Stocking up on our favorite fruits and vegetables has never been easier. We can get winter produce in the summertime. We have access to foods that are grown overseas. We can even have our groceries delivered.
You may have heard that eating locally and seasonally is a good thing, but with all these convenient options, is shlepping to the farmers market actually worth it?
Short answer: Yes.
Eating seasonal produce—a.k.a. eating certain fruits and vegetables during the time of year they're at their peak—not only benefits your health, but it’s good for the environment too. Eating in harmony with the seasons may seem like a trendy health fad, but it’s actually been a way of life for humans for thousands of years—and for good reason.
Here are the many reasons to make seasonal foods an integral part of your diet:
Seasonal produce is fresher and more nutritious.
Time is the enemy for fresh produce: As soon as they leave the vine or tree, fruits and vegetables start to lose their nutritional value. Some produce—such as spinach and broccoli—begin to lose nutrients within hours of picking, while others—such as apples, carrots, and potatoes—stay fresher longer.
Produce that’s not in season is picked, stored, and often transported, which affects the quality. Green beans, for example, will lose 77 percent of their vitamin C after a week of storage, according to the Department of Food Science and Technology at University of California, Davis.
Food fact: Frozen fruits and vegetables can sometimes beat the nutritional value of fresh produce, because frozen food is immediately frozen, preserving its nutritional value.
If you must store produce, make sure you limit exposure to heat, light, and oxygen. All three of these degrade nutrients in fresh produce. Here are 11 tips to make fresh fruit and vegetables last longer.
Seasonal produce is more flavorful.
Vine-ripened tomatoes are often prized for their flavor, as they have a richness from fully maturing in the sun. That’s because the freshest, best-tasting produce comes right from the vine or tree.
Foods grown out of season are typically picked before they are ripe, so they can be transported and stored without spoiling. Out-of-season produce may look good, but the flavor can be bland compared to a crop picked at high season.
Here are ideas to capitalize on the freshest flavors of spring crops including rhubarb, asparagus, Swiss chard, and mushrooms.
Seasonal produce can help broaden your horizons.
Let the season’s fresh produce inspire you to try some new foods. Some fruits and vegetables may only be available certain times of the year. Look forward to a jicama mango salad in late spring / early summer, or butternut squash soup in the winter. There are dozens of varieties of squash, so why not brighten your winter dinner menu with one you haven’t tried before?
Seasonal produce suits the season.
Do you get excited for pumpkin-flavored, well, everything in the fall? Yams at Thanksgiving? Watermelons in the summer? The traditions that surround foods that are in season are deeply ingrained—so take advantage! Take a closer look at what’s at your local market—you may notice something as common as lettuce has seasons too. (Psst, it’s spring! Just in time for fresh salads.)
Seasonal produce may be less expensive.
You may have noticed that the cost of produce fluctuates throughout the year. Shopping seasonally may mean lower prices thanks to the rule of supply and demand. You’ll save on transportation and farming costs too.
Seasonal produce helps build a community.
If you’re fortunate enough to live near a farmers’ market, you can strengthen your local community and economy by buying directly from the people who grow your food. What’s more: Farmers often have tips on selection, storing, and best ways to prepare their produce.
Seasonal produce is environmentally friendly.
Environmentally, seasonal foods typically require less transportation and less intensive farming methods. Some of your favorite crops may be grown locally in season, but have to be shipped when out-of-season. Strawberries can be cultivated year-round in hot greenhouses, but they grow like a charm under the summer sun.
After making seasonal foods a regular part of your diet, you may even be inspired to grow a seasonal vegetable or two yourself. A single cherry tomato plant on your patio can insure an abundance of delicious, vine-ripened tomatoes all season long. More than you can eat? Trade with friends and neighbors for their crops. You’ll enjoy the superior taste and the sense of connection to your food.
Want to eat more seasonally but not sure where to start? Check out this Seasonal Produce Guide from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.