both of those things! But I find that when everything is coming in the garden, it becomes rather difficult to plan far ahead.
Why? Well, it’s hard to know sometimes whether the zucchini will be ripe by Tuesday or Thursday. You can’t predict whether or not an insect will come along and wipe out those kale leaves you had in mind for tomorrow’s meal. And beyond that, food preservation calls regularly during garden season. More time on preservation means less time on meal planning or cooking. You just can’t do it all in one day.
You need to keep up with your garden first, meal plan second. And your meal planning may become a little bit unconventional. Here’s some ways to adapt meal-planning wisdom to a full-garden schedule.
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1) Observe your garden daily. My husband usually does this for me. He reports regularly what’s almost ready to be harvested. Consider jotting down in a garden notebook what is ripening so that you won’t accidentally leave a crop behind. (I just thought of that. I think I need to start doing it.)
2) Plan in short term increments. Meal-planners often suggest planning a week or two in advance- or even a month! This is quite doable in the off-season for me, but certainly not when I’m dealing with vine/bush/dirt-fresh produce. Plan your meals just a few days in advance based on your garden observations.
3) Plan preservation along with meals. When bumper crops of green beans are coming out your ears, consider taking a portion of those sliced green beans you were prepping for the freezer and cook them up on the side for that night’s dinner. When you’re ready to can your big batch of tomato sauce, whip out some pasta for dinner so you can enjoy that sauce as fresh as it comes. Apply as needed to whatever crop is plentiful at the time.
4) Focus on the garden- not your store trips. Why focus on buying ingredients for meals when I have the freshest, local-est produce available to me in my back yard? In the summer, I tend to think of the store as a way to stock staples, not a way to plan meals. I purchase such regulars as pasta, rice, coffee, flour, beans, etc.- and then just use them as needed alongside the garden’s production.
5) Be flexible. Try not to plan around very specific recipes unless you just happen to have those very specific ingredients available. I tend to think in terms of “zucchini + meat + veggie skillet,” not “Pan-fried zucchini with corn, onions, tomatoes, fresh basil, and Italian sausage.” I just use whatever is ready, and happily change or adapt recipes to fit what’s growing. (This approach made me nervous at first, but I’ve gotten better at it over time.)
6) Make your crops multi-task. if you’ve got an extremely large batch of beets, try planning for two or three meals that week that feature beets in varied ways. (Along with whatever method of preservation you’re planning.) It will save you time and hassle for the days to come.
What if planning only a few days ahead is too hectic for me?
If your schedule doesn’t permit short-term planning and spontaneity, consider doing your planning based on last week’s crops. Last week you harvested tomatoes, peppers, and onions, so this week you will plan Mexican night with fresh salsa, Caprese salad, and Italian pasta. You can still eat seasonally fresh produce, even if you have to store your pickings for a week before you get to it. (Just make sure you rotate stock to use the oldest produce first.)
What about when the garden is out of season?
That’s the beautiful part of garden preservation. You can water-bath can pasta sauce, salsa, pickles, and jams of all sorts in advance. If you have a pressure canner, you can make up a huge batch of chicken soup and can in quart jars to open up in winter months when you’re craving it. You can dehydrate your fresh herbs so you can stock your own spice cabinet and herbal tea stash year-round. You can prepare freezer meals with your fresh produce, instead of just freezing the produce alone.
Then when the winter months come? Meal planning is as easy as checking your pantry and throwing together what’s in there. It’ll taste about fifty times fresher than the blah canned stuff you can buy at the grocery, and it will save you time and money too. That’s when you can easily plan a few weeks in advance.
How do you plan your meals during garden season?