Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Local Foods Menu Planning Part the First

Lately there has been some talk going around about menu planning and local foods, so this would be a good time to review some of the principles I use in menu planning.

The first is -- if you want a menu plan, then you must plan your meals.  I know many people don't plan meals more than a day or two in advance, and for those locked into the supermarket culture, that's fine.  But households that want to move in the direction of eating more local foods have to be a bit more pro-active.  Yes, this takes a bit of time up front, but over the trajectory of a year, you will develop various seasonal meal plans that will speed things up in the future.

And then there's the learning curve.  The first time you do anything, it takes longer than the tenth time.  I bet it took 30 minutes for me to figure out how to bake my first pan of biscuits, but now I can turn out home-made biscuits as fast as opening a can of store-bought biscuits and putting them in the pan (faster, if you factor in the time required to go to the store and buy the biscuits).  It may take a while to get into the groove on menu planning, but the effort is worth it.

SO. . . you have something to look forward to.

The second principle is -- eat with the season.  Eat what's available.  We are going into high summer, and the food coop and farmers' markets (not to mention your home gardens) are yielding glorious produce.  Now is the time to use that produce to great effect in your meal plans, and to put aside produce for future use in the winter.  Food preservation and processing will be discussed in much greater detail later, but one way to approach this is to buy two or three times the veggies you will eat each week and store the excess for eating later.  Perhaps the  easiest way to store many vegetables is to go ahead and cook them, and then freeze them.  This has the added benefit of adding convenience, in that all you have to do for a meal is take something out of the freezer and reheat it.

Perennial shortages in veggies available locally include potatoes, onions, carrots, and cabbage, which of course are the most commonly eaten vegetables.  When they are available, it is usually in very small quantities.  They are, however, usually available from sources like the Health Food Center on SW 74 and Atkins at NW 63 and May, organic.  Buy for Less usually has 5 lb bags of organic carrots for about $5, and generally the Health Food Center is close to that price.  Organic cabbage runs $5/head, organic celery $2-3/bunch.  Organic onions I usually don't buy, since the pesticide/herbicide count on commercial onions is the least of all the veggies, whereas celery is #1 on the list of pesticide load and non-organic celery should never ever be bought at a grocery store and consumed.  See the Environmental Work Group's list of veggies and their pesticide loads for a guide as to what veggies should be only consumed in their organic form.  These aren't local, but they are organic, and until our local vegetable production gets up to speed on these key items, unless you intend to forgo these staple foods entirely, this is what your choices are.

Besides vegetables, generally speaking the local food scene in central Oklahoma is well stocked with ground meats, roasts, chicken, organ meats (liver mostly), soup bones, wheat and whole wheat flours, various herbs (which your home garden should also be well stocked with), cheese, and yogurt.  We have minimal potatoes, no rice, little corn (and zero corn meal), no rolled oats.  And of course, corn meal, potatoes, rice, and rolled oats are generally on everyone's shopping list.

There are no locally available cooking oils, but there is a small amount of lard available, also pork fat so you can render your own lard.  Not sure why none of our beef producers sell any of the beef fat, as that can be used to make tallow which is another natural cooking fat. 

Eggs are in moderate availability, depending on the time of year.  You should always plan to buy extra eggs in the summer and freeze them for use in thew inter when they are scarce.

One rule of thumb is that about half the plate should be devoted to vegetables, 1/4 to meat, and 1/4 to something whole grain.  And generally, most dinner plates are too big, so choose dinner plates slightly smaller than the typical dinner plate.

This of course is the exact opposite of what most people end up with for a meal.  3/4 of the plate will be meat and carbs, and only 1/4 vegetables and/or fruit.

Anyway, I digress.

Start by making a list of the meals your family presently enjoys.  List everything -- meat or other main dish, carbs (potatoes, rice, pasta, etc), vegetables, desserts, and of course, DO NOT FORGET the snacks.  Also, list all the times you eat out and what you eat when you eat out.  The reason for this is that you may want to reduce the number of times you eat out, so you will need to think about menus for brown bagging your lunch.  Never forget that the price of a pound of hamburger -- when purchased in the form of hamburgers -- is about twelve to fifteen bucks a pound.

If you never (or rarely) plan meals, start small -- try a 3 day meal plan.

Then, look at this plan and see what you can do with local foods.  For example, the most common meat eaten at our house is ground beef -- locally sourced, grass fed, free-ranging, through the coop.  I buy steaks maybe twice a year.  We eat roast about once a month, and not every month.  This is what we can afford.  Because I can't afford locally-sourced steaks and roast every week, I don't eat them very week (that is, I don't go to the supermarket and buy mystery meat steaks and roast because I can't afford locally sourced steaks and roast every week).  I buy one chicken a month, that is what I can afford. When it was just Sean and I, we got about 3 meals out of that chicken.  Now that our household has increased to 5, we get one meal and some extra broth out of that chicken.  The old saw about chicken having less fat and cholesterol than red meat is only true for supermarket chickens and supermarket red meats.  Meats from grass fed, free ranging cattle and bison are as low in cholesterol and fat as chicken, so there is no health reason in the local foods kitchen for preferring chicken over ground beef.

Which is to say -- another principle of local food menu planning is temperance in your choices.

My advice is to start your meal planning with foods you already eat and like, and then over time introduce local foods and substitutions for items you have to buy at a regular supermarket.  People are very conservative in their food choices, and a radical change in diet is rarely welcome at the dinner table.

One interesting factor about local foods is that they are so good, that you can serve the same thing basically for several days in a row and not get bored.  We eat ground meat -- in different forms -- nearly every day.  There are about a gazillion ways to cook ground meats (beef, bison, lamb, pork) and the reason for that is that the majority of the meat from a steer ends up as ground meat.  Only about 10-15% goes to steak, which is why they are so expensive.

Some common substitutions at our house include --
  • Yogurt cheese instead of mayo or miracle whip or sour cream.
  • Home made bulgar instead of rice or potatoes (see How to Make Bulgar for my recipe, I used to make and sell it through the coop, but the realities of the processing and sale system were that I had to price it high in order to make enough money to make it worth my time and effort, this is really an item that should be made in the home, and it is dirt cheap when you do it that way in say monthly batches of a few pounds of wheat). 
  • Walking onions from my garden instead of regular store bought onions.
  • "Cream of bulgar" instead of oatmeal (after you grind the bulgar, sift it, and cook the fine bulgar flour like Cream of Wheat).
  • Home-made gravy instead of cream of whatever soups for casserolles and "galopie".
  • Whole wheat pancakes made from scratch instead of white flour pancake mix.
  • Home-made breads instead of store bought (during the summer, I make stove-top flat-breads using regular whole wheat bread dough).
Four local food convenience tips:
  • Bread dough in bowl in the refrigerator for daily home-made bread (stove top or oven baked).
  • Frozen home-made stock.
  • Frozen cooked veggies.
  • Frozen cooked hamburger (freeze in meal size portions).


  1. Enjoyed the post! Wondering where you get your grass fed beef AND did it taste funky the first time you ate it? I got some bison or maybe it was buffalo that was grass fed and it smelled funny... actually smelled "bad".. I took one bite and couldn't eat anymore.. not sure if it WAS bad or if grass fed meat just tastes different and it will take a while to get used to it.. I'm just a beginner in all this but trying to learn to eat seasonally and live more simply... Thx!

  2. I buy all of my meats through the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. I was raised on grass fed meat, so the primary difference I noted was how good it tasted. I however would always trust my nose, and if a portion of meat smelled bad, I would compost it.