Easy Meal Planning Tips to Use Your CSA Share

We’ve talked about easy healthy meal prep, but today we are zooming in on how to meal plan with a CSA!Table full of purple and orange carrots with the stems on. Two years ago, I wrote up a handy 5-step plan for using all the vegetables you receive in a weekly crate from a Community-Sponsored Agriculture farm. That article tells you all about how a CSA works on a subscription plan to bring you several pounds of organic, locally-grown produce every week. Here’s a tool for finding a CSA in your area. My family has bought a share in Kretschmann Farm near Pittsburgh every summer since 2001. It’s fascinating to see how each vegetable appears and disappears throughout the season, from early June through mid-November. The pattern is sort of predictable, yet every year is unique. That’s why Katie, who has learned to stick with meal planning long term, asked me to write another “how to use a week of CSA veggies” detailing my experience in the last week of July but in a different year. As you’ll see, the veggies we got this year were somewhat different than two years ago at the same time. We used the same 5 steps of veggie stewardship, and out popped some very different meals! On the other hand, the green beans found themselves in exactly the same meal as two years ago!Not just for CSA subscribers, this strategy works anytime you have a lot of fresh produce: from your garden, from the garden of someone who likes sharing, from spotting a lot of great deals in the store or farmer’s market, from foraging, from your friend who just couldn’t resist buying a case of beautiful eggplants or rutabaga, etc.

Quick Review: 5 Steps for Evaluating Your Veggies

When you pick up that pile of produce, ask yourself these 5 questions:
  1. What to swap or give away?
  2. What needs to be eaten in the next two days?
  3. What can wait until later?
  4. What needs to be preserved?
  5. What’s the plan?
Answer the first 4, and then use your answers to develop your plan for finding each veggie a good home in this week’s meals, in your freezer or pantry stash, or in a friend’s stomach! My previous article gives more detail on each question and tips on how to categorize.Pan of freshly cooked vegetables and a table of those vegetables before cooking.

One Week’s Example: Our CSA Box

I’m going to talk you through another week working through the 5 steps in our kitchen, but first I’ll have to explain our starting point.

Before This Week

Two years ago, I was able to write up our week in veggies almost with a “clean slate”–some ingredients we already had in stock came into play, but most of our meals were based around the veggies we received that week. This year, I had decided which week I would make detailed notes about our CSA, meals, and preservation–and then, midway through the week before, I realized that the surplus of certain vegetables in that week’s crate was pushing us into some activities that would affect the new week. Instead of a “Wednesday wild card” dinner, the meal we cooked on the night we get our CSA was planned to use up the previous week’s veggies! Also, we went into the week stocked up with a healthy breakfast/snack food. Weather conditions this year have been perfect for cucumbers, zucchini, and eggplant. I have to admit we didn’t do so well with last week’s cucumbers: We ate one with hummus, we put one in a salad, our guinea pigs ate one, and we gave away two–but we still had 4 cucumbers that got mushy and went to the compost bin. That was really a lot of cucumbers!! We should have made Cucumber Salad, which preserves them for a couple of weeks. Last week’s CSA gave us an even larger volume of zucchini than cucumbers! (We got 6 zucchini vs. 9 cucumbers, but some of the zucchini were larger.) Luckily, zucchini can be cooked or frozen (Kaite has 6 great preservation methods). I shredded all of it in the food processor, baked 4 loaves of whole-wheat zucchini bread, packed up 4-cup portions to freeze, and set aside 2 cups of raw grated zucchini. Those 6 zucchinis turned into 18 cups of shreds!zucchini, in a sink, cut, and shredded for the freezerTuesday night’s dinner was a slightly awkward meal of zucchini pancakes and cucumber slices with yogurt-dill dip. (The dill also was from the farm, several weeks ago—we had hung it up to dry.) My partner Daniel made the zucchini pancakes from this recipe. (It calls them “fritters,” but we thought “pancakes” would sound more appealing to the kids.) He used sharp cheddar cheese instead of Parmesan. He’d made them the previous week as well, and we were pleased that both kids ate them without complaint–one using ketchup and the other maple syrup! We’d used a big, dark-purple Italian eggplant in chili, but we still had two thin, lilac-colored Asian eggplants. One of them was curled into this cute shape that looks like an alien pet!curly eggplantWhen we went grocery shopping Wednesday morning before seeing our new crate of veggies, I asked my 13-year-old Nicholas what we could make to use up the eggplant. He said he would cook with my help, and we would have kebabs of eggplant and onion “and more zucchini pancakes, for protein, because they have so much egg in them.” We still had a small onion left from last week, but I reminded him that we couldn’t be certain we’d get more zucchini—although it was likely at this time of year—so we might have to thaw some.

Wednesday

CSA box vegetablesHere’s what we got in this week’s CSA share!
  • 3 cucumbers
  • 2 Italian eggplants and 1 Asian eggplant
  • potatoes
  • carrots
  • 4 tomatoes
  • kale
  • 3 onions
  • green beans
  • 2 zucchini
  • coffee–Of course, that isn’t grown in Pennsylvania! Kretschmann Farm has a deal with Building New Hope, a Pittsburgh non-profit that partners with coffee growers in Nicaragua. For an additional fee, we get a pound of shade-grown coffee in our CSA box once a month.
Nicholas and I started work on the kebabs: He asked me to make the pancakes while he did all the rest, occasionally asking for advice.

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Kids watching a cooking lesson at a kitchen island

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I grated the smaller zucchini and adjusted the recipe to this smaller amount. I still used 1 egg and then added some breadcrumbs to soak up excess liquid. The pancakes held together pretty well, but frying them was very stressful! I have a hard time with food that tends to burn on the outside before it’s cooked all the way through and that falls apart when you flip it. Daniel is more coordinated and less nervous than I am, so he was surprised when I thanked him so effusively for having made these before! Meanwhile, Nicholas cut up the eggplants and tossed them with Real Salt in the colander. (This makes eggplant less bitter.) He cut the onion in big chunks and browned them in olive oil. Then he added the eggplant. He seasoned the vegetables with lemon juice, minced garlic, and bottled Tandoori Chicken Spice. He cooked them until the eggplant was soft and slightly browned.He decided that the kebabs also should include slices of hard-boiled egg. I don’t boil eggs often enough to remember the timing, so he looked it up. He assembled a variety of kebab combinations. The kebabs were delicious! They gave us an opportunity to teach our 4-year-old Lydia how to eat a kebab safely: One hand on each end; careful of the point! Eat it like corn on the cob. Don’t bite the stick!Onion, eggplant and hard boiled egg kabobs I didn’t think the zucchini pancakes were really necessary along with hardboiled eggs–I would rather have had chunks of zucchini cooked along with the eggplant and onions–but their flavor blended in with the vegetables’ seasoning better than I expected. We found that the kebabs reheated well in the toaster oven (400 degrees for 7-8 minutes) and were still good on Sunday when I finished the last ones.

Thursday

Nicholas wanted to make a salad of kale and cucumbers with strawberry vinaigrette like he’d made a couple of weeks ago. This time, he added fresh strawberries and a yellow pepper we’d just bought at ALDI.kale salad with strawberries, mango and cucumberWhat would go with the salad? Nicholas wanted garlic mashed potatoes (our CSA potatoes) and a can of cranberry sauce: “It’ll be like Thanksgiving!” I suggested baking some fish for a Fishgiving Feast, but it was a hot day and he didn’t want the oven on while he was making the salad. Instead, he suggested fried eggs for the protein–those of us who like sunny-side-up eggs could put them on top of our mashed potatoes and break the yolk as “gravy” for the potatoes. I don’t think I’d ever tried this before. It was good! But it didn’t seem anything like Thanksgiving dinner, even though the cranberry sauce was a nice treat. I was feeling a little tired of eggs. Daniel cooked the potatoes and eggs while Nicholas made the salad. By the way, if you happen to have a bag of frozen strawberries (mine were on sale at GFS!), an easy way to make strawberry vinaigrette is to thaw one big strawberry, which will become so soft that you can just mash it with a fork and mix in oil, vinegar, salt, and honey.

Friday

I cooked one of our classic favorite meals: Honey Apricot Tofu, Salty String Beans, and rice. This used up the green beans from the farm and one small onion. Here’s Lydia’s serving.Chicken, rice and green beans in a bowl.

Saturday

We had so many leftovers that we didn’t cook anything new today! I ate one of the tomatoes as a snack.

Sunday

I made Creamy Lentil Coconut Curry with Roasted Vegetables. My array of vegetables was different this time: no peppers, broccoli, or green beans, but I did have zucchini. Gosh, that was a lot of eggplant!Cooking eggplant; chopped raw in a bowl, cooked and preserved with carrots, onion and zucchini in jars. It was a cool day by summer standards, so I didn’t mind being in the room with a 400-degree oven and a steaming saucepan—but I was glad we had enough rice left over from Friday that I didn’t have to coordinate cooking that, too! I ended up with more than enough veggies for the curry, so I froze some for other uses of roasted veggies in the future. I also set aside a jar of raw, salted eggplant for Lydia, who loves to eat it (and refuses cooked eggplant) recently! I thought I’d heard something about raw eggplant being dangerous to eat, so I looked it up–a person her size would have to eat 2 or 3 entire raw eggplants to have toxic symptoms, and she eats no more than about 1/4 of an eggplant at a time. Whatever she doesn’t eat in the next few days, I can add to >marinara sauce or anytime I want to cook up a few veggies for lunch.

Monday

Because Nicholas had made Thursday’s salad only big enough for a side dish at one meal, we still had a lot of kale. I collected other vegetables to cook with it to make Hummus and Vegetable Flatbread Sandwiches. This time I used kale, carrots, onion, and tomato from the farm, plus a red pepper from ALDI. I also threw in a handful of that salted eggplant.cooking vegetables; kale, tomato, carrots, onion and red bell pepper. I always think I have too much kale to fit in my skillet . . . but after I put in as much as can and cook it for a few minutes, it gets much less fluffy so that I’m able to mix in the rest of the kale. I didn’t cook the tomato at all, just diced it and put it and the cooked veggies into the sandwiches after toasting them and then pulling them apart with tongs. We had a jar full of delicious sautéed veggies left over. They make a great accompaniment to scrambled eggs for breakfast!Cooked vegetables in a jar used in a homemade quesadilla. Recently we’ve been buying white-flour tortillas at Costco because they’re cheap and taste good, but they’re not all that nutritious. If you’re up for making homemade tortillas, try Katie’s whole-wheat tortillas or gluten-free, gum-free whole-grain tortillas!

Tuesday

Daniel and Nicholas made Salmon Limone with Couscous and Zucchini Ribbon Salad, a recipe Nicholas had found on the Hello Fresh website earlier this summer and made once before. (You don’t have to subscribe to their boxed meal kits to access their recipes–but if you see a recipe you like, make sure to print it right away rather than plan to read it from your screen! We’ve learned that sometimes their recipes “disappear” from the URL where we saw them and are hard to find again!) Ironically, although Nicholas eagerly suggested this recipe when he saw zucchini and tomatoes in our CSA box, scheduling issues pushed this meal to the end of the week when we’d already used all our zucchini and tomatoes. But when I went to our neighborhood Giant Eagle supermarket to buy them (along with the salmon, lemon, scallions, and couscous) I found great prices on zucchini and tomatoes from Brenckle’s Farm, another local organic farm that also offers a CSA. It’s only 26 miles away; Kretschmann Farm is 28 miles from our home. So we were still eating local, organic vegetables!Using CSA vegetables in dinner; salad, and chicken over couscous This meal was delicious!

A New Twist on Batch Cooking

Have you tried batch cooking? It’s one of my favorite kitchen hacks to save time while cooking real food, but my take may be slightly different than the ones you’ve seen before.

Instead of making large batches of food and saving them for later, I batch together kitchen tasks and link one night’s dinner to the next. Think of it as getting a head start on your next meal. The net result is time savings AND fresh dinners every night.

The current trend in meal prep seems to be focused on taking several hours on a weekend day to chop and prep veggies, cook meats, and then assemble the leftovers into a multitude of containers.

This is great if it works for you, but my family gets sick of eating leftovers all the time and I get tired of keeping track of all the containers in the fridge! Plus, spending 3-4 hours in the kitchen on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon is usually the last thing I want to do.

My Real Food Head Start 7 Day Dinner Plan provides a framework for incorporating my technique each day to save time on future meals and even start stocking your freezer if you want, while still making and serving a fresh dinner. The best part is, you use the time you are already in the kitchen – no extra prep day needed!

Wrapping Up the Week

How did we do with our 5 steps?
  1. What to swap or give away? This was one week when we kept everything in our share!
  2. What needs to be eaten in the next two days? Fresh green beans last only a short time without getting moldy. We also prioritized cucumbers, kale, and zucchini but didn’t actually get through all of them in the first 48 hours–but we used them up within the week (see below) without anything spoiling!
  3. What can wait until later? We still have some of the carrots and the coffee. These tomatoes were firm enough to be used late in the week but wouldn’t have lasted much longer.
  4. What needs to be preserved? Roasting and sautéing more veggies than we needed for our dinners created leftovers that will keep longer than raw veggies.
  5. What’s the plan? We’d already planned the kebabs before we saw our new veggies. On Wednesday night, we planned Thursday’s and Friday’s dinners and the Salmon Limone . . . but meal planning for the rest of the week kind of worked out as we went along. I did make a list of the veggies before putting them away so that I could see at a glance what we needed to use.
List of CSA vegetables to meal plan with for the week. We still had two cucumbers and some potatoes, so on the Wednesday when we got our next CSA box, our dinner side dishes were mashed potatoes and cucumbers with lemon sour cream (left over from Salmon Limone), with the main dish of soy-free veggie burgers from Trader Joe’s.
What’s your approach to an abundance of vegetables?
Photography assistance from Becca’s son, Nicholas Efran, age 13.

Meal Planning Resources

Here are the meal planning services (in no particular order) that I endorse for you to pick based on you and your family’s needs!

30 Minute Dinners from Don’t Waste the Crumbs

Cooksmarts (great community of people to learn from)

Real Plans (organizer to add your OWN recipes and replicate plans)

PrepDish (prep ahead, easy meals all week)

Kitchen & Meal Planning Binder by Nourishing Joy

Customizable Low Fodmap Meal Plans

Health Home and Happiness Grain-Free Meal Plans for GAPS Diet

Try out their freebies (some even have tree trials) to see what fits your personality and preferences! 

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