There’s nothing more nourishing than consuming foods in their freshest forms, and that means eating seasonally.
Perhaps you’ve heard “health experts” or news reports, or read claims on local restaurant menus, about the importance of eating seasonally—that is, including foods in your diet that are grown at the same time of year you eat them. But these sources never really tell you why this is so important.
The idea of eating seasonally is something most of us overlook due to the luxury provided by our current farming, shipping, and agricultural practices. We can go to the grocery store at any time of the year and get practically any food, fruit, or vegetable we want, and eating seasonally has become merely a nice idea, and we have little to no real appreciation of the benefits.
So what’s the primary benefit of eating seasonally? Nutrition!
Eating healthy goes far beyond the number of calories you consume, the macronutrient ratio, the claim on a label (“packed with vitamins and minerals” or “heart healthy”) or the notion that you and I should be eating lots of fruits and veggies.
Eating healthy means more than just eating Paleo. Nutrient density is important—and those the most nutrient-dense foods just so happen to be the in-season varieties available only at particular times of the year. Just like there is a difference in the quality of a McDonald’s hamburger and that of a homemade grass-fed beef burger, there is a big difference in the nutrient bang we get from the same fruits and veggies in different seasons.
As soon as a fruit or vegetable is harvested, nutritional breakdown begins. In fact, many vitamins present in the fruit or vegetable before harvest are highly unstable and are largely depleted after only a few days. This is why out-of-season produce—shipped from miles and miles away, spending many days in transit and the back of 18-wheelers—is less nutrient dense.
It’s easy to tell which foods are fresher—and which ones are less fresh—based on appearance, taste, and price. Walk into a grocery store at any time of year, and the special sales, as well as the colors of the fruits and veggies in the produce section, will tell you what’s in season and what’s not.
During a weekly grocery store run in late February, I wanted strawberries. But the strawberries on display were mushy and dull-red, and they even showed a hint of hairy mold.
I decided that $5.99 a pound for those fuzzy, pale-red berries was not worth it. February isn’t quite berry season. Come mid-spring through the summer months, though, when those berries are a rich, red, juicy color and on sale for $1.99 to $2.99 per pound, you can bet I will be noshing!
A study in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition investigated the vitamin C content of organic, conventional and seasonally grown broccoli to determine whether organic is really more nutritious than conventional produce. In addition, researchers wanted to see whether the time of year changed the the produce’s nutritional content. The results found that the vitamin C content of organically and conventionally labeled broccoli was not significantly different; however, they observed significant seasonal changes. The fall values for vitamin C were almost twice as high as those for spring for both organic and non-organic broccoli.
Another study on the nutrition quality of fresh versus frozen vegetables found that vegetables picked and frozen when in season are higher in nutrients than those “fresh” vegetables out of season.
One more study found that, due to the fresh greens cows eat in the summer, their milk contains higher levels of the vitamin folate during that season than in wintertime.
In addition to consuming more nutrients, eating a seasonally based diet with lots of variety throughout the year is a “cornerstone of preventive medicine,” according to Dr. Preston Maring of Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center in California. Dr. Maring is even writing prescriptions for his patients to buy fresh food from the hospital’s on-site farmers market, complete with suggestions for how to prepare it. He was inspired by a study documenting the benefits of eating an in-season, plant-focused diet, which touted reduced risks of cancer and heart disease, increased longevity, improved cholesterol, improved vascular health, and increased bone density and weight loss.
So how do you know if you are eating the best fruits and veggies for a particular time of year? Take a quick look around the produce section of your grocery store. Pay attention to the way prices are trending—in-season items are usually cheaper. Have you noticed that berries, peaches, and nectarines get really expensive at the end of fall? And that the berries and peaches and nectarines on the shelves just don’t look as good as the ones during the spring or summer? That’s a good clue. Also, if you notice that there’s an abundance of something specific, and they’re on sale (like potatoes or pumpkins in fall, for example), that’s another good hint.
In addition, beyond your grocery, farmers markets are renowned for carrying the freshest in-season produce, as is your local community-supported agriculture (CSA). You can find a CSA near you at localharvest.org/csa/.
Here’s a partial list of what’s in season each month of the year.
December, January, February
March, April, May
June, July, August
Yukon Gold potatoes
September, October, November
Here’s a recipe for some inspiration for how to cook summer’s good tidings!
Slow Cooker Apricot Chicken
2 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts and/or thighs
3/4 cup unsweetened dried apricots, halved
1 TBSP coconut oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 (2-inch) piece ginger, grated
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp allspice
1 tomato, diced, or 1 (14.5-oz) can diced tomatoes (no salt added)
1 cup chicken broth, preferably homemade
Himalayan sea salt and pepper to taste
- Melt 1/2 tablespoon of the coconut oil in a pan on medium heat.
- Season the chicken with sea salt and pepper, and add to the pan.
- Brown on both sides for a couple of minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- In the same pan, melt the remaining coconut oil. Sauté the diced onion until it becomes translucent. Stir in the ginger, garlic, cinnamon and allspice.
- Cook and stir for 30–60 seconds.
- Add the tomatoes and chicken broth.
- Cook a few more minutes, until heated through.
- Pour the mixture into the slow cooker and add the dried apricots.
- Place the chicken on top of the mixture and cover.
- Cook on low for 5–6 hours or on high for 3–4 hours.
- Shred the chicken with two forks and mix together. Serve atop mixed greens, a sweet potato or roasted asparagus spears.
- Wunderlich SM, Feldman C, Kane S, Hazhin T. “Nutritional quality of organic, conventional, and seasonally grown broccoli using vitamin C as a marker.” International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition. 59.1 (2008): 34–45. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17852499
- “Frozen veg ‘healthier than fresh’.” BBC News. 31 Mar 2003. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2902223.stm.
- Boullosa N. “Eat seasonal: it’s the new black.” *faircompanies. Feb 2007. http://faircompanies.com/news/view/eat-seasonal-its-new-black/.
- Alterman T. “The Benefits of Eating Locally Grown, Seasonal Food.” Mother Earth Living. Nov/Dec 2012. http://www.motherearthliving.com/food-and-recipes/sustainable-food/locally-grown-seasonal-food-zmoz12ndzmel.aspx?PageId=2#ArticleContent