How to Shop & Eat Seasonally for your Health

Blog from @fourwellnessco:

A century ago, most Americans knew where their food came from—be that their own family farm, vegetable garden, or the local butcher they purchased meat from. But significant changes in food production and processing in the early half of the 20th century ended up disconnecting us from our sources of food, and ultimately leading us to eat less locally and seasonally than ever before in human history.

Today, we can find most fruits and vegetables in a grocery store year-round (though this convenience does come at a cost—more on that below). Yet, eating seasonally has many health, environmental and financial benefits that make it worth considering what we choose to eat, and when.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO EAT SEASONALLY?

So, what does eating seasonally entail? Exactly what it sounds like—consuming fruits and vegetables when they’re in season. But, unfortunately, this seemingly obvious dietary practice has become increasingly less common.

An ancient Ayurvedic practice, ritucharya (translated literally to “seasonal regime”), involves living in harmony with the seasons. This includes understanding the effect of changing weather on the body and how to eat in accordance with the seasons to promote health and prevent disease. Ritucharya is based on the six traditional Indian seasons, but the same principle can be applied to the four seasons we experience here in the U.S.

While seasonal eating has been practiced for most of history, modern lifestyle (and convenience) has encouraged Americans to consume less local, more processed foods. Expanding transportation networks and new technologies (such as refrigeration) have given us greater access to a variety of crops year-round.

But should you reconsider eating avocado toast in the winter?

Let’s review why knowing how your food is grown and where it comes from matters for a few different reasons.

THE BENEFITS OF EATING SEASONALLY

There are many reasons to eat seasonally for yourself, your community and the environment. Here are a few:

BETTER FLAVOR

Ever notice how farmers’ market strawberries tend to taste sweeter than grocery store strawberries? Large commercial farms mass-produce crops to meet high demand, but they have some different logistical challenges in getting their ripe crops to consumers. Genetic innovation in plant breeding has helped increase crop size, yields, uniformity, shipping quality, and shelf life—but in some cases (like strawberries), at the expense of being able to provide fresh, vine-ripened fruit.

(Indeed, some people in the U.S. don’t even know what it’s like to taste a fresh, vine-ripened strawberry, because it’s so rare to find in mainstream grocery stores!)

In contrast, food sourced locally is grown closer to you and has a shorter journey to the store, meaning it tends to be fresher by the time it gets to you. And, fresher produce is better tasting (and better for you, as we’ll see below!).

BETTER FOR YOUR HEALTH

Fewer pesticides & preservatives. Fruits and vegetables grown out of season often require premature harvesting and artificial ripening agents to slow the maturation process. Some produce is even coated with an edible film (ick!) to protect it from bacteria en route to the supermarket.

Consuming fruits and vegetables grown locally in season (and organic, when possible) limits the amount of pesticides and preservatives needed to keep the produce fresh until purchase. Pesticide exposure has been associated with numerous long-term health concerns, from cancer to neurological deficits and reproductive issues (more on this in The Health Benefits of Eating Organic). While most of these studies have been focused on those occupationally exposed (farm workers and pesticide applicators), researchers continue to study the effects of high pesticide consumption on long-term health (remember, these chemicals are relatively new in our diets!).

More nutrient dense. When a fruit or vegetable is picked before it’s ripe, its nutrients haven’t fully developed (and they can’t continue to develop, as the plant is starved of the sunshine it needs to grow). Foods consumed closer to when they are harvested are fresher and more nutrient dense—quite simply, shorter transit means less degradation. And, the seasonality of crops also affects their nutrient profile: for example, one study found that broccoli grown in fall (its peak season) had higher levels of vitamin C than when grown in spring.

More balanced diet. Eating seasonally also encourages a greater variation in diet. Proper nutrition is necessary to prevent disease, infection and fatigue. Fruits and vegetables are an essential part of a balanced diet, as they are the primary sources of vitamins and minerals. Eating seasonally supports seasonal-specific needs. Spring vegetables (such as spinach) help to alkalize and detoxify the body (much needed after a long winter of over-indulging!).

Try purchasing fruits and vegetables in their frozen form when not in season. They are picked at the peak of their ripeness and flash frozen to retain nutrients (and flavor).

BETTER BANG FOR YOUR BUCK

Eating seasonally can also be a money saver. Fruits and vegetables are more abundant in peak season, and subsequently cost less for farmers and distributors to supply to you—typically resulting in lower prices for the consumer (cha ching!).

BETTER FOR YOUR LOCAL COMMUNITY

Local, seasonal eating also supports local farmers, which helps support your local economy. Check out a farmers market in your area or sign up for a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) share (more on that later!).

BETTER FOR THE PLANET

Buying seasonally and locally also has environmental benefits. Fruits and vegetables sold out of season travel thousands of miles by truck or airplane across the country (or ocean) to reach your store shelves. This transit accounts for 10% of the carbon footprint of food production—which, of course, makes “out of season” foods not a very eco-friendly choice. Eating seasonally can certainly reduce the environmental impact of your food choices.

TIPS FOR EATING SEASONALLY

Now that we know why it’s so important to be conscious of seasonal food choices, how can we tell what’s actually in season?

What’s considered “in season” largely depends on where you live. This seasonal food guide can help determine which foods are grown in your area throughout the year.

The following general seasonal guide can also help you get started:

SPRING

  • Asparagus

  • Chives

  • Greens

    • Arugula

    • Kale

    • Spinach

  • Peas

  • Radishes

  • Ramps

  • Rhubarb

  • Turnips

SUMMER

  • Avocados

  • Berries

  • Cucumbers

  • Eggplant

  • Herbs

    • Basil

    • Cilantro

    • Dill

    • Mint

    • Oregano

    • Parsley

    • Sage

  • Lettuce

  • Melons

  • Peaches

  • Peppers

  • Plums

  • Summer squash

  • Tomatoes

FALL

  • Apples

  • Beets

  • Broccoli

  • Brussel sprouts

  • Cabbage

  • Carrots

  • Cauliflower

  • Garlic

  • Potatoes

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Winter squash

WINTER

(Think storage crops!)

  • Beets

  • Brussel sprouts

  • Carrots

  • Leeks

  • Onions

  • Oranges

  • Potatoes

  • Rutabagas

  • Sweet potatoes

  • Turnips

  • Winter squash

HOW TO SHOP SEASONALLY

Okay, so you’ve got an idea of what to look for! Now, where can you find seasonal produce in your area?

You’ll likely have no problem finding seasonal fruits and vegetables at your nearby supermarket (remember, peak season means abundance of supply). That being said, many chain grocery stores source from larger commercial farms year-round, which means that fruits and vegetables “in season” may still be shipped from distant places.

Here are a few alternatives to find seasonal, organic and sustainably-grown food from your local area:

FOOD COOPERATIVES

Food cooperatives (co-ops) are member-owned grocery stores that offer benefits (such as reduced prices) to shoppers who buy a share in the cooperative. Co-ops typically focus on more organic, natural and sustainably-sourced food options, supplied directly from local farmers and producers in the area.

FARMERS’ MARKETS

Farmers’ markets (season and weather permitting) are great sources of fresh, local produce, meats, dairy and bakery products, among others. Given that the food is produced in your local area, it’s typically seasonal by default!

COMMUNITY SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE (CSA)

Another avenue of shopping directly from your local farmers is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Some farms offer seasonal CSA “shares” to the public. Consumers can purchase a share of vegetables at the beginning of a growing season and receive a box of seasonal produce regularly (usually weekly or biweekly, depending on the share) throughout the growing season. Each box contains an assortment of vegetables that coincide with the growing season.

This model also helps farmers because the early payment benefits the farm’s cash flow. Additionally, CSAs build a connection between the farmer and the consumer. Some farms even offer special perks to their members including farm tours, pick-your-own harvesting opportunities and additional share add-ons (such as meat, eggs, honey etc.). Most CSA boxes are not customizable (you get what you get!) which expose consumers to vegetables they may not otherwise purchase—ever tried kohlrabi or celeriac?

GROW YOUR OWN

And finally, what better connection to your food than growing it yourself? Grab some seeds/plants, dedicate some space and happy planting (and watering, and weeding and harvesting). There’s nothing like tasting a homegrown heirloom tomato!

Here are a few tips for getting started:

Consider your space. Plants require sufficient soil depth to grow. Smaller crops with less extensive root systems (such as herbs and greens) will grow better in pots than larger crops requiring more space (like tomatoes and potatoes).

Maximize sunlight. Plants also, of course, require sufficient sunlight to grow. South-facing gardens or windows are optimal, as they get the most sunlight during the day. If you’re growing indoors, consider purchasing a grow light to mimic natural sunlight.

Plan that water source. Fruits and vegetables typically require about 1 inch of water per week. Choose a garden site with close access to a water source.

Check your soil quality. Some soil contains heavy metals (such as lead) or depleted nutrients, both of which will impact the growth (and safety) of your produce. It’s best to test your soil before planting directly in the ground—or, you can use potting soil in raised beds or pots.

FARM-TO-TABLE RESTAURANTS

Today, the farm-to-table culinary movement promotes food traceability at all points of food purchase and consumption. This makes eating seasonally while dining or carrying out possible. Farm-to-table restaurants highlight local and seasonal ingredients on their rotating menus. (Yum!)