Happy New Year, everyone! The fresh start of a new year—the kind of blank slate that nudges us toward new challenges and experiences—provides a great opportunity for thinking about the fresh foods that will nourish our bodies in the months ahead. After all, something has to provide the fuel that will keep us going while we work on all of those other exciting resolutions. And because goals are so often easier to tackle in chunks, here are ideas split up by month to help you eat and live well this year.
Spend just 30 minutes browsing Local Harvest, PickYourOwn.org, and EatWild. Search for your ZIP code to see what local farmers are offering in your area. Make a folder for “Local Food” in your Internet browser bookmarks. When you find a farm on one of these sites that’s offering something you might like to buy from them, bookmark it in your Local Food folder.
Order some garden seeds. Even if it’s just one packet of something. Resolve to grow at least one thing—somehow. It might be in your yard; it might be in a pot on your patio; it might be in a pot not on your patio, but just somewhere that gets some sun.
February is a great time to order seeds, and, for many reasons, I’m a fan of ordering them instead of buying them from a mainstream retailor. Local companies generally offer local seeds, meaning the seeds will be well-adapted to your region. Also, the really cool, small companies that are all about sustainability are usually only available via mail-order. One of my very favorite gardening activities is to browse seed catalogs (physical ones I get in the mail or the catalogs available on the seed companies’ websites), decide what varieties to grow, and order my seeds. There are super-cool, small seed companies all over. This year, here in the Pacific NW, I want to try Uprising Seeds, Victory Seeds, and Wild Garden Seed. If you don’t know of or can’t find a local, sustainable seed company in your area, leave a comment on this post and I’ll try to help.
Some of the easiest crops to grow—and ones you sow directly in the ground—are greens such as lettuce and spinach, and root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes and turnips. If you’re just starting out, try growing one (or some) of those.
Do a bit of research on the crops you plan to grow. Most importantly, figure out when to plant the seeds in your area. These days, there are apps for that (When to Plant is an iPhone app that will give you that info for any fruit or veggie), but simply looking up your frost dates online and reading the seed packets should also give you the information you need. Mark your planting dates on your calendar.
Also, get any other supplies you need, such as a large container or pot if you don’t already have one.
Set a goal that by the end of April, you will have bought one thing directly from a local farm that you bookmarked back in January. This might be a dozen eggs, a bag of potatoes, a whole chicken, some garlic, a sack of locally grown and ground flour—anything. These farmers list their farms and offerings online because they want people like you to find them. They generally list their phone numbers and addresses online, and details for how and when you can contact them or stop by the farm. Every time I’ve ever called a farmer listed on a site such as Local Harvest, it makes my heart happy. The people I talk to always end up being about the nicest people in the world, and they want to hear from me. It’s easy to think, “Oh, gosh, I don’t want to call this person and bother them about buying a chicken,” but, trust me, it’s not like that. Selling the products they produce is their livelihood, and I can almost promise you’ll enjoy the experience.
Learn all about one food you eat. I get that the whole “sustainable food thing” is overwhelming. There are infinite things to learn, and so much of the information about food is bad news. It’s also really tempting to play the avoidance game with food info. For instance, if I start talking about conditions in the industrial system related to a particular kind of food, I sometimes hear from friends, “Stop! Don’t tell me. I don’t even want to know. I know it’ll just freak me out”). But where does avoidance get us? Even if we look the other way, this stuff is still going into our bodies, and all kinds of crazy stuff is going into our air, water and soil.
To help prevent info-overload, just learn about one thing at a time. Choose a food you eat a lot of for this goal. Maybe for you that will be apples, bananas, chocolate, coffee, salmon, chicken, beef, broccoli, milk, or almonds. Just choose one food and learn about how it’s produced and some problems associated with industrial production. Look into the chemicals, pesticides, hormones or antibiotics used in the food’s production. Read about any problematic labor practices associated with the crop. You could check out a whole book on this food from your local library or just spend some time doing research online. Watch YouTube videos (watching YouTube videos of factory farms actually played a huge part in my ditching industrial meats several years ago). Dig into the bad news, and make sure to look up sustainable, healthy, or local alternatives.
Go pick something on a u-pick farm (this is when your bookmarks from PickYourOwn.org will come in handy). In many areas, June is a great time to pick strawberries. Ask before you go whether whatever you’re planning to pick is no-spray. Go nuts cooking with and preserving whatever you pick.
Freeze something. Whether it’s a few bags of green beans, some roasted tomatoes, or some berries, get something in the freezer that you’ll be able to enjoy later when that crop is no longer in season. Freezing is a simple food-preservation method, and a quick search online will give you any instructions you need.
Can something. Canning is admittedly more involved than freezing, but if you’ve never done it, it’s so worth learning. And August—with its abundance of ripe foods—is a good time to can. Last year was only my third or fourth year as a canner. I was intimidated by the process at first, as I know many people are, but now canning a batch of something seems no more difficult than making a pot of soup. Start with water bath canning, which is the method you can use for higher acid foods (such as jams, pickles, tomatoes, pickled beets, applesauce, etc.). Check out books such as the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving or Put 'em Up! for recipes and instructions.
If you don’t yet want to invest in your own canner, can with a friend or family member who already does it every year. He or she will be glad to have a helper, and you can learn the process before you decide to dive in and try it solo at home.
Buy something in bulk from your local farmers market. This might mean ordering ahead of time: One week you might talk to someone at a farm stand you particularly like about getting a bulk order of something, and then pick it up the following week. Ask the farmers if they offer bulk discounts.
Good storage crops such as onions, garlic, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash are great candidates for a bulk order. Get them now, and you’ll have them on hand during the winter months—meaning you won’t have to rely on the grocery store for these foods after your farmers market shuts down for the year. If you hope to order in bulk to preserve the crop, consider apples for applesauce, pears for pear butter, or tomatoes for tomato sauce. Bulk ordering is a great goal because it reinforces the idea of farmers market as grocery store.
Make October all about your kitchen. Try new recipes, new foods, new meals, new techniques. Experiment with recipe deviation (use what’s available or on hand, not necessarily exactly what a recipe calls for). Make it a goal to cook from scratch and limit eating out.
Read a great book on healthy, sustainable food. Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is my favorite in this genre, but there are plenty of choices out there. Browse TreeHugger’s 7 Must-Read Books for Sustainable Eating for more ideas. Share the interesting things you learned in the book with at least one person you love.
Give a food gift for the holidays. I did so last year (giving homemade granola and jam), and it was so much fun.
These goals, of course, can be swapped around, added to, and subtracted from, but I hope they give you a starting point for jumping into the new year with food—one of life’s most basic necessities—on your mind. As nutritionist and whole-foods advocate Ann Wigmore said, “The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” I believe that to be true, and it applies to us and to our planet. And if there’s one thing I can guarantee about your year, it’s that food will be a part of it.
Top two photos by Shelley Stonebrook; onion photo from Flickr Creative Commons/mhwolk; other photos by Doug Snodgrass