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Food & Cooking Articles   |  Seasonal & Holiday Tips

Seasonal Foods

Exceptional Flavor & Nutrition that Fits in Your Budget

-- By Rebecca Pratt, Staff Writer

You ate them in February, from half a continent away, and they were flat and bland—passable, but nothing to write home about. Now, you take a bite from one grown half a mile away, and it’s spectacular—sweet, juicy, and flavorful.

We’re talking in this particular instance about tomatoes, but we could say the same thing about any of a dozen produce items you’ll find at your local farmer’s market now. 'Tis the season to eat fresh, as the tender new growth of spring ripens into the rich abundance of summer. So why settle for "so-so" when you can savor the sensational? Consider the benefits of eating foods at the peak of their season. Seasonal foods…

  • serve up the most flavor.
  • pack the biggest nutritional punch.
  • boost your budget.
  • are  tied to the special days and seasons of our lives: sweet, luscious watermelon paired with the memory of fireflies and fireworks; fragrant hearty soups that temper winter’s chill; sweet young vegetables that accompany spring’s first warm day.
As consumers today, we’re very lucky in some respects. The crisscross networks of our global village provide things our ancestors could only dream about, such as oranges in December. On the other hand, as we shed our rural roots, we tend to lose sight of the seasonal rhythm of life, relying heavily on processed foods and a worldwide distribution system that makes our grocery shelves look pretty much the same year-round. The out-of-season produce we buy has often traversed 1,000 miles or more by the time it reaches our kitchens—with a corresponding loss of flavor and nutrition and an increase in wax coatings, chemical ripening agents, and other preservatives.

But locally-grown seasonal foods often harmonize with our nutritional needs. For example, the beta carotene in the orange pigment of pumpkins and other squash will help bolster your immune system just in time to help ward off winter colds. And the oils of nuts—fats in their purest form—will provide nutrient-rich calories that help keep you warm as the temperature drops.

In fact, recent research shows that eating seasonally may have major health implications. A British study in 1997 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. Similarly, a Japanese study found a three-fold difference in the vitamin C content of spinach harvested in summer versus that harvested in winter.

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In practical terms, this means that you’ll get the most nutrition—not to mention the most affordable enjoyment—by eating seasonally. Although the exact season for specific items varies from region to region (you’ll almost certainly get that big beefsteak tomato much earlier in Georgia than in Ohio), follow these 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. You can also incorporate other 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.
As you choose the best foods of the season, remember that the healthiest and most enjoyable diet involves diversity. Although you may have to compromise sometimes due to convenience and time constraints, try as much as possible to make food shopping and cooking an adventure, something you can enjoy or share with family members. Try these tips to enhance the journey:
  • Focus on the fresh, minimizing the use of prepared foods as much as possible. When you must use prepared foods, make an effort to embellish them with one or more fresh ingredients.
  • Pick a new produce item to try every week, whether the neglected rutabaga or the tropical mango.
  • Cook at least one new dish each week, and look for recipes that will help you get acquainted with new ingredients. You can subscribe to a food magazine, plug in keywords on the Internet, or even swap new recipes with friends. Since food writers generally base their topics and menus on the foods of the season, take advantage of their offerings to reward yourself with wholesome, tasty meals.
  • Experiment with regional or ethnic dishes. Most regional cuisines, developed in horse-and-buggy times, used local ingredients close by. Exploring new foods will keep mealtime both interesting and healthy.
  • Don’t forget to take advantage of the useful food information your grocer provides. Whether you consult those little description cards that hang above specific fruits and veggies, or hold a friendly discussion with the produce manager on how to peel the leaves of an artichoke, you’ll find a wealth of ideas about preparing food.
Let the backdrop of the seasons be your guide to happy and healthy eating—you’ll find that Mother Nature does indeed know best!
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