In a Cooking Rut? Why Joining a CSA Could Be Your Answer!

joining a csa creative family kitchenI’m pretty good about always having vegetables on hand. I guess as a dietitian it comes with the territory. There’s something ingrained in me that won’t let my grocery cart pass through the produce section without piling in loads of fruits and veggies. What I’m not so good at is mixing it up. I tend to frequent the same stores each week, as most people do. The one store I never skip is the discount grocery store. I can practically tell you what order the produce is laid out in. I grab the exact same selection every time I enter the store: zucchini, bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet potatoes. Maybe onions, celery, tomatoes, and lettuce, if they happen to have those in stock that week.

I certainly like other, more adventurous vegetables, but making it to one of the stores that carries them is hit or miss. Shopping with a toddler is fairly unpredictable. You’re lucky if you get one errand completed successfully, let alone make the rounds of the specialty grocery stores or the farmers markets before you hit meltdown central.

While there’s nothing wrong with eating the same vegetables over and over again, it does get rather redundant. I can just hear my now two-year-old as a teenager, “Noooo, mom. Not agaaaaaain.” I wouldn’t be able to argue with him. There may be 20 different ways to cook with broccoli, but when you’re in a rhythm (or a rut) of buying the same things every week, it’s easy to let creativity go out the window and prepare them the same way each time, too.

To avoid this situation, I could of course force myself to drag my toddler to stores with a better selection, but I know I would never make that a reality. And besides the logistics, those stores tend to be more expensive. A better solution? Community supported agriculture (CSA). A CSA is typically a farm that sells shares of its crop or product. You often pick up a box weekly or biweekly and the contents of the box vary by what’s growing well that week and season.

It’s hard to argue preparing a new vegetable when it’s already sitting in a box waiting for you without you doing anything else. The best part? The variety and rotation is better than anything I could grab at the grocery store around the corner. If it’s already in my house, I feel obligated to find a way to prepare it. I’ll look up recipes or start brainstorming how it could replace a different vegetable in an old standby recipe.

It sparks creativity, it teaches us to think outside the box (or the kitchen), and it exposes my son to new tastes, flavors, and experiences. Not to mention it ends up being cheaper than buying produce in the store and has the added benefit of supporting our local agriculture.

It’s hard to generalize about the cost and value of a CSA, as there are so many different options: some are monthly fees, others are weekly; some you commit to a certain number of months, others you pick up as needed; there are different sized shares and different box contents. Some CSAs include things like eggs and meat (or even flowers), while others are produce only. There’s also the option of splitting a share with another family. Lifehacker estimates the average cost of a CSA to be about $20-$50 per week from May to September.

In my area, the cost is fairly equivalent to shopping the local stores and markets, but for me there’s added value above the exact dollar amount: It forces me to use new produce in the kitchen.

As an example, some of the vegetables I wouldn’t always (or ever, for some of them) think to put on my grocery list have been kohlrabi, okra, purple sweet potatoes, celeriac, and unusual greens. Sometimes coming up with a meal idea is easy; I just use an old standby and substitute the new veggie. It’s instantly new and unusual, without being unfamiliar or a lot of work. Purple sweet potato fries are a huge hit with the toddler simply because they’re a new color. Greens can all be prepared the same way, there’s just a slightly different flavor with each. You can toss them in salad, braise them, or throw them in a sauce. Celeriac can be swapped out for white potatoes and tomatillos can be traded for tomatoes.

Other times I like to use the new vegetable as an excuse to think completely outside the box (pun semi-intended). I just turn to the trusty Internet and look up some ideas based around my pick of the week. My son helps (or should I say “helps”) me by looking at pictures of the vegetable (sometimes we need help identifying it!), playing with it (most of them get chucked around the room a couple times), and tasting it. He often helps me wash, peel, or cut them. By the time the meal comes around, he’s familiar with the once-new piece of produce and is excited to try something he’s been so involved with. I can’t say every dish is a winner in his eyes, but the fact that he’s tasting and exploring new things is a win in my book.

Using a CSA helps you get creative in the kitchen in about the same way a toddler gets excited about seeing one of his old toys again after it’s been boxed up. He knows that he loves it and how it works, but because he hasn’t played with it every day that week, it’s new, exciting, and holds his attention longer. Here are some ways to help you get creative in the kitchen, too. (You don’t have to have a CSA either, just look for a new-to-you veggie in the store and give it a whirl.)

Here are some creative recipes to try with your new veggie supply!

Do you use a CSA? What is your favorite unusual vegetable?

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