Even with all the benefits, adopting a diet that more closely reflects the seasons can be a challenge when imported strawberries and cucumbers are available year-round at the grocery store. Don’t worry: You don’t need to eschew all of your favorite imported or exotic foods (we’re looking at you, coffee!). Even a modest transition to more local and seasonal foods has a positive impact on the planet and offers personal perks. Read on to discover why you may want to eat season by season, and learn some simple and delicious ways to do it.
Health Reasons To Eat More Seasonally
We’ve become accustomed to the idea that being healthy means ingesting green smoothies and leafy green salads year-round, even if the ingredients are grown on another continent. However, there are health advantages to sourcing food as locally as possible and adapting our diets throughout the year to reflect local seasons. That’s because the foods in season within your own region help your body adapt to the environment.
Consider these examples. Wild spring greens, such as nettles, help the body fend off spring’s seasonal allergies. Fifty-eight percent of participants in a randomized, double-blind study reported that nettles were as effective as allergy medication. Juicy summer fruits give us energy and fluids for long, hot days and provide a boost of antioxidants to help the body deal with the damaging effects of sunshine. Autumn’s squash and root vegetables are loaded with beta-carotene, a nutrient that supports the immune system at a time of year when most of us can benefit from extra immune support. And fish, a widely available winter food source in many northern climates, is packed with vitamin D and omega-3s, which help prevent Seasonal Affective Disorder.
It may seem counterintuitive, but eating seasonally also encourages people to eat a wider variety of nutritious foods. Although there are 80,000 edible plant species, very few are included in the modern, industrialized diet. Globally, only 30 plant species make up 95 percent of the calories people eat.
And within those 30 species, we eat far fewer varieties of vegetables and fruits than people did even 100 years ago. That’s because our industrial agricultural system relies primarily on fruit and vegetable types that produce large yields and hold up well during long-distance transport and long-term storage. These are not necessarily the most nutritious types.
Because farmers grow fewer types of crops today, the genetic diversity of our food supply is plummeting, too. In 1903, commercial seed growers offered 497 different types of lettuce. In 1983, only 36 of those lettuce types were available in the National Seed Storage Laboratory (now the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation). Moreover, these crops lose nutrition during long-distance transport and storage, even when temperature and humidity are carefully controlled.
For this and other reasons, the nutrients in crops have declined dramatically. One study concluded we’d have to eat eight oranges to get the same amount of vitamin A our grandparents got from eating one.
Getting more produce from local sources is an excellent way to eat a more diverse range of nutritious crops because home gardeners and small farmers can select fruit and vegetable types based on optimum nutrient content, rather than just storage needs. Moreover, foods grown close to home typically retain the most nutrients because they’re handled minimally and eaten quickly after harvest.
Other Reasons To Eat More Seasonally
The farm-to-table movement took off for a reason. Seasonal produce is nearly always more flavorful than produce that’s shipped long distances. Small, local farmers can make flavor a high priority when deciding which vegetable and fruit varieties to grow. And the shorter distance to market means more flavor: Anyone who’s eaten a store-bought tomato in January and a sun-ripened one in August has tasted the difference.
Eating seasonally can also be more affordable than relying exclusively on the grocery store. After all, you may be able to find seasonal food growing near you for free, sometimes in abundant quantities. Many people don’t take advantage of all of the free food available, and a lot of good fruit rots on the ground. If you’re willing to do some harvesting and learn some simple preservation methods, you’ll find no shortage of free food. Visit fallingfruit.org to find a map of nearby unpicked fruit trees available for foragers.
Purchasing the freshest, tastiest, and most nutritious food available is also relatively inexpensive at farm stands and farmers’ markets. Farmers' markets sometimes get a bad rap as being elitist and expensive. However, in studies done in four different regions, the produce at farmers' markets was the same price or less expensive than it was in grocery stores. In a 2010 Vermont study comparing prices of a handful of produce at 10 farmers' markets with the same handful in 10 grocery stores, the organic produce at farmers' markets was 40 percent less expensive than comparable organic produce at the grocery store.
And when you buy food locally, more of your dollars stay in your community. According to the Farmers' Market Coalition, for every $100 you spend at a farmers' market, $62 remain in your local economy and $99 remain in your state.
How To Eat More Seasonally
It’s relatively easy to add more seasonal foods to your diet by finding out what’s in season where you live and including those ingredients in your meals. Visit localharvest.org for a list of foods available near you during any season.
Here are some additional ways to eat more seasonally:
Food doesn’t get more local or seasonal than when it grows in your backyard. Even growing a small amount of food gets you in touch with the changing seasons. And gardening doesn’t have to end when the weather cools. You can grow cool-season crops in many climates by installing simple protection devices, such as hoop tunnels or cold frames.
2. Shop at the farmers' market, join a CSA, or buy a farm share
Farmers' markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs, and meat and dairy shares are excellent ways to get to know farmers, connect to where your food comes from, and naturally evolve your diet throughout the seasons.
3. Visit U-pick farms
Want buckets of berries or fruit for a fraction of the typical grocery store cost? Visit pickyourown.org to find a nearby U-pick farm where you can harvest fruit yourself and pay by the pound. You’ll get to know different fruit seasons well; you may even count down the days to blueberry season.
Foraging doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming. From wild berries to fresh dandelion greens, food grows all around us. Find a local foraging class and invest in a field guide, such as Steve Brill’s Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants, to start learning about wild food sources. If you’re so inclined, hunting is another way to eat locally.
5. Learn to cook seasonally
Fortunately, more restaurants and food companies are dedicated to sourcing foods locally and seasonally. However, most don’t. Cooking is the best way to take advantage of the bounty of seasonal food. When you use fresh, seasonal ingredients, you’ll be amazed at how delicious homemade meals taste.Different cooking methods are appropriate in different seasons. For instance, raw salads make more sense in summer than winter. Rely more on warming food preparation methods in cold months and cooling methods in warm months.
Cooking methods, ranging from warming to cooling, include:
6. Learn simple preservation methods
Seasonal eating doesn’t mean only eating what’s growing outside at a certain time. People around the world have been using methods to preserve crops for thousands of years. By freezing, dehydrating, and storing crops in proper conditions, you can eat local food for several months after harvest without investing in a root cellar or canning equipment. Many crops, such as nuts, winter squash, beans, onions, garlic, and potatoes, can simply be stored in jars or ventilated boxes in a cold basement or unheated room. Ambitious preservers may want to investigate other methods, including canning, smoking, dry salting, pickling, and fermenting.
Resources For Eating Seasonally
Give It A Try!
Eating seasonally was probably intuitive for our ancestors. But it doesn’t come naturally to most of us because we didn’t grow up doing it. At first, it may require research and conscious effort. However, as with any dietary change, tastes usually adjust quickly. You may soon find yourself craving what’s in season.
Remember, you don’t need to adopt a 100-mile diet or give up the foods you love to benefit from seasonal eating. Simply knowing what’s in season and planning some of your meals accordingly benefits you, your local community, and the planet.
This article was originally published by Fix.com.