Meal Planning Around the Garden
One of the hardest things about starting my garden as a beginner in the early stages was figuring out the plant to harvest ratio. How many plants would I need, what would my harvest actually look like, when would I receive this glorious harvest, and how would I plan my meals around what I was growing? It was overwhelming, but I knew that I wanted to trek down the mysterious path that gardening was and figure it out no matter what. I realized pretty quickly that planning my garden around my meals meant a lot but it also had the potential to hinder things like bumper crops and the natural magic that happens in the garden.
Eating your crop is essential to growing a garden. Why? Well, it puts a purpose to the many hours of hard work that is put into your plot and plants. In my first year of gardening, which is photographed below, I wasted a lot of our crop. I was still learning how to cook at the time and was not sure how to eat new-to-me veggies like spring onions, kohlrabi, and kale. I also didn’t know how to harvest them correctly, and our family at a lot of bitter limp lettuce that summer. I think, in part, I learned a lot more about how to properly harvest and prepare vegetables by growing them for other people. There is an art to harvesting and that really matters more, in my opinion, than growing the plant.
But let’s get back to meal planning. How do you make sure to use what you grow and eat by the seasons in your garden. It sounds easy, right? I’ll just eat what’s ready when it’s ready. That’s not always how our stomachs work, and it’s also not always how the garden works. For me, I always think that the vegetables are going to be ready sooner than what they tend to be. I start dreaming about spring greens in April when they’ve barely even sprouted yet. For our gardening zone, our last spring frost date is estimated around April 25th, and we can start planting hardier plants about 2-3 weeks earlier than that. Part of knowing when you are going to eat a plant’s crop is by reading into the “days to maturity” on a seed packet, though this isn’t always accurate. It can mean different things, whether it will be mature once direct sown as a seed or sown as a transplant.
For me, I try to look at harvests monthly. This will be different depending on where you live. We live in eastern Iowa in gardening zone 5b. Our months and harvest schedule look a little something like this, which I learned SO much about by creating our CSA program:
MAY: Salad Greens, Arugula, Spinach, Radishes, rhubarb, kale, lettuce
JUNE: Lettuce, Kale, Radishes, Salad Greens, Spinach, Arugula, Green Onions, Beets, Swiss Chard, Peas, Kohlrabi, Summer Squash
JULY: Lettuce, Kale, Radishes, Salad Greens, Arugula, Green Onions, Beets, Swiss Chard, Kohlrabi, Summer Squash, Spring Onions, Beans, Cucumbers, Peas, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrots, Herbs, Early Potatoes, Early Apples, Early Tomatoes
AUGUST: Kale, Swiss Chard, Sweet Corn, Summer Squash, Early Potatoes, Beans, Peppers, Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Onions, Eggplant, Herbs, Melons, Beets, Cabbage, Berries, Early Winter Squash
SEPTEMBER: Kale, Swiss Chard, Spinach, Salad Greens, Arugula, Cabbage, Onions, Beets, Beans, Potatoes, Carrots, Summer Squash, Cucumbers, Sweet Corn, Eggplant, Green Onions, Tomatoes, Peppers, Melons, Apples, Kohlrabi, Turnips, Radishes, Winter Squash, Pie Pumpkins
OCTOBER: Kale, Swiss Chard, Lettuce, Spinach, Salad Greens, Arugula, Cabbage, Onions, Beets, Potatoes, Carrots, Eggplant, Turnips, Rutabagas, Green Onions, Asian Greens, Kohlrabi, Winter Squash, Pie Pumpkins, Collards, Broccoli, Cauliflower
I understand that the list above may not be helpful to you if you live in a completely different gardening zone or region of the country, or even in a different country. That’s okay. There are plenty of resources online that will tell you what is in season where you are living, or you can take the time to look through your seed packets and figure out which date the seeds or transplants need to go into the ground followed by the estimated maturity date of when they will be ready to harvest and eat. Once you have a general idea, at least in the first year, you can begin planning which types of meals you want to make.
For me, going into CSA last year, I knew that a major part of our program was going to be providing recipes to our members every single week with what we were giving them. In the early months of the year, I began saving recipes that used ingredients within each month’s list of available produce. There’s always a large surge of vegetables in July, August, and October. I knew that meant that I needed to think ahead of what I wanted not only to cook but to preserve as well. Knowing which vegetables and fruits will be available can not only help you mentally prepare for how much food you will be cooking, but it can also help you plant the amount needed for preservation.
When the harvest eventually does come, it's not necessarily all at the same time. There are many moments and days of upward and downward growth patterns. You may have a huge harvest of radishes one day… but that’s all there is. Perhaps you have summer squash and salad greens. What can you cook with that? It’s difficult to navigate a good pattern when things are not growing at the speed you want them to, but that’s okay. One of the ways that I use awkwardly timed produce is by preserving it by canning, fermenting, or freezing to use at a later date. Another is to have a few “catch-all” recipes on hand like stir fry or sauteed vegetables with noodles. This will help you reduce the food waste in your kitchen!
If you do inevitably end up with vegetable waste from uneaten produce, you can deal with it in sustainable ways other than just tossing what you don’t use in the garbage. Save those veggies! Make them into vegetable stock or bone broth. Feed them to your chickens. Compost them and put them back into the garden. Whatever you choose, just don’t completely give up and send them to the landfill. The same goes for if you are shopping at a farmer’s market or eating with a local CSA program.
The way we eat now has completely changed in the past two years, even since the year we grew our first garden. At that time, we still frequented the grocery store, which I find absolutely no shame in. Sometimes you cannot do it all. Now, however, we try to keep our produce as in season and local as possible. This is exceedingly difficult in the winter months where we live. I hope to eventually build some cold frames for us so that we can continue to eat fresh vegetables from the garden all year round. This means that we must make better plans in the summer to preserve what we need for the winter. In these colder months we now eat a lot of preserved food like canned tomatoes, pickles, apple butter, and frozen veggies. The meat that we didn’t cook in the summer is being used for soups, stews, chilis, and roasts. It’s been a really wonderful winter, in all honesty. It’s the first one where I feel that I’ve kept my body at a neutral weight rather than gaining and gaining through the holidays. The art of preservation reminds me of the flavors of summer.
Thinking about your meals can change your gardening perspective and create a better consciousness of why you are gardening in the first place. I know that for myself, at least, I struggled my very first year and felt that I wasted a lot of things because I was not used to taking the time to cook all of our meals from scratch. Gardening and cooking go hand-in-hand or else plan to use up a lot of freezer space!
Here are a few of my favorite seasonal recipes where you can incorporate your harvest:
Here’s to another beautiful year of gardening! I am so ready to start seeds and get back outside. What are you most excited to grow this year?