If you’ve never swooned over asparagus or gone gaga over a tomato, then you’ve probably never waited all year for the season’s first crop. Building your diet around foods as they become abundant locally can get you excited about good-for-you ingredients and nudge you — painlessly! — toward a healthier diet. “I’ve seen seasonal eating help people fall in love with cooking and look forward to eating their fruits and veggies, instead of feeling obligated to do so,” says New York-based nutritionist Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD.
How does eating seasonally improve your diet? For starters, in-season produce is much more flavorful than fruits and vegetables shipped from across the country — or the world — so you’re more likely to choose them over processed and less nutritious options. The taste can be a revelation. Take spinach, for example: Because sugar doesn’t freeze, the spinach plant produces extra sugar to protect itself against the cold. Which means a fresh winter spinach salad can be pretty sweet and truly delicious.
Eating with the seasons also brings variety to your diet — and that helps you get the full complement of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that nature offers. Rather than start every morning with, say, half a grapefruit (a winter fruit), you might switch to pomegranates in late fall and blueberries in summer. One study found that women who ate a diet rich in fruits and vegetables from 18 different plant families (including cruciferous vegetables from the Brassicaceae family, such as cabbage, cauliflower and brussels sprouts) had significantly less damage to their genetic material than women who limited themselves to five plant families. This probably reflects the tens of thousands of years that our genes evolved in concert with the environment as our ancestors gathered food from a wide variety of sources. This diverse array of nutrients from the plants we eat (phytonutrients) work together like a symphony to support our body and the way it works in an optimal way.
In-season fruits and veggies are harvested just as they’ve developed abundant nutrients. In contrast, fruits and veggies transported from far away are picked before they’re ripe and nutritionally mature. This allows the produce to survive days or weeks in a truck, but it doesn’t do your body any favors. To go back to spinach again — eating it in season provides up to three times more vitamin C than eating it out of season.
Fresh Off the Farm
It’s getting easier and easier to pile your plate with seasonal food all year round. Below, some of the simplest ways we know to eat with the seasons:
Join a CSA. A regular (usually weekly or monthly) delivery of farm-fresh produce can be just the tool to get you eating in season. CSA stands for “community-supported agriculture.” Here’s how it works: You pay a fee for the season, essentially purchasing a share in a local farm. Then you receive an allotment of the farm’s bounty. Typically, the farmer delivers produce to a central location once a week or once a month, and you pick up your load. “You get to experience firsthand what is available at different times of the year,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. There’s no guarantee exactly what you’ll get each week since weather, pests and other factors influence what grows. But you will get an abundance of food, and since you take home whatever the farmer brings, you’ll get to discover new favorites. Kohlrabi, anyone?
To find a CSA in your area, go to http://www.localharvest.org/csa/.
Hi-tech hunting. Several Web-based applications can help you find out what’s in season in your area during different times of the year — and more and more grocery stores are carrying seasonal, local produce. Eat Well Guide offers a useful seasonal ingredient map (http://www.eatwellguide.org/i.php?id=Seasonalfoodguides). You may also be able to track what’s in season and where you can buy it through a smart phone application, such as Locavore on the iPhone.
Off to the market. A weekly trip to your nearest farmers’ market is the simplest way to stock up on seasonal groceries. Local farmers generally sell food as it becomes available — it’s often picked that morning. Markets are sprouting across the country, so you shouldn’t have to travel far to reach one. To find a farmers’ market in your area, visit http://apps.ams.usda.gov/FarmersMarkets/.
Grow it yourself. Nothing’s more seasonal than the produce you grow. And you don’t need much space or a green thumb to do it. Start with seedlings (baby plants) of easy-to-grow veggies like tomatoes or cucumbers. If you have no yard, herbs such as basil, mint and parsley do just fine in large pots. You’ll get fresh, very tasty seasonings that have more nutrients and other disease-fighting compounds than dried herbs in a little jar. Oregano, peppermint and lemon balm, for instance, lose about half their carotenoid, a heart-healthy chemical, when dried, according to a study published in the journal Food Chemistry.
Work with winter. We think of spring and summer as our seasons of bounty, but there’s plenty of great food available in winter too. In Vermont, where winter can stretch seemingly forever, the term “in season” is stretched as well, by keeping locally grown and storage-friendly foods such as apples and potatoes in root cellars. Winter is also a good time to remember that fruits and vegetables aren’t the only seasonal food. Ask your fishmonger what’s in season. The answer will vary based on where you live. For instance, in New England, winter is shrimp season, but if you want some cod on the Cape, wait for the warmer months. Although we may not think of fish as being seasonal, much of it is, either because the catch is tied to natural conditions such as temperature or because it’s regulated to prevent overfishing. Eating seasonal fish is a good way to eat local fish caught in the wild. Research shows that farm-raised fish, especially salmon, often has higher levels of cancer-causing chemicals and other contaminants. Farm-raised salmon also has less protein and significantly more fat than wild salmon — and it’s not the good kind of fat (omega-3 fatty acids); it’s the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
Freezer pleasers. Don’t overlook frozen veggies and fruits. Produce is typically picked and frozen at its peak, so it has a high vitamin and mineral content. And it is often less expensive than out-of-season produce shipped to your local supermarket from South America, Asia or Australia.