Last Updated on January 23, 2021
Interested in eating seasonally? Here’s what to know about seasonal foods and how to eat seasonally all year long.
WHAT IS SEASONAL EATING AND WHY EAT SEASONALLY?
Eating seasonally means choosing fresh foods that are in season in your area. So those of us in northern climates won’t find locally-grown strawberries in December, corn in March, artichokes in June, or asparagus in September, even if they appear on grocery store shelves. To eat seasonally, we choose produce that’s ripening in our region, shifting with the change in seasons.
Does eating seasonally mean you can only eat foods that are in season in your area? Of course not! Seasonal eating is a guiding principle, not an all-or-nothing mandate. Aim to focus on foods that haven’t been flown in from other parts of the world, but don’t feel like you can never eat a banana again because they don’t grow in your region.
If you’ve only ever gotten tomatoes and strawberries in plastic boxes from the grocery store, prepare to be blown away by the fantastic flavor of the ones grown at farms near you.
If you don’t have easy access to fresh produce, consider a delivery service focused on seasonal produce, like Farmbox Direct.
BENEFITS OF EATING SEASONALLY
Not long ago, eating seasonally was the only option. Flying fresh food halfway around the world is a very new phenomenon, and while it adds to the variety in the produce we can get at grocery stores, this anti-seasonal approach to eating has a pretty huge impact on the environment.
All that flying and refrigeration takes enormous amounts of energy, and that means greenhouse gas emissions. Those of us interested in sustainability looking for ways to reduce our contributions to climate pollution will be pleased to hear that eating local, seasonal foods can help shrink our foodprint.
But there are plenty of other benefits to eating seasonally beyond its environmentally-friendliness.
Flavor: Have you noticed that food generally tastes better when it’s in season? That perfect garden tomato rather than the tasteless versions you’ll find at the grocery store in winter, for example.
Money: Focusing on locally-grown foods also helps support your local economy and the small growers in your community. In many cases, you’ll find that buying food from local farmers saves you money over buying less tasty produce at the grocery store.
IS EATING SEASONALLY HEALTHIER?
Eating seasonally may benefit your health in multiple ways.
First, when fruits and vegetables have to be shipped long distances, they’re typically picked before they’re fully ripe, which not only means less flavor, but in many cases, lower levels of nutrients.
And really, aren’t you far more likely to incorporate lots of fruits and veggies into your diet if they’re bursting with flavor than if they’re underripe and tasteless? One of the hidden benefits of eating seasonally is you’re most likely going to have an easier time passing on processed junk and dig into “eating the rainbow” as nutritionists suggest.
Last, studies have found that fruits and vegetables will generally have the highest levels of nutrients right after harvest and less with each passing day. Produce that needs to ship thousands of miles to reach your plate spends days in transport and then sits on a store shelf. In contrast, when you buy from a farmer’s market or CSA, fruits and vegetables are often harvested that morning, so you’re getting your food at its most nutrient-dense.
HOW TO EAT SEASONALLY ALL YEAR ROUND
Eating seasonally during the warmer months (or if you live somewhere that food grows readily all year long) isn’t difficult. Enjoy early greens and berries in spring, and so many luscious fruits and vegetables in summer — tomatoes, blueberries, zucchini, peaches, peppers, melons. In fall, we get hearty squashes, brassicas like broccoli and cabbage, plus root vegetables, apples, and pears.
Did you know many fall crops taste better after a frost? The carrots and spinach we get here after the temperatures dip are unbelievably sweet and full of flavor.
Each crop’s “season” will have different timing in different climates, so get to know your own local seasonal crops. In warmer climates, winter is the time to focus more on cool-weather crops like cabbage, kale, and broccoli, as well as citrus. I’m so jealous of you folks who live where you can pick oranges off trees!
Here are just some of the crops to look forward to as the seasons change:
Rhubarb, asparagus, peas, radishes, spring garlic, scallions, fiddleheads, greens (spinach, lettuce, arugula)
Tomatoes, peppers, corn, melons, peaches, plums, berries, zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, green beans
Squash, apples, pears, carrots. kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, beets, oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, persimmon, kohlrabi
HOW DO YOU EAT SEASONALLY IN WINTER?
What about when it’s too cold for anything to grow? Here in Minnesota, that’s half the year! (No, not kidding. We just got blanketed with snow in mid-October, and the soil doesn’t even begin to warm up till April.)
Though a few crops can survive into early winter with protection, in cold climates, nothing will grow outside a greenhouse for many months. Though you can grow some vegetables indoors and have a small portion of your diet about as local as it gets.
Winter is when seasonal eating means leaning on long-storing foods or foods you’ve preserved (or bought preserved). Foods with excellent storage life include some fantastic root vegetables, like carrots, parsnips, and beets, as well as all those wonderful winter squash, many of which keep for months under the right conditions.
If you think ahead a bit, you can have a freezer stocked with berries, greens, and veggies, loads of canned tomatoes, fruits, and other garden crops, and a pantry full of dehydrated produce, allowing you to eat seasonal foods at any time of year.
Not all of us have time or space to put up all of our own food, but you can start small with food preservation by simply air-drying some herbs you get from your herb garden or local farmers. Using your freezer and dehydrating foods is easy and requires no special equipment, though if you get into food preservation in a big way, you’ll probably want to invest in a chest freezer and dehydrator.
We use our dehydrator to dry basil, peaches, apples, plums, and other fruits and vegetables. We make zucchini chips and lots of homemade fruit leather with rhubarb in spring and apple and pear fruit leather in fall. SO good!
In late summer and fall, we make batch after batch of our no-fail baked kale chips and keep what we don’t eat right out of the oven in mason jars to enjoy when the cold has killed off even the kale.
Some cut-up seasonal fruit heads to the freezer for smoothie recipes. Herbs like thyme and sage hang dry and are stored for winter cooking.
RECIPES THAT WILL INSPIRE EATING SEASONALLY
I love celebrating seasonal foods, so I’ve made a point to collect hundreds of inspiring recipes for making the most out of eating seasonally. Check out these recipe collections focusing on seasonal favorites:
- Amazing Rhubarb Recipes to Celebrate Spring
- 25 Kale Recipes to Make You Crave Kale
- 50+ Delicious and Healthy Zucchini Recipes
- 75+ Healthy Pumpkin Recipes to Celebrate Fall
- 30 Mouth-Watering Sweet Potato Recipes
- Healthy Spaghetti Squash Recipes You Need to Try
In spring, be sure to enjoy plenty of rhubarb sauce and rhubarb crisp. If you can get your hands on spring garlic, try this fantastic spring veggie pasta dish featuring spring garlic, asparagus, and spinach.
And in summer, give a sun tea made with home-grown herbs a try.
If you’d like a beautiful cookbook to inspire seasonally-based cooking, check out some of the offerings at Bookshop.org, which gives 10% of your purchase to independent booksellers.
TAKE YOUR SEASONAL EATING UP A NOTCH
Want to experience the best of eating seasonally? Dive into some easy local foraging, which you can probably do without ever leaving your yard. When things first start to green up in spring, take advantage of super-nutritious dandelions (here are 35 ways to use dandelions), try Virginia waterleaf in your next frittata, and make the most of medicinal wild violets and nutrient-packed purslane. Here are additional weeds you can eat.
Elderberries grow everywhere, and they’re loaded with nutrients beneficial to long-term health as well as compounds that help us fight off viruses. They ripen just as school begins in the fall, making them a perfect seasonal food for shoring us up against autumn’s onslaught of viruses. Here’s what to know about identifying elderberry plants and how to use elderberries.
Elderflowers are among the many ephemeral flowers you can eat to look for as the season progresses. Like the berries, elderflowers have excellent medicinal properties. Here’s what to know about elderflower benefits and how to get them.
We don’t often think about the edible parts of trees, but your spruce and pine trees are perfect for seasonal eating, providing vitamin C in winter when there are few other local sources in many places. Here’s how to make spruce tea and how to forage spruce tips in spring. Or if you have access to pine trees, here’s more on pine needle tea benefits.
What’s more in tune with the seasons than foraging these ephemeral treats?
WHERE TO GET LOCAL SEASONAL FOODS
Your community’s farmers’ market is a great place to find what’s growing in your region. Or check Local Harvest for a full listing of farms in your area.
I can’t recommend CSAs enough, especially if you can find one that lets you visit the farm and choose your own fruits and vegetables. The food and community are amazing, you get to know the people growing your food, and you will likely save a lot on some of the best produce you’ll ever eat. Here’s more on choosing a CSA that’s right for you.
And of course, you can grow loads of your own seasonal produce, even without a dedicated garden. Add edible plants to your landscape and enjoy tasting the seasons without ever leaving your yard.
Some of my favorite fruits grow in our tiny permaculture landscape:
In some pots and a few garden boxes, we also grow some annual vegetables that can handle our not-so-sunny conditions. We enjoy greens and salad turnips in spring, bowls full of cherry tomatoes and basil in summer, and cold-tolerant kale in fall.
Here’s a primer on growing your own food if you’d like to give it a whirl yourself.
What are your favorite ways to eat seasonally?
Photo credits: Hans Splinter, Jerzy Górecki, NickyPe, Yvonne Huijbens
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.