Today’s grocery store shelves look pretty much the same year-round. We can buy strawberries any time of the year–not as flavorful, but available anyway. Yet this out-of-season produce has probably traveled many, many miles to reach our kitchens—with a corresponding loss of flavor and nutrition, and an increase in wax coatings, chemical ripening agents, and other preservatives.
At the peak of their season, fruits and vegetables are the most flavorful, pack the biggest nutrition, and cost less than out of season. And there is a certain satisfaction associated with eating in-season produce, with memories linked to special days–pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, watermelon reminds us of fireflies and fireworks.
Locally grown seasonal foods often harmonize with our nutritional needs. For example, the beta carotene in the orange pigment of pumpkins and other squash helps bolster the immune system just in time to help ward off winter colds. And the oils of nuts—fats in their purest form—provide nutrient-rich calories to keep us warm as the temperature drops.
Research has shown that eating seasonally may have major health implications. A British study in 1997 even found significant differences in the nutritional contents of pasteurized milk in summer as opposed to winter: iodine was higher in the winter, while beta-carotene (an antioxidant and immune system booster that helps the body create vitamin A) was higher in the summer. And a Japanese study found a three-fold difference in the vitamin C content of spinach harvested in summer versus that harvested in winter.
Although the exact season for specific items varies from region to region, here are basic guidelines for optimal nutrition and taste:
- In spring, pick the new growth of the season: tender leafy vegetables such as spinach, Romaine or leaf lettuces, Swiss chard, and early peas, as well as fresh herbs such as basil, parsley, and dill.
- For summer, try lighter produce, with fruits such as strawberries, pears, apples, and plums, and vegetables such as summer squash, broccoli, corn, and cauliflower. Experiment with fun summer-type herbs, such as mint or cilantro.
- During fall, choose hearty harvest foods, including sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic. When cooking, emphasize “warmer” spices and seasonings such as peppercorns, ginger, and mustard seeds.
- In winter, also pick hearty foods. Keep in mind the principle that foods which take longer to grow are generally more sustaining than foods that grow quickly. In this category are most root vegetables, including carrots, potatoes, onions and garlic, as well as eggs, corn, and nuts.
Let the backdrop of the seasons be your guide to happy and healthy eating—
you’ll find that Mother Nature does indeed know best!