While many of us have year-round access to a wide range of fruits and veggies and eating a variety of produce is crucial for health, prioritizing in-season produce should be your next nutrition goal. It’s great that we have access to produce from anywhere at any time of the year in our grocery stores (tropical fruits like bananas and mangoes are available in the Midwest even during wintertime, West Coast fruits like avocados and lemons are available at all times on the East Coast, and we can always find berries, peppers, or apples, even if they’re not in season), but it’s important to prioritize what is local and in season for many reasons. As a certified nutrition coach, I teach clients that seasonal foods are crucial and help them achieve a better diet. Read on to find out why it’s so important to eat foods that are in season (and how).
Why it’s important to eat what’s in season
It tastes better
When food is imported, it is often picked earlier in its ripening process so that it is not overly ripe or bad by the time it arrives to its destination to be sold and eaten. Local foods (and therefore foods that are in season near you) are able to grow until they reach their peak ripeness since they do not need to last through travel. The longer a fruit or veggie is able to grow on its vine, branch, or bush, the more flavorful it will be, meaning juicier, tastier, and more delicious produce.
It’s more nutritious
Since it can grow longer than traveling produce, local produce also has more nutrients. Locally grown food is picked at its peak ripeness, when it’s most dense with nutrients. Also, produce begins to lose the amount of nutrients after about 24 hours of being picked, and traveling produce can also lose nutrients from being exposed to temperature changes, artificial light, and air. Local produce is typically grown until it has peak nutrients and isn’t exposed to the many ways used to keep produce fresh while traveling that can typically lower nutritional content. Note: If in-season produce is less available to you, don’t worry. Traveling produce still has tons of nutrients, and organic frozen produce is frozen at peak taste and nutritional value so you can reap similar benefits.
It’s usually cheaper
When there is a large amount of local produce, the cost usually goes down (AKA basic supply and demand). When food has to be imported, the cost also needs to account for the travel accommodations and labor to get it to you. Imported food also often has to be specially packaged and stored to keep it at a certain temperature since it is traveling to a different climate. In-season food and local produce are typically cheaper because they require less cost to get to you. Of course, “cheaper” might only be a few cents, but over time, it adds up. Know that healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive—shop at your local farmer’s market or the local section of your grocery store for more affordable options.
It supports your body’s seasonal needs
Our bodies need different things in different seasons. For example, many citrus fruits are in season during the winter, and citrus fruits are packed with vitamin C, which is good for supporting the immune system during a season when it could often use a pick-me-up (colder weather means cold and flu season!). Other winter produce include carrots, celery, and winter squash like butternut squash, all of which are great for a warm winter meal like soup. Likewise, summer produce has many benefits that our bodies need more of during that season. For example, fruits like cantaloupe and mangoes have beta-carotene, which a new study suggests can help prevent skin damage (but you know you still need to load up on SPF too, right?). It’s no coincidence that nutrients in fruits and veggies correlate to the fluctuating needs of the body from season to season.
It’s good for the environment
Buying food that has been imported means that it has left a bigger footprint on the environment due to the packaging, water, and fossil fuel necessary to get the produce from one location to the next. When produce travels from afar (instead of from a truck to your distributor or grocery store), more energy is spent to transport, refrigerate, and store it, and more packaging is needed to keep it fresher for longer. You can also support local farmers by buying locally sourced produce at your local grocery stores or farmers markets. Farmers markets themselves promote sustainability because many local farmers use certified organic practices, which reduces the amount of synthetic pesticides and chemicals that pollute our soil and water.
Interested in eating in-season foods? Here’s how to start:
Now that you have some insight on why it’s important to eat seasonally, how do you get started? The first thing to do is know what is locally in season in your area using a resource like The Seasonal Food Guide. Then, make a list of what products you like from that list or even ones you haven’t tried before but want to try. Shopping at your local farmers market instead of a chain grocery store whenever possible is a great way to ensure everything you’re buying is local and sustainable, but most grocery stores or produce labels will flag local products. If these aren’t options for you, just purchase organic versions of whatever is in-season food, as these are most likely to be the most local and will still contain similar benefits if they’re not.
As for knowing how to eat the in-season food, make a Pinterest board with recipes that include the fruits or vegetables so you can make your shopping list and buy everything you can locally. Bonus tip: If you’re worried about wasting food or money because you’ll never eat all that produce before it goes bad, chop up and freeze any fruits and veggies to defrost later, add them to dishes like stews, or use them in smoothies for a seasonal boost.