Fresh Food Returns

As our spring weather truly arrives and fresh produce returns to our tables, many of us are looking for ways to include more of it in our meal plans. Of course, grocery stores are gearing up to provide the basics and it's good to have that as a proper backup, but warmer weather and the start of the growing season is a great time to be inspired to reach further and stretch your appreciation for all things fresh. Here are some of my favorite ways to do just that.

The most time-consuming and involved option, of course, is taking it upon ourselves to plant and tend a little garden of our own. The benefit is being able to walk outside and grab fresh herbs, tomatoes, and cucumbers all summer long. And trust me when I say that once you taste a tomato ripe from the vine, you will be ruined for the grocery store offerings forever. Fresh summer tomatoes are nothing less than bliss. And if you are certain you cannot garden because you don't have the space, consider the benefits of raised beds, small plots, and containers for gardening. The folks at The Old Farmer's Almanac and Gardener's Supply Company have some great resources to get you started. A year ago, we started a little raised bed garden for our daughter and she loved it so much that we've expanded it this year so she can grow even more — and who is going to complain about raising a kid who loves kale and carrots and grows them herself?

If getting your hands dirty and doing it yourself isn't appealing or you just don't have the time and space for gardening, consider investing in local farmers and enjoying the bounty of their efforts all season long. Community supported agriculture (CSA) involves signing up to receive a share in advance to help farmers cover the cost of operating their farms. In exchange, CSA members get boxes of fresh produce from the farm throughout the growing season. Depending on the CSA you sign up for, you might be receiving a box every week, every other week, or even on various flexible plans. The CSA my family participates in offers peak season shares for those wanting to focus on the tomatoes and melons of late July and early August and even punch cards that can be used to pick and choose fresh produce at the local farmers' market at the state capitol. Many CSA programs also offer additional types of shares ranging from coffee and fruit to farm-raised meat and maple syrup. They also provide members opportunities to visit the farm and become involved in learning more about where their food is grown. If CSAs sound like something you'd like to explore more, the Fairshare CSA Coalition and Local Harvest both have information about the concept as well as searchable databases to help you find a farm near you.

One of the most flexible ways to work farm-fresh produce into your weekly menus is making friends with your local farmers' markets. Often even small communities will host a weekly market in which vendors offer everything from items just harvested from their gardens to honey to the best preserves your money can buy. In larger towns and cities, you might be able to pick and choose a market based on the time of day you wish to visit, which neighborhoods you live near, and even specialty products offered. Being able to purchase your items at a farmers' market often comes with the opportunity to speak with people involved in the growing and processing of the items you are purchasing and there's a certain sense of satisfaction that can come with spending locally to support neighbors. If you're not already taking advantage of local farmers' markets and want to find one or more in your area, the USDA has a large directory of farmers' markets that's searchable and Local Harvest has a fun map that can help you pinpoint a new favorite!

However you decide to access fresher food during this most productive of seasons, make sure you take some time to enjoy the amazing food the growing season has to offer. It's delicious, nutritious, beautiful, and absolutely fun to incorporate into your meals, snacks, and treats. When Mother Nature makes food so appealing, it's a perfect time to make sure you find a way to foster your own connection with the land that does so much to make us well.

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