Wellness Editor Lisa Levine is educating us on the importance of seasonal eating and how we can fully embrace its benefits. From an overall wellness perspective to supporting the local economy and our planet, she gives us practical and doable tips to welcome the summer and its plentiful eats.
Happy summer! The season of picnics, cookouts, barbecues, outdoor concerts and all other manner of dining al fresco. Lots of sunshine and warmer temps also mean that summer is the season of abundance when it comes to fruits and vegetables, so now is the time talk about the beauty and importance of eating seasonally.
You already know some basics: Summer is about juicy watermelon, ripe tomatoes, sweet corn and all manner of cherries and other stone fruits; fall means pumpkins and apples; winter rings in the citrus season; spring brings artichokes, peas, and the eponymous lettuces known as the spring green mix (although this is now widely available all year round). But the benefits of eating with the seasons goes beyond: When you eat fresh picked raspberries from your farmer’s market in July there’s no comparison to the ones you find in a plastic container in the dead of winter. Paying attention to the seasonal produce is available in your area can be beneficial to your physical health as well as the health of the planet, your bank account, the local economy, and your overall joy factor.
As a kid I had zero clue where most produce came from other than the aisles of Safeway. Thanks to the Little House on the Prairie series I became charmed and fascinated by the idea of “putting up” food and having a root cellar, although this had no real relevance in my suburban childhood. But before global transportation and giant supermarkets were a thing, eating seasonally and locally were the only options. You ate what you grew, preserved or purchased at your local purveyor and that was that. There were no tomatoes in winter, no grapes whenever you felt like it and no bananas — ever — unless you lived south of the equator. Yes, there’s something to be said for year-round lettuces, cucumbers, apples, and oranges, but eating with the seasons is much more beneficial, and it can bring a whole new appreciation for the food on your plate.
How do I eat seasonally? Seasonal eating means mostly eating fresh produce at the time of year when it’s ripe and ready for harvesting, although this time frame varies slightly depending on where in the world you are located. If you live in Portland, OR you’ll likely have a wider variety of seasonal choices available to you in the winter months than say, Portland, ME. There are plenty of resources available to help you find what’s in season in your neck of the woods. The Seasonal Food Guide and Eat the Seasons are two, but you can also head to your local farmers market, trusting that whatever they have is what’s currently growing. Plus it can be fun to chat with the farmer and it’s nice to know exactly where your food is coming from. Many bigger cities now have at least one year-round farmers market where you can often find vegetables and fruit that keep well through the winter like carrots, potatoes, apples, and pears.
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Support a CSA. Another way to find fresh produce and support local farmers is to invest in Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. You pay a fee for the season or seasons, which is buying a share in a local farm. Then your farmer will include a portion of whatever crops they have that are ready to harvest, as well as recipes and ideas for how to use your produce. The farmer will deliver your CSA box to a central location weekly or bi-weekly and you pick up your bounty. There are all kinds of CSA options — you can purchase just fruits or just veggies or a combo of the two. Sometimes your CSA may include grains, dairy and/or eggs as well.
I’ve participated in a CSA before and it felt like a delightful surprise every time I opened the box. It introduced me to many vegetables I might never have tried otherwise — like kohlrabi and cardoons — and they were delicious. My motto became when in doubt, toss it in olive oil and roast it, which worked out pretty well. Farmers will often host an end-of-season harvest party which is also fun, especially if you have kids. It’s a great way to show them firsthand where food comes from — they might be more interested in eating vegetables if they know it comes from “their” special farm. You may wind up spending a bit more with a CSA but depending on personal ethics and lifestyle it could be a tradeoff that feels worthwhile. Check out Local Harvest to find a CSA near you.
Grow at home. You can also try growing some of your own vegetables — you don’t need much space or a green thumb to pull it off. Whether you have a backyard that can accommodate a few raised beds or a balcony where you can grow tomatoes, basil, and other herbs in pots, growing your own produce is the ultimate in fresh and delicious.
Eat seasonally for superior taste and health benefits. Eating seasonally also means you get the best tasting and healthiest food available. Shipped fruits and vegetables are often harvested early to better sustain the journey, which means they haven’t yet reached their nutritional peak. Plus, once they have been picked or plucked, levels of antioxidants start to diminish. The fresher the produce is, the more nutrients will be available to you and the more flavor it will have. This makes cooking that much more fun! Some of the best recipes for fresh seasonal produce are often the ones that require the least amount of fuss. You can find inspiration on sites like Epicurious or books like The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, who is largely responsible for influencing a return to locally grown fruits and vegetables.
Try new tastes and flavors. It’s also good for your body to mix things up a bit instead of, say, eating the same exact breakfast every day. When it comes to food, we often believe we are creatures of habit. But rather than starting every morning with berries and yogurt, try half a grapefruit in the winter or an apple with peanut butter in the fall. That said, the most important thing for your physical health is eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, so if that means eating berries or asparagus year round then don’t let me talk you out of it! I’ll just invite you to keep your mind open to seasonal alternatives for the ultimate wellness benefits.
It's the lesser expense. Buying food at the height of it’s freshness and availability is also good for your wallet because “in season” = abundance which translates to grocery store specials. And eating seasonally/locally benefits your bottom line because costs less for farmers and distribution companies to actually get the produce to the store. This is why things like blueberries, raspberries and other seasonal fruits and veggies are extra expensive when they’re out of season. It costs more to pack them up and fly them in from Argentina, Australia and other places that are warm when we are not. One small tip: most supermarkets will note where produce comes from so pay attention to that. For instance, except for a few months in the late spring and summer, here in Washington state we are lucky enough to have apples available almost all year round. When the signs say that the apples are being shipped in from South America I take an apple break and focus on local summer fruit instead.
It's environmentally friendly. And finally, eating seasonally and locally means you are helping to reduce your “carbon footprint.” The closer your food source, the more you are contributing to cutting back on the energy and Co2 emissions needed to grow and transport produce from far away places. Overall, being more in touch with the seasons and all that they have to offer is a wellness win/win. So enjoy the summer. I’m off to my local farmers market to score some strawberries! xo