Your Guide To Eating Seasonally
The Benefits Of Seasonal Fruits & Veggies
We all have our preferences when it comes to fruits and vegetables. The ones we’ll happily have as a snack and the others we push to the edges of our plates. We may crave the bright refreshment of watermelon in the fall or the earthy flesh of pumpkin in the summer, but when we eat what’s in season instead of solely seeking out our favorites, it’s good for our bodies and the environment, too. We expand our palates and develop a more balanced diet, all while reducing the impact of food production on the earth.
However, the produce available to us seasonally isn’t the same for everyone since the seasons themselves are dependent on where we live. So while we can’t tell you exactly what to look for and when, we can share why it’s beneficial to do so, and how to best care for your produce once you have it to increase longevity and reduce waste.
4 Reasons to Eat With the Seasons
1. It’s Better For You (And Better Tasting)
What we learned as children still holds true: fruits and vegetables are good for us. But how good they can be for us changes with time.
When produce is harvested at its peak maturity, it is at its most nutritionally dense (or “health-promoting”). But when produce is picked before it’s ripe to account for delivery and demand, the development and availability of its nutrients can be stunted. The Rodale Institute, a nonprofit leader in regenerative organic agriculture, points to a study in which the vitamin C value of broccoli that was harvested locally in the fall was found to be “almost twice as high” as the value of broccoli harvested in the spring and shipped.
Prematurely plucked fruits and vegetables may also be treated with gas, heat, chemicals, and wax. These methods slow down the ripening processes, protect the crops from the natural bacteria, or induce ripening to meet commercial scale. One study noted that, through plant breeding, sensory qualities like flavor, nutrition, color, aroma, and texture “have been sacrificed in exchange for practical production objectives” like heavier yields and uniformity. The refrigeration that’s implemented to prevent spoiling can weaken produce’s flavor, too.
So while the fruits and veggies that are in season may not last as long on our countertops and in our fridges—that’s okay, they shouldn’t! (more on that later)—they’ll be brighter in color, richer in flavor, and more packed with the exact nourishment nature intended them to provide.
2. It’s More Affordable
Think back to your Intro to Economics class, remember supply and demand? Simply put, when the supply of a product goes up, its cost goes down. And when goods are rare, they demand higher prices. The same applies to our foods. If we need sweet strawberries in the middle of winter, we can bet that we’ll pay more for the fruit than is standard. This is because making them available off-season requires more attention to packaging, transporting, and supply chains. “All these changes add to the cost of making strawberries available at retail stores and raise retail prices,” says the USDA.
However, in-season fruits and vegetables are harvested in larger quantities, making their costs reasonably lower. And when done so locally, they won’t additionally incur the expenses that come with treating, storing, and shipping produce that’s out of season, out of state, or overseas. When we purchase what nature has made abundantly available to us, we can stretch our dollars.
3. It Supports Farmers
Eating seasonally offers us an opportunity to support our local farmers, economies, and land, and also reduces the demand for inconvenient produce. We can meet growers at our local seasonal farmer’s markets and purchase from them directly, reducing the need for challenging food production methods.
Fostering a relationship with the markets’ vendors can look as simple as us asking which produce they currently have in excess (then buying some) and which produce we can look forward to later in the year. For the ultimate convenience, consider joining a CSA (community-supported agriculture program) or subscribing to one of these organic produce delivery boxes.
4. It’s Environmentally Friendly (But…)
Eating more seasonally has a positive impact on the environment, but there are more effective methods we can take. The transportation required to deliver imported fruits and vegetables can affect both the quality of the produce and of the environment through fuel emissions. But food production is responsible for only one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. (You may have even once heard that food travels, on average, 1,500 from farm to plate; that semi-statistic has since been re-evaluated.)
Instead, what’s been found to reduce our carbon footprints more is what we eat, not when we eat it. In reviewing the largest meta-analysis of global food systems to date, scientist Hannah Ritchie, head of research at Our World in Data, wrote, “Eating locally would only have a significant impact if transport was responsible for a large share of food’s final carbon footprint. For most foods, this is not the case.” (The site includes a data visualization of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 different food products.)
It was discovered that most emissions come from “land use change” like deforestation and farming methods that include cows, fertilizers, manure, and farm machinery. Transportation emissions are, comparatively, quite low for most food products. So while eating seasonally, and thus locally, will reduce your own carbon footprint, making swaps in your diet may be more effective. Columbia University’s Earth Institute argues, “Substituting part of one day a week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products with chicken, fish, eggs, or vegetables achieves more greenhouse gas reduction than switching to a diet based entirely on locally produced food.”
It must be noted that eating locally is not always a viable option for people living in developing countries where diets rely heavily on the import of wheat, maize, or rice. Banning such exports could “put up to 200 million people below the poverty line at risk.” We also need to consider food insecurity and food deserts, which can impact access to seasonal, local, and more environmentally friendly foods.
How to Find & Store Seasonal Produce
To get started, here’s a quick guide for US-based readers. (Remember, your produce will vary depending on your location, even within the US!)
Spring | Artichoke, asparagus, carrot, green onion, leeks, parsnip, peas, radish, swiss chard
Summer | Berries, corn, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, grapes, green bean, melons, stone fruits, tomato, zucchini
Fall | Apple, Brussel sprouts, dates, hard squash (acorn, butternut), pear, pumpkin, sweet potato
Winter | Broccoli, cauliflower, celery, citrus fruits (grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange), leafy greens (collard, kale, spinach), root vegetables (beet, turnip)
If you want a greater education on what your country of residence produces, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture has interactive maps detailing the native origins of major crops, as well as where they’re now produced. But to help determine what produce is available to you and when, head to Google and search for “seasonal foods” + “[your location]” (or a variation of those terms).
Some sites have already done the work for us:
The Seasonal Food Guide allows US-based shoppers to select their state, the month, and the produce they’re seeking to find out if it’s nearby.
Eat the Seasons updates its US/Canada and UK sites weekly with what’s in season and offers the history and biology of each type of produce, along with tips for buying, storing, and preparing.
Leon, a UK-based restaurant chain whose mission is to make good food “fast food,” includes in its cookbook a Seasonality Chart that details the fruits, vegetables, herbs, fish, and more that are available per season. While made for the UK, it can also apply to most of North America. (Print it out and hang it in your kitchen or bring it with you on trips to the market!)
Once you’ve got your produce, it’s best to care for it properly to ensure that you enjoy it at its ripest and reduce waste in the process. Here are the basics:
Salad Greens like arugula, lettuce, and spinach should be stored dry in your crisper in a loose bag.
Cooking Greens like bok choy, collard greens, Napa cabbage, and broccoli rabe should be wrapped in a dry paper towel, placed in a loose bag, and stored in the crisper of your refrigerator, too.
Root Vegetables like beets, carrots, and radishes can be kept for months in your refrigerator’s crisper drawer, so long as their greens were removed and they’re stored in a loose, open bag with a damp paper towel inside.
Stone Fruits like apricots, peaches, and plums should be stored on your counter until fully ripe; refrigerating while unripe will change their texture.
Tropical Fruits like bananas, kiwis, mangoes, and pineapple should be stored on your counter at room temperature until ripe; once ripened or cut, they can be refrigerated.
(BTW, if you want to live even more sustainably and grow your own produce instead 👏, the Old Farmer’s Almanac—which was founded in 1792 and is North America’s oldest continuously published periodical—offers Growing Guides for over 60 common fruits, vegetables, and herbs.)
Eating with the seasons isn’t about uprooting your diet—pun intended. If anything, it’s about honoring what is naturally abundant so that what and how we consume becomes more nutritious, creative, and symbiotic.
Danielle Cheesman is the Partnerships Lead at The Good Trade. Though born and raised in New Jersey, she’s now based in Los Angeles where you can find her taking pictures, making playlists, or cuddling her pup. Say hi on Instagram!