Before science started playing a big part in agriculture around the world, you could only find fresh fruits and vegetables during the season they grew best, because produce relied on weather and other natural growing conditions. Now, you can find pretty much any fruit or vegetable you want regardless of the time of year.
Today, it’s also easy to transport fruits and veggies long distances, so we often take for granted the fact that we can blend fresh strawberries into postride smoothies in January or have avocado toast every day. This has caused many of us to lose sight of what fruits and veggies are in season and when.
Even if you aren’t growing a garden in your backyard, knowing what is in season, and eating to match that, is still important. From better nutrition to saving a bunch of hard-earned cash, here are some of the best reasons to eat by the seasons and what you should be shopping for now.
What is seasonal eating?
Our modern food system includes imported foods flown into your supermarket from all around the world, and we can obtain most of what we want to eat anytime we want it—raspberries in winter, asparagus in fall, and apples almost all year round. It’s easy to think that there are no longer seasons for fruits and vegetables. But all produce has a traditional growing season, even bananas and mangos.
Seasonality can be defined as either globally seasonal (that means it’s produced in the natural production season, but consumed anywhere in the world) or locally seasonal (meaning it’s produced in the natural production season and consumed within the same climatic zone). So seasonal eating encourages you to focus your food choices on the fruits and vegetables that are currently in season.
This lifestyle can also include eating certain fish or meat during specific times of the year, but the focus of a seasonal diet is on fruits and vegetables because their growth more greatly depends on season-specific weather, both locally and globally.
The Benefits of Seasonal Produce
There are numerous reasons to match your eating habits to the cycles of nature as much as possible. Here are five of the best:
1. It’s better for your health and performance
Lots of research pits local and seasonal produce against imported and out-of-season options when it comes to nutrient density. It makes sense to assume foods that are grown and consumed during their appropriate seasons—especially if the time between being picked and eaten is short—offer superior nutrition.
In one study monitoring the vitamin C content of broccoli, scientists found that broccoli grown during its peak fall season had about twice the vitamin C content than shipped-in broccoli grown during the spring.
“Vegetables and fruits that are out-of-season locally which are picked before fully ripened and then transported great distances to reach consumers can suffer nutrient and antioxidant losses,” says Sharon Palmer, R.D.N., founder of The Plant-Powered Dietitian.
Instead of eating the same small group of fruits and vegetables year-round, seasonal eating also encourages a more varied diet. “If you eat from a more local food system there can be a greater diversity of foods available,” Palmer tells Bicycling. She adds that branching out and trying different foods like fiddleheads in the spring and delicata squash in the fall can infuse your diet with a greater variety of health- and performance-enhancing micronutrients and antioxidants that you might not get in sufficient quantities otherwise.
For example, spring greens like asparagus and peas are rich in vitamin K, a nutrient necessary for proper bone metabolism, blood clotting, and more. During the sultry days of summer, hydrating vegetables and fruits such as tomatoes, cucumber, watermelon, and peaches, are readily available and offer their own unique set of nutrients. And many fall foods are packed with beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A to support immune, bone, and vision health.
2. It’s better for your taste buds
Have you ever noticed that the tomatoes at the farmers’ market in July taste so much better (juicier, less mealy) than what’s at the supermarket in February? Or those peak-season apples grown locally are several steps above the waxed variety in the produce department during the warmer months?
Mass-produced produce intended to meet year-round consumer demand tends to suffer from a lack of good taste as quantity, shelf-life, and aesthetics override flavor. “When foods are harvested out of season they are often picked immature, which means the flavor compounds don’t fully develop,” notes Palmer.
Ripening agents such as gases, chemicals, and heat processes can be an enemy to good taste. On the other hand, naturally ripened fruits and vegetables grown and picked in their seasons and climates are typically full of better flavor and texture.
And if you are excited to eat better-tasting fruits and vegetables, chances are you’ll eat more of them—a big bonus when it comes to the nutritional value of your diet. Seeking out and using vegetables and fruits that are in season also prevents you from consuming the same produce over and over again, which makes your diet more enjoyable and exciting. Local and seasonal produce also offers a better chance to sample some out-of-the-ordinary items that might become your new favorites, like purple fingerling potatoes, green zebra tomatoes, and yellow-fleshed watermelon, which aren’t grown globally in large-scale commercial operations.
3. It can be better for the environment
Think about it: How far did the zucchini or blueberries you bought at your local grocery store travel before they were stocked on the shelves? Did it come from a farmer in your state, did it drive across the country, or did it arrive by airplane with an outsized carbon footprint? More than half the fruit and almost one-third of the vegetables bought in the U.S. are imported from other countries, according to a 2016 report.
A combo of seasonal and local can be a big win for Mother Nature. Buying what is being produced locally means paying for foods that have undergone less travel, processing, and typically packaging, all things that Palmer says contributes to a lower environmental cost. A research review in the journal Foods found that local seasonal foods can play an important role in creating a more sustainable diet, including helping drive down fossil fuel reliance.
Seasonal agriculture allows the environment to cycle through its natural resources and seasons like it would without a great deal of human intervention. This means cutting back on artificial seasonal weather conditions, like rain, which leads to high amounts of water usage or generating heat from electricity instead of the sun.
Interestingly, a report in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society suggests that the greenhouse gas emissions of foods that are grown abroad, but are in season in that region, are not necessarily any greater than locally-grown food, as the production system of agriculture has a big impact. If a seasonal item grown close to home is still produced with a high amount of chemical inputs this will scale up its environmental impact. “And if something is being grown locally out of season in a heated greenhouse, it can use more energy than shipping in foods,” Palmer explains.
4. It saves you cash
One benefit that Palmer says is easy to overlook is that buying seasonal produce is an initiative that is easier on your wallet. When a fruit or veggie is in season, it’s abundant and, not surprisingly, it’s available at a lower price. For example, spring is asparagus season for much of the country, so that’s why the spears can be so much cheaper at the moment compared to several weeks from now when what you find in the produce aisle is likely imported from afar—transportation adds to the cost of food.
Meanwhile, if you’re craving a pear or orange in July, you’ll probably pay twice as much as you would during their peak seasons, fall and winter, respectively. Why? Supply is higher during these times, driving down the price.
This is especially relevant now as the inflation rate for food is noticeably higher than normal and more people are struggling to keep their grocery bills under control.
A great cost-saving habit to get into is to stock up on and preserve in-season fruits and vegetables for later on when fresh options are pricey. You can freeze, dehydrate, pickle, and can in-season produce to use during its off-season.
5. It’s better for the local economy
As a bonus to all this, buying seasonal can help support your local growers and encourages the use of farmland for more than just monocrops (or planting a single crop year after year), typically of corn or soy. The money you spend on seasonal products from local farmers and growers stays in the community and can be reinvested with other local businesses to help stimulate local economies. “You also keep a safe, reliable food supply in your community and we learned during COVID just how important it is to have a local food system,” Palmer says.
You should know that there is a good chance that a large amount of in-season fruits and vegetables for sale at mega-supermarkets does indeed come from nearby producers as it’s also better for the bottom line of the grocery store. A store can likely pay less for apples grown in the state than when they’re shipped in from New Zealand.
But to explore seasonal foods in your area and better support your community, try visiting a nearby farmer’s market. It’s here where you can not only typically get seasonal foods for the best price, but also query growers about their production methods and also glean tips from them on how to use unfamiliar items in your cooking.
Two studies, one published in the Nutrition Journal and the other published in Public Health Nutrition, also found an association between trips to the farmers’ market and a greater intake of fruits and vegetables.
You can also join a CSA (community-supported agriculture) where you partner with local farms by purchasing a “share” in the season’s harvest. This initiative helps growers with a guaranteed income. One study found that using a CSA can expand how many different seasonal vegetables someone includes in their diet.
The Bottom Line on Eating Seasonally
Eating seasonally doesn’t have to be a 100-percent commitment. For most of us, this is not a sustainable or necessary pursuit. If you like some fruits and vegetables that are available year-round, go ahead and have them. This will only add to the nutritional value of your diet.
If you live and ride in a place where seasonal fruits and vegetables are hard to come by, it can be more challenging to eat seasonally. Eating seasonally is important, but so is making sure you get the nourishment you need. Do your best to continue to add more in-season fruits and vegetables to your menu where you can. With each purchase, you are improving your nutrient intake, saving money, and likely making a better choice for the environment.
The Best Fruits and Veggies of Every Season
So, what is in season? Below is a general list of foods by the seasons to help guide you. (For a more complete list, check out the Seasonal Produce Guide from the USDA.) Keep in mind that where you live makes a difference in what’s available during each season, but this can give you a general idea of peak food.
- Bell peppers
- Hot peppers
- Sweet Potato
- Winter squash
- Brussels sprouts
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