Reducing Waste in Your CSA

When I mention my CSA to people, I frequently hear some version of “we used to have one but we got rid of it because we ended up wasting most of it.”  I can definitely see why someone wouldn’t want to continue paying for a CSA share if their produce was going to waste.  Let’s face it – CSA shares aren’t necessarily known for being cheap and it’s not fun to watch your investment turn various shades of brown and black every time you open the fridge.  With practice over the last year I’ve figured out how to get nearly 100% usage out of our CSA box.  Hopefully some of these tips will come in handy the next time you’re faced with a mountain of veggies and no clue how to use them.

Step 1:  Pick the right CSA

All CSA shares are not created equal.  The CSA that Michelann and I receive is almost exclusively vegetables and herbs grown at a local, organic farm.  We each receive a share of 1/2 a bushel of veggies every 2 weeks, though our farm offers a weekly option as well.  My mother, on the other hand, receives a CSA that contains fruit, preserves, bread, meat, tofu, vegetables, and other miscellaneous products produced within 150 miles of her home.  Depending on your area of the country, the shares may run all year or only part of the year.  It’s important to research CSAs that are available in your area and compare their options to your lifestyle and cooking habits.  Receiving a raw vegetable based CSA means you have to be willing and able to cook quite a bit.  This type of CSA will definitely lead you toward a more vegetable based, “whole food” diet, but it does require more of a time commitment than a share that contains prepared food or fruit.  Be honest with yourself.  Do you like to cook?  Are you willing to learn new techniques and expand your kitchen skills?  And I think a question you need to ask is how much do you need meat?  Since starting our CSA, meat is now a supporting player rather than a star on the table, and I think that’s a natural evolution when you get a share.  You can only eat so much, and when the vegetables are plentiful, the pasta, bread, and meat start falling away.  That’s good!  But if you are a person who lives entirely on roast beast and dinner rolls, a CSA is going to require a pretty significant diet change.

So do your research.  Figure out how often you can receive a share what it will contain.  Consider splitting a share with a friend or neighbor.  If half a bushel every other week is too much, split the vegetables (and cost!) with someone else and that might be a better match for your needs.  See if the share offers a short term plan where you can get a few weeks to start and figure out if it’s for you before you make a longer commitment.  It’s important to get off on the right foot with your CSA to prevent waste of money and food later on.

Step 2:  Plan!

Planning how to use all these vegetables has involved a pretty big learning curve for me.  The tips I’m going to share are what have worked for our household, but this might not be how you operate.  Take what is helpful and leave the rest.

I’ve found the key to using all your vegetables is organization.  I like to arrange my week so that my shopping day is within a day or two of getting our box so I can make a menu, make a list, and start using some of the more delicate items first.  It’s also helpful to have some trusted recipe sites and cookbooks at your fingertips so you can start looking for good meal items without having to dig around.  When I get the box, I start by doing a sort of vegetable triage, then I build a menu for the following week, build a shopping list, and then get to work!  I’ll walk through a typical box below and hopefully that will give some good ideas on how to utilize everything.

We get our CSA on a Thursday and I like to do our grocery shopping on Saturday.  Thursday night’s dinner is usually cooking when my husband brings the box home, and Friday’s dinner generally comes from a pizza box, so I’ve got a little time to think and shop before putting the week’s plan into action.  The first thing I do is make a note of which items need to find a home right away and which can wait.  Green and leafy items need to be used in some form or fashion very quickly – within maybe 3-4 days or sooner, if possible.  Then there’s sort of the “second tier” vegetables.  These veggies can wait a few days but are best used within a week or two.  This would be squash, peppers, eggplant, okra, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, green beans, tomatoes, carrots, beets, etc.  Then come hard vegetables like winter squash, potatoes, and onions.  These can keep for weeks if not months if stored in a cool, dry place like inside your pantry.  These are the last on the triage list.  Let’s take our last box as an example.  It contained the following in the order the items needed to be used:

  • Right away – basil, sweet potato greens, arugula, leeks
  • Sooner rather than later – okra, eggplant, peppers
  • Eventually – onions, sweet potatoes

I sat down on Thursday night and thumbed through my food magazines, tried and true recipes, and the internet and I built the following menu for the week:

And that’s the week.  Some old things, some new meals, and the whole plan set out in about half an hour after the kiddo was in bed.  As I make the menu, I look at the recipes and build the grocery list for the week.  You’ll notice that I didn’t use the basil.  That’s because I used it to make a big batch of pesto, which we will discuss in the next section of this post.  All my peppers weren’t used in this menu and there are still tons of sweet potatoes to find a home, but they can keep.  A little organization and planning makes sure that none of the vegetables that are “on the clock” are forgotten.  I’ll worry about whatever is left over when I make next week’s menu.  Because we get our share every two weeks, the first week is when we do a lot of cooking and eat all the delicate veg, the second week is when we hit the leftovers, freezer contents, and spaghetti dinners.  One week working, one week slacking.  Pretty good rhythm for our household!

Step 3:  Preserve

Don’t worry, I’m not about to go prairie woman on you here, suggesting you start canning and dig a root cellar.  There are going to be many times when you know you won’t be using a vegetable before it can go bad.  This is the time to start finding ways to save it.  This could mean many things – freezing, cooking, canning (if you’re into that sort of thing), drying, or some other method I’m not thinking of now.

My favorite is freezing.  I’ve found that any herb we get in our CSA can be frozen easily by chopping it, putting about a tablespoon in each divot of an ice cube tray, covering with water, and freezing.  Once frozen, pop the cubes out, put them in a bag or container, and freeze until you need that herb later.  This is perfect for getting the taste of fresh basil in winter.  The herbs don’t thaw in a crisp way that would be good for sprinkling on food, but they’re perfect for being worked into food and sauces.  A lot of the vegetables can also be frozen.  Okra can be sliced and frozen in plastic bags.  Beets can be boiled and frozen either as chunks or a puree.  I remove the seeds and stems from peppers and freeze them in large pieces.  Again, they not crispy when they thaw, but they’re good for sautes and sauces.  Carrots and green beans can be steamed and frozen.  Look around the freezer section of your grocery.  If it’s available frozen in a bag, you can freeze it yourself.  This is really helpful when you’re at the end of a season and you will lose your mind if you eat any more of a certain vegetable.

My other favored method for preserving food is cooking it into something.  I know, I know, you’re already cooking every night and now I’m saying to cook extra on top of that?  This is when the mighty slow cooker is employed.  Sauces, soups, stews, and anything else you can toss in the slow cooker can be made and frozen right away to be consumed on a later date.  Basil and greens can be combined into pesto of many flavors and varieties, frozen into ice cubes, and used later.  Or just make more of whatever you’re making for dinner – use all that okra in a triple batch of a dish and freeze two thirds of it.  Once you cook something to a freezable form, you have preserved that for months and you can use it when you aren’t feeling up to cooking or when your food budget is stretched a little thin.

I’ve suggested using the freezer quite a bit.  This is when a freezer inventory is helpful (oh, more organization!).  It’s really helpful to keep a list stuck to the freezer listing the contents.  Just cross things off when you take them out and add them when you put them in.  Nothing fancy, but this keeps you from having to dig around trying to remember if you still have this or that.  Once you’ve got one rolling, it only takes a second to keep it updated with current contents.

I hope you’ve found some helpful suggestions in this.  As with anything, your mileage may vary.  What works in our house may not be a reasonable thing for your lifestyle.  The keys to remember are to plan and organize.  Once you are used to approaching your CSA share in an organized fashion, you will easily be able to come close to 100% utilization!

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