A Guide to Getting the Most Out Of Seasonal Foods All Year Long
If you are looking to take healthy eating to the next level, one of the best things you can do is to start eating in season. Seasonal foods vary a bit by location – for example, because California has a more moderate climate than Maine, at any given point in time during the year, California will have a greater variety of fruits and vegetables in season (“in season” simply means that the environmental conditions allow for fruits/vegetables to grow to their maximum size and ripeness with minimal human intervention). SeasonalFoodGuide.org offers detailed information about what produce is in season in each of the 50 states and is a great resource to learn exactly which seasonal foods are available in your area during each time of the year.
Another great way to learn which foods are in season is to visit the farmers market or to sign up for a CSA box (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture). Signing up for a CSA means choosing to support a local farm throughout the duration of the growing season. Usually you pay for a season’s worth of fresh produce up front, and each week you get a box filled with produce that was harvested that week. CSAs are by far the most economical option if you consume a lot of produce – an entire box of produce usually only costs about $20. Since farmers markets and CSAs offer food exclusively from local farms, you know that the food you take home is fresh and in season. Getting produce from the farmers market or through a CSA is also fun because it exposes you to fruits and vegetables you might not see in the grocery store.
Here is a general list of what’s in season and when. Winter is the most limited season in regards to the availability of fresh produce. From there on out, each season brings with it more fresh fruits and veggies. Fall is the most abundant season of all.
This list is useful to have on hand if you are shopping at the grocery store where both in-season and imported out-of-season produce is sold. Even when at the grocery store, it’s beneficial to try to shop in season for a whole host of reasons.
1) It’s cheaper
Seasonal foods are in abundance during the time of year when they naturally ripen–and the greater the quantity, the cheaper the price. Additionally, when purchasing in-season fruits and veggies, you are more likely to be purchasing something that was locally grown. This means that you aren’t dishing out extra cash to cover the cost of food transportation.
2) Superior Flavor
Foods that are in season have been allowed to ripen fully before being picked. This means they have the best flavor! Have you ever noticed that strawberries and tomatoes are just so much better in the summer than in the winter? This is because in the winter, the fruit is picked way before it has ripened in order to allow it to be shipped long distances without going bad (ripe fruit doesn’t ship well). The fruit continues to slowly ripen during transit and, if necessary, will be exposed to a ripening agent (such as ethylene or calcium carbide) to expedite the ripening process in the final leg of the journey. As you can imagine, the quality of this end product simply isn’t the same as freshly picked in-season produce.
3) Best Nutrition Value
Fresh, ripe produce has had maximum sun exposure, which means high levels of antioxidants (antioxidants are plants’ protection against oxidative damage from the sun). Research has actually demonstrated that broccoli, for example, is higher in vitamin C in the fall (when it is in season) as opposed to any other time of the year.
Additionally, eating foods that are in season is the best way to support your body at that time of year. Summer foods generally have a higher water content to help keep you hydrated. During the fall, apples, which are high in fiber and pectin, come into season to help cleanse the body as you start to consume heavier foods. During the winter, we tend to eat foods such as winter squash, which is particularly high in vitamin C and beta carotene to boost our immune systems. And mushrooms come into season in the spring to help restore vitamin D levels, which are probably low after a long, dark winter.
The locality of seasonal produce is also beneficial in regard to getting the most nutritional bang for your buck. Food begins to lose its nutritional density the moment it is harvested. Foods that are being transported long distances usually spend up to 5 days in transit, then usually sit on shelves for 1-3 days before being purchased. This means that by the time you end up eating your food (maybe 1 or 2 days after purchase) it has been “off the vine” for about 10 days!
4) Better for the Environment
As mentioned previously, “in season” means that minimal human input is required for the growth and ripening of in season foods. This means no gas or electricity is used to keep a greenhouse up and running, no genetic modification is needed to help plants withstand unfavorable weather, and fewer (if any) pesticides are used (if you buy organic you can be sure that no pesticides were involved).
Additionally, the environmental cost of transporting out-of-season food is minimized. Off-season foods you find in the grocery store have been grown elsewhere, usually in a location quite far away (for example, a lot of produce is grown in Mexico). By buying local in-season produce, you minimize your carbon footprint.
But what about when it’s the middle of the winter and you are really craving blueberries or tomatoes? Realistically very few of us are going to eat seasonal foods all the time, despite our best intentions. Should a craving for summer foods hit you in the middle of winter there are several ways to make sure you are still getting the most bank for your buck, both in terms of nutritional value and flavor.
1) Frozen Produce
Frozen produce is the best way to go! Food destined for the freezer aisle is frozen as soon as it is picked. Freezing halts the degradation process, meaning that most the flavor and nutritional value is retained. An added bonus is that frozen produce is often cheaper than fresh produce. Buying frozen also allows you to buy in bulk without having to worry about food waste. If you are making that trip to Costco anyway, you might as well pick up a few bags of frozen produce to ensure you always have some nutritionally dense fruits and veggies on hand.
2) Fermented Foods
This is your next best option when the fresh produce you want isn’t in season. Fermented foods can actually be nutritionally superior to the original product, although the flavor does change quite a bit. Fermented foods are often easier to digest, loaded with probiotics, and have increased amounts of biotin, nicotinic acid, riboflavin, thiamin, and B12. Additionally, fermentation breaks down anti-nutrients naturally present in plant foods, such as phytic acid, that prevent us from easily accessing the full range of nutrients these foods provide. Once the phytic acid is broken down, it is easier for us to absorb and utilize all the nutrients in food.
Some great fermented food options include sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled beets, and preserved lemons!!
3) Canned Goods
Studies have shown that canned foods generally have the same nutritional quality as out-of-season fresh produce–both have lost some of their nutritional value and flavor, but not so much so they are no longer healthful. The advantage of canned goods is that they are much cheaper. So why not pick up the canned stuff–especially if you are going to be cooking it along with a variety of different foods such that you can’t detect the altered flavor.
(In some specific cases, canning actually increases the nutritional profile of food. An example is tomatoes. The heat used to preserve tomatoes releases lycopene, an antioxidant that may be beneficial in preventing breast cancer and prostate cancer.)
One thing to be wary of with canned foods is the salt content. Check the label to look for low sodium or salt free options. Also make sure the can is labeled as BPA free in order to avoid consuming an unwanted dose of toxins along with your produce.
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