The polar vortex may have struck again, but there’s a faint, shining light at the end of the tunnel: spring! Soon, towns and cities all over the country, not just those of us fortunate enough to live in temperate climates, will start seeing more in-season fresh fruits and vegetables at their local farmers markets. So what’s the big deal? Can’t we get fruits and veggies whenever we want at the grocery store? While you may believe “in-season” is just another food industry buzzword — among others like “eating locally” and “sustainability” — it’s a concept that’s been around since the dawn of time. And believe it or not, there’s actually a scientifically proven benefit to eating this way.
Long before grocery stores stocked every fruit and veggie under the sun year-round, our ancestors ate with the seasons. They picked and purchased produce according to what could be grown and harvested at the time. In harsh climates that had a shorter growing season, they pickled, canned, and froze whatever they could so they could continue to consume some sort of produce during the long winter months. It’s just how it was done because that was the only option.
But then mass grocery stores starting popping up in the 1950s and 1960s, and long-distance transportation caught on, so stores were able to offer just about any type of produce any time of year, transporting it in from all over the world. Our modern way of life would indeed look a lot different without these convenient and widely distributed stores. Because of them, strawberries can taste like heaven in the middle of January!
So, why care about consuming fruits and veggies when they’re in season? Turns out there are a few good reasons why you should be interested in sourcing in-season produce. Perhaps the most important reason of all? It’s better for you.
The Healthy Factor
Fruits and vegetables begin losing vital nutrients and vitamins as soon as they’re picked. Thus, getting fresh produce from your farmers’ hands to your body as soon as possible is ideal for reaping that produce’s full nutritional rewards. On the other hand, if produce is picked prematurely, its vitamin and nutrient potential is never reached. This process of allowing produce to ripen naturally increases the plant’s amount of phytonutrients. “As a crop gets closer to full ripeness, it converts its phytonutrients to the most readily absorbable forms, so you’ll get a higher concentration of healthful compounds,” says Preston Andrews, PhD, a plant researcher and associate professor of horticulture at Washington State University.
Therefore, picking produce before it’s ready actually robs you of the full benefits that the fruit or vegetable has to offer. For us grownups who may willingly consume many fruits and veggies to compensate for this nutrient loss, it’s no big deal. But for us parents with kids who are picky eaters and don’t reach for fruits and veggies first, knowing the full potential for nutrition isn’t met can be heartbreaking. By the way, most American adults don’t even eat half their recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables, giving us even more reason to make each piece of produce count.
Beyond that, it is thought that the nutrients available in the fruits and vegetables each season offer us what our bodies need at that time. For example, during citrus season when vitamin C-rich oranges are replete just happens to be cold and flu season — when our bodies need vitamin C.
Ever wonder why a tough, sour winter strawberry pales in comparison to the sweet, juicy, and flavorful one you nosh on during the summer? Well, fruits and vegetables picked at the peak of ripeness taste abundantly better. (It might have something to do with the fact that they’re grown to their full potential when they’re in season!) If you’re having a hard time getting your children to try new fruits and veggies, do yourself, and them a favor, and offer it to them when it’s perfectly ripe. Your odds of getting them to enjoy these snacks are remarkably improved.
In-season produce is usually much cheaper as well, which is good for your wallet. When anything is available in abundance, the cost will be decreased, and produce is no exception. Just ask any home gardener who has ever grown zucchini during the summer. Summer squash is known to produce so much fruit, its growers are literally giving the stuff away by the end of the season. Also, it makes sense that if something has to be transported halfway across the country, higher costs will be involved.
So, how exactly can you eat in-season? If you live somewhere snowy and cold and you want to start right now, begin buying frozen fruits and vegetables. These have actually been proven to be just as fresh, if not fresher than their more recently picked, non-frozen counterparts. This is because they are picked and frozen at the peak of ripeness, sealing in all their important nutrients.
Once things start to thaw out, consider joining a CSA group supplied by local farmers. You can support local farms, and get a taste of what your region has to offer in accordance with the seasons. This can be a fun and interesting challenge. You’ll be surprised with the new goodies you get each week, and you’ll get to try your hand at making new recipes and snacks in the kitchen.
If and when local farmers markets start popping up in your area, frequent them to get a feel for what’s in-season in your area, as it can vary by region. This fruit and vegetable guide can show you what produce is in season, but keep in mind that areas may vary. For instance, here in Southern California, it’s not atypical to see fresh asparagus grown and sold all through summer.
Last, do your best because small changes do make a difference. We admittedly do not live and eat by the seasons alone. For example, my family consumes bananas from Ecuador year-round. But by centering just a couple of meals around seasonal produce each week, you’re making huge improvements in increasing nutrients in your diet and leaving a smaller global foot print in the process. As you start to feel more comfortable, increase your consumption, but I don’t recommend feeling guilty about buying a case of strawberries this winter. After all, we all need a little bit of sunshine in our day from time to time.
One of my favorite lines from all the books I’ve read on eating and sourcing clean, nutrient dense foods is from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. When the author writes about eating in-season, she compares our consumption of tomatoes to that of teenage love: “We advise our children to abstain and wait for marriage, while we adults don’t even have the patience to wait for the right time to eat a tomato.”
While her comparison may be a little bit extreme, the sentiment is right on. Some things quite literally just taste better when we have to patiently wait for them.