Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: On Gradually Achieving a Sustainable Local Diet - Meal Planning

Saturday, July 12, 2008

On Gradually Achieving a Sustainable Local Diet - Meal Planning

This first post is going to be about meal planning. What I hope will be a brief (for me) introduction to planning meals which are easy to prepare, that also reduce waste, environmental impact, and cost without having to eat the same thing every night.

This might seem obvious, but to someone whose diet consists largely of takeout or prepared foods, the first step to meal planning is to learn what you like. A couple of years ago, when I first started learning how to cook, the only thing I could ever think to make was a replication of the errant things I ate at restaurants or that came out of a box. Obviously, many of the ingredients didn’t go together, and I wasted a lot of food. I also got bored with those options, and as a result, returned to a diet largely consisting of takeout and boxed foods.

I have become a strong believer in the “cultural diet”, where your diet is comprised of foods from predominantly one culture. The reason I think this is an appropriate and easy way to eat is this: a cultural diet comes about for a reason; the diet consists of foodstuffs available to that particular area, and in combinations that extract the most nutrition from the resources available. Basically, cultural cuisine is interchangeable and relies on what’s abundant. If you live in a semi-temperate climate, you can largely have free choice in the cultural cuisine you choose, and even with dietary restrictions, like eating a mostly vegan diet as I do, knowing what cuisine you like can help you form a base for your meal planning.

Well, what I did was look to the places I went out to eat, the boxed food I ate, what cuisine did it fall under? Was there a trend? For me, there was, it was Mexican food. So I decided to pursue Mexican cooking, and suddenly many doors opened up for me.

This, of course, does not mean that I only eat Mexican food, what it means is that my diet largely consists of Mexican food because pinto beans, black beans, brown rice, tomatoes, peppers – all of these things that I like and keep on hand – are interchangeable in most Mexican dishes. You can put essentially the same things together, with various spice combinations and it’s something completely different. So, sticking primarily to a favored cuisine can be seen as the lazy person’s way of getting optimal nutrition with the least amount of effort and resources.

Once you determine what you like (and what you don’t like, but this also comes with time and experience), you should determine what your protein base is going to be. If you are a vegetarian or vegan, will it be beans and rice? Tofu? Tempeh or seitan? Can those items be found locally or from a bulk cooperative? If you are an omnivore, will this be fish? Red meat? Poultry? A combination? Again, are these things that can be locally or sustainably sourced?

You can use your preferred cultural cuisine and protein base as a good starting point for finding a battery of recipes that you (and your family) like.

When looking for recipes, look for ones with interchangeable ingredients, detailed instructions, and familiar terminology, this leads to more clarity in the kitchen (it also helps to make sure you have suitable equipment). At first, look for basic recipes, and have some sort of back up. You have to convince yourself that it’s alright not to like something, or this process will be torture for you. Have a frozen pizza or a takeout place on speed dial in case things don’t work out. If you tolerate food you do not like, you will never enjoy eating sustainably, and what’s the point of eating if you don’t enjoy your food? Mere survival? Psh! I’m not satisfied with that. Don’t worry about the additional waste this might produce. It’s only temporary, and there are ways of making food waste less of a source of guilt that I’ll touch on in a later post.

I don’t recommend inundating yourself with tons of new recipes all at once, unless you are really ambitious. It took me almost a year to become a vegetarian, and it has taken Brett and me five years to get to the point we are, so this is a process. And recipes don’t work out, ideas don’t go according to plan, it happens. We tried 1-3 new recipes a week and had a back up plan of very tried and true foods in case of failure, even if they are processed foods, you have to start where you are. Over time, some of those recipes will become integrated into your “routine”. Once you have a large enough battery of recipes, begin to look at staple ingredients. What is used most often in all your recipes? Is this something you could feasibly have access to year round? If not, this should be placed into your “seasonal” routine.

So how do you plan meals that don’t involve unnecessary waste? Well, you must be willing to innovate, working with what you have and what’s available. Once you’ve gathered an arsenal of knowledge and experience, keep a mental (or literal) inventory of what you have on hand when you go to the farmer’s market or grocery store and find ingredients that you use often, but are seasonal or non-perishable. Bring them home, assess your new “inventory” and work from there.

I will lead off with an example from our household: This week, I have left over cabbage, egg roll wrappers, refried beans, some “aging” brown rice, and pesto. When we went to the market we got our CSA, which included many staple items we usually use, we also picked up some additional staple items that were available from the farmer’s market. After consulting our “tested and approved” recipes, and the ones I've created or found that we want to try, we came up with the following meal plan, which includes something different everyday of the week and a very small list for the grocery store. We will be having eggrolls with Leng’s Green Beans and Tomatoes (we have leftover eggroll wrappers and cabbage, we got shiitake mushrooms and carrots at the farmer’s market, and got collard greens, green beans and tomatoes in our CSA share); Black Bean Quesadillas (we bought 25 lbs of bulk organic black beans awhile back which we'll cook up a large batch of and eat on throughout the week, we got sweet corn and peppers at the farmer’s market, and we already had salsa and tortillas at home); Pesto Sandwiches with Roasted Beets and Sautéed Beet Greens (I had some leftover pesto and spinach, got tomatoes and beets in our CSA, and bought a petite loaf of bread from the grocery store); Black Bean Burgers (we will have cooked black beans, aging rice, frozen burger buns that need to be used, Matzoh meal that needs to be used, spinach that needs to be used, and we got tomatoes and sweet corn from the farmer’s market); Black Bean and Potato Tacos (black beans from home, we got potatoes in our CSA and more from the market, we got peppers and tomatoes from the market, and will need to buy some black olives); Black Bean, Corn, and Chile Quesadillas (black beans from home, zucchini from our CSA, corn, jalapeno peppers, and bell peppers we got from the farmer’s market; and finally, Roasted Potato and Black Bean Quesadillas (black beans from home, potatoes from CSA, yellow squash from our CSA, and the rest of sweet corn from farmer’s market).

This meal plan will utilize all perishable items we have in the apartment and only require us to buy the following from the “regular” grocery store: a petite loaf of bread, whole wheat bagels, sriracha hot sauce, almond milk, a lime, black olives, and taco shells. Some of this stuff will last beyond this week. We’ve already paid for our CSA (I will explain that in the next post), we spent $22 at the farmer’s market (you will see our load in the Garden Update that I will be posting soon), and $16 at the grocery store, granted we still have to get the lime, olives, and taco shells, but I can’t imagine that costing too much. Point is, with a little bit of planning and effort we are going to eat seven different, mostly local meals, for around $50.

I have to say here – it is important to be honest with yourself about your cooking style. If you do not like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, accept that and seek out – or better yet create – recipes that are simple but tasty and nutritious. If you or your family don’t like a certain food, healthy or not, don’t eat it! We seek these lifestyle changes for good and altruistic reasons, but we should also be able to enjoy the change as well. I like to view learning to cook new things as a positive challenge that I can tackle. I think about it like this: Sure, I don’t know how to do that now, but a few years ago I couldn’t do this and now it’s second nature. Be confident in yourself - that is important.

My advice doesn’t provide a lot of specifics, I know. I simply advocate a cultural diet that is looked at holistically – it will be easier, and often less wasteful that way. Learn the cuisine, the flavor combinations, the interchangeable ingredients, and find ways to source them, as locally as possible. Learn how to work with what you have on hand and what is available and keep it simple, always be willing to innovate while accepting and preparing for failure. Simple meals are easy to prepare, and are often the best ones. I don’t go to the farmer’s market and buy random items that I’ve never had before. Most of my “experimental” foods are often a result of unexpected items in our CSA, some we like (beets and collard greens), some we don’t (radishes). I pretty much stick to the items that are staples in the cuisine of my choosing: Mexican. This means a lot of beans, rice, tomatoes, chilies, corn, potatoes, and tortillas for a vegetarian, but I love these things.

And I stick to my meal plan, this I can’t stress enough, if you have things planned in ways that utilize all you have on hand, and then decide to go out to eat, food will be wasted. It is hard if you are in the habit of eating takeout all the time, but stick with it (perhaps join Chile’s challenge and make that what you “quit”). If friends suggest going out to eat, suggest they come over for a meal at your place, show off your cooking skills, spend some quality time with those you care about in a setting that doesn’t require spending a lot of money. Once you get out of the habit of eating out every night, you can start to view it as a luxury, to be done as a treat every once in awhile. And who knows, maybe you can start a new, perhaps more rewarding tradition with your friends.

'Til next time.


ChickPea said...

Quite the fascinating and informative post, Jennifer. I really enjoyed reading how you've come to eat the way you do in terms of type of cuisine, etc. I just started reading Animal, Vegetable, Mineral by Barbara Kingsolver, so my mind has been digesting the advantages of local eating lately.

Alice (in Veganland) said...

I love this kind of posts :-). I've been trying to eat local the past weeks, and I often have this problem: I don't know where my beans come from. It's impossible to find out from the packet. I buy organic, but I'm guessing they come from faaaar away. Anyway. At least we're buying the veggies from our trusted guy in the farmer's market...

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Chickpea - Thank you. I've seen some things around the blogosphere and have wanted to share my "advice" on diet for awhile, I had just never seen the opportunity or been able to organize my thoughts into a coherent post.

I haven't read that book, but I know a lot of people have found it very influential. To me, eating locally is just common sense for a number of reasons (many I will touch on in the posts to follow in the series), but most importantly, it tastes so much better, more money stays in your community, less food miles are involved in your meals. The only downfalls really are the limits to what can be grown in your region, and seasonality, but if you preserve while fresh food is abundant, you can in some ways get around the seasonality part.

Alice - No problem. A couple of things about your beans (I will be touching on this more in detail in the coming posts), perhaps there is a cooperative or somewhere that you can purchase your beans in bulk (large quantitites), you can usally do a little research at these places and find out where your beans come from. Even if your beans do come from far away (our 25 lb bag of adzuki beans came from China, but the rest were sourced from the US), they have a fairly shelf stable and are likely to have been shipped to you by boat, if the item has a longer shelf life, they don't generally waste the money to have things like beans flown in. If you buy these non-perishable items that must be imported in bulk, you will save on your overall "food miles". Depending on where you live, you can only do so much. Sadly, beans can actually be grown in Missouri, but there isn't much of a market for them (beyond soybeans), so most of the beans we buy here in Missouri are grown in California.

You are already doing a lot by shopping at the farmer's market. Take advantage of it as best as you can, and if time, money, or motivation allows, think about preserving some of it for the winter months.

Cookiemouse said...

Your idea of eating a "cultural diet" is right on. For me that would have to be a Mediterranean diet with olives, olive oil, wine vinegar, lots of fresh citrus fruits and salads, courgettes, tons of garlic and good wine, all preferably from my own garden. That would be about as local as it could get. So now all I have to do is move to the Med!

Lisa (Show Me Vegan) said...

I've also been trying to waste less by first seeing what veggies I have on hand and THEN deciding what the meal will be. Although I do enjoy eating out, eating at home is almost always more healthful, and often tastier. Thanks for a post to get us thinking.

Anonymous said...

While I am not a fan of the heat that comes with summer, I DO love summer because it is so much easier to eat local, sustainable, and organic. I walked to the farmers market both yesterday and today, and as a result, I hardly had to buy anything at the "real" grocery store. I love supporting the local farmers, and I save money at the same time--what a deal!

So many people seem intimidated by meal planning/cooking, and your post made so many good suggestions and points. I am looking forward to reading your next post!


callina said...

Great advice--I should be more conscious of this the next time I do some major grocery shopping. If I just put a little effort into it, I think it would really pay off. I think I'm halfway there--most of the stuff I cook is either Italian or Mexican, so I'm not so all over the place, but I bet I could do a better job if I thought about it a little more.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Cookiemouse - Thank you. You're right about where you need to be, and when you get there, you can send me some of your homegrown olives and wine vinegars. I'd have to send some salsa or peppers in return though, it would only be fair. ;-)

Lisa - It's hard to do at first, but you even end up saving money in the end so to me, its a win-win situation, and it forces me to be creative.

I too enjoy a nice meal out from time to time, and don't think we shouldn't have one, I just think it should be just that, from time to time.

Courtney - I know, summer does make it much easier, the winter poses a challenge, and as the years go on, I hope to be able to prepare for that more and more, by preserving, growing what I can indoors. My eventual hope is to have a modest greenhouse attached to my home instead of a porch, then I would be good to go year 'round.

And you're right, you DO save money, who doesn't like that!

I know, I used to be one of them, it took me awhile to get comfortable in the kitchen, get an idea what I like, what that involved, all that, but once I did, it made things a lot easier, and I don't feel boxed in. I get to try new recipes all the time, enjoy great food, but it takes some thought.

Callina - I don't mean to make you feel bad about your habits, please don't beat yourself up. It takes time to get to where you know what you like, what you need to keep on hand, how to procure it, all that.

But you are right, it does take time and effort, you have to be willing to think on the fly and work with what you have on hand, you'll get there though.

And Italian and Mexican, those are good cuisines to like if you want to live local in Missouri.

You have to have a large battery of recipes to choose from, and a mental inventory of what you have. Depending on your tastes, this could take awhile. Something to think about for next year, if you like perhaps you, Andrew, Brett, and myself could go in on a full share CSA, we would get more food for less money than buying individual shares, and well, you'll have a buddy to try to figure out to do with some of the stuff you get. I wish I had had someone this year who was a master of making radishes taste good or to tell me what to do with beets.

I do have to state again for the record, of course you could do better, I could do better, most other people could still do better, but it's important to recognize the value in understanding that. Are you getting excited to move back to the Show Me State?

Do Andrew's parents live in Missouri? I saw you said you guys were going to be staying with them for a little while. If you are looking for a job in CoMo, start hitting up MU's job website now. You can get a decent paying job at the university with good benefits. It just takes for flippin' ever to get in for an interview. Probably a good place to start though.

jessy said...

meal planning is indeed the way to go! i meal plan every wednesday for dan & i and it saves us money, food waste, etc. i love it! i usually plan for 5 dinners and 5 lunches to take to work. i don't know how we did this before meal planning - it was a mess, and pretty wasteful, too.

this post is another great one, Jennifer! and it's reminding me that we need to take advantage of more local produce & the farmer's market! while we're still on a CSA wait list (we're on 2 wait lists and have been on both for 2 years now) we need to get our butts to the market every weekend, and there's actually a local grocery store chain here in richmond that offers a lot of local yummies, too. i need to make a point to buy more local & in season, indeed! thanks for all the wonderful advice, tips, and information - you rock so hard! :D

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Jessy - That sounds like a great way to plan! Brett and I noticed almost immedietly that we had less waste and saved money, and we no longer had that guilt that came with "cleaning out the fridge" (aka throwing lots of food into the trash can that is various stages of decay).

Oh, no problem at all. And you rock pretty hard yourself. ;-)

That has to be rough be on a waiting list for so long. Certainly you should eventually be able to get a share, though in some ways that is a good sign as people are purchasing a lot of CSA shares. Have you been to Perhaps there are other CSA's in your area that you could look into.

We have a local grocery store here, I need to start frequenting that more over the winter. We are lucky with how close we live to the farmer's market, and we have to go every week to get our CSA, so we always get our produce and anything else we can there.

Glad I can be of some assistance. I'm no expert, all I have is my own experience and my interpretation of the information I am exposed to. If it helps others at all, then I've done my job.

jessy said...

oh yes - your information from all your experiences is most helpful! :) i love reading your posts - you offer some really practical advice and have some awesome ideas, too!

i love - that's how i found the few CSAs that are offered in our area. one would think that richmond has more, but i think that most of the farmer's rely on the farmer's market and stands that they have on their property more than they do the CSA programs. it's too bad, but i figure eventually we'll get on a CSA! i'm keeping my fingers crossed! each year i feel we get closer. but i need to stop being so lazy and get my butt to the farmer's market every saturday, and buy local at the store when i go, too! i also need to eat more in season - and buy more bulk!

w00t! :D

Happy Herbivore! said...

informative and deeply awesome! you rock. you make the world greener :)

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Jessy - Thank you so much, it really means a lot to me that you said that. :-)

Aw, surely more people will have to start doing CSA shares soon, can't they see the demand is there? There have been a lot of waiting list situations here too, we were very lucky this year to be able to get a share, I hope for the same luck next year, I really like our farmer's, nice folks and very high quality produce. They've even put in fruit trees! In the next few years there might be a good fruit CSA option for me to take part in, I can't wait!

I am surprised there aren't more though.

It's hard, last year, when we didn't have a CSA, we didn't go to the farmer's market nearly as often. We didn't want to get up early on a Saturday morning, but in the end, not getting to sleep in late in worth it when you get a bounty of yummy farmer's market produce.

It's hard to shell out all the money at first, but when you see how much you save buying bulk, and how much more convenient it is to have them on hand, how much less packaging you use, it's worth it.

Lindsay (HH) - Thank you so much!

You make the world a tastier place with your whole foods recipes. And somehow I ended up forgetting to comment on the post, but I am really happy with your publishing decision and can't wait!

Lizzy said...

You're so passionate about this and it has been really inspiring to me. I used to not worry about this much, although I felt guilty when wasting food, but then I was like "Oh well, move on!"
Now I'm much more conscious. I try to produce as little waste as possible and what I found funny was your meal plan for the week, because just minutes before I had written down what was still in my fridge, what needed to be used and what kind of dishes I would create over the next few days with it ;)

I love all the information you provide! Thanks so much for taking the time to write that piece, I always love reading your ideas and adapting them to my daily life.

Erin said...

Great post! You are quite the inpiration for meal planning and consciousness. I can't say I'm as mindful as you, but I've really gotten into using everything I have and not being wasteful. Like, if I grocery shop I'll buy stuff to complement what I already have.

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Lizzy - I guess I am. :-) And thank you.

I used to be the exact same way. I only felt a little bad, and it was only when I had to come face to face with my waste on "fridge clean out day" (aka the day we went to the store to get more food that would likely be wasted). I thought there were better things to worry about, and to be honest, it didn't strike me as "abnormal" to waste as I did. Sadly, in many Western nations it's NOT abnormal to waste, but it should be.

I'm so happy you are trying to be less wasteful. You'll probably find yourself happily surprised that you are saving money by wasting less as well. I know we did.

Haha! See, it's not so hard to reduce your waste! You've already got one big aspect of the sustainable diet down (and you don't eat meat, that also helps a lot too). It's really rewarding and I feel very creative to make tasty meals out of what I have on hand and what I find at the market.

Hey, not a problem, I love writing, I love reading and learning, I might as well not keep it to myself. And while I may not have the best way of going about things, these are things that work for me. If I have something of value to offer, I might as well share it.

Take these ideas, add to them, and make them your own, that's what it's all about anyway!

Jennifer (of Veg*n Cooking) said...

Erin - Thank you. Haha, I never thought I would be, but I just try, day to day, to do better, do more with less, waste less, use more of my fair share of the worlds resources. There is still much more that each and everyone of us can do, and we can all share our ideas and teach others. I have learned so much from you all's blogs!

You seem very mindful Erin, I read your blog! You always make good use of the things you buy, you eat your leftovers, and like you said, you get stuff to complement what you already have.