Ever wondered why food writers recommend eating seasonally? Is it worth it? And what’s the easiest way to get started?
When I lived in California, we were blessed with plump fruits and farm-fresh vegetables all year round. We could drive in any direction and land in farm country soon after.
Head North, and you’d get to Marin county, which is full of CSA farms and the famous California wine country.
Drive East, and you’d hit the Central Valley in less than 2 hours. We regularly drove by farm stands that sold the freshest green beans and cherries I’d ever tasted. And the produce was cheap!
Drive South, and you’d hit Salinas, which grows the majority of romaine lettuce in the U.S. (along with Arizona).
If you guessed that heading West would lead to the Pacific Ocean, guess again. Drive West, and you’d land in Half Moon Bay and Pescadero where farms grew brassicas, like broccoli and Brussel sprouts. The Peninsula Open Space Trust conserves a lot of land for open space and farming in this region.
Eating seasonally and locally was a breeze California.
Unfortunately, this picturesque story turned topsy-turvy after we moved to Colorado.
Why eat seasonally
First, let’s recap why nutritionists, personal finance nerds, and avid cooks recommend eating seasonally. What makes seasonal produce healthy and economical?
- Seasonal fruits and vegetables are packed with more flavor: When fruits are picked at their peak ripeness, they taste more flavorful.
- They are more nutritious: Mind Body Green mentions a study that showed broccoli had a higher Vitamin C content when it was grown in fall than in the spring (the study reported that seasonality mattered more than organic vs. conventional).
- Seasonal produce is budget friendly: According to the USDA, fruits and veggies cost less when they’re in season. Greater supply of fruits and vegetables in season means you can buy seasonal produce at a lower price. Plus, seasonal growing requires less energy and effort (you don’t need to heat greenhouses, for example).
- They require fewer preservatives: According to MPH@UNC, the Gillings School of Global Public Health, fewer preservatives are needed for locally grown foods because the produce sits on the shelf for less time compared to canned and frozen foods.
There are many more reasons why people are in love with eating seasonally. Let’s learn how you can do it.
How to eat seasonally
Last month, a big yellow sign sat next to the Colorado-grown zucchini in the supermarket advertising a 50¢ per pound discount.
Channeling my inner scrooge is the easiest way to eat seasonally.
When you let your wallet lead your cooking choices, you’ll save money and buy full-flavored, ripe produce.
As a result, in-season fruits and veggies deliver tastier dishes with less effort and lower cost. It’s my 80/20 approach.
If you have the luxury of time and want to eat seasonally (and locally) with more intention, here are other approaches I’ve learned.
Meal plan every season
When I texted my friend Benjamin last week to wish him a happy autumn, he replied, “Now that it’s autumn, I need to redesign my food menu.”
The stereotype that French people eat seasonally turns out to be true in Benjamin’s case. He intentionally sets up a meal plan as the seasons and weather change.
Deciding on a seasonal meal plan is an easier approach to meal planning, especially if you find it tedious to meal plan every…single…week.
Here are the benefits of planning a seasonal menu:
- You can pick several recipes for the season and learn them. Once you can cook these dishes from memory, you’ll be able to quickly substitute other seasonal ingredients to tweak the dish.
- Rotating recipes every season gives you enough variety so you’re not bored.
- Plus, when you spend a whole season cooking the same dishes, you become efficient at the techniques.
Benjamin explained how this works to me: “I select a few [recipes] we like and pretty much cook these dishes for the rest of the season. My goal is to build up a collection of easy, healthy and tasty recipes I can quickly make and reuse throughout the year.”
The best part about his plan is that most of the recipes take 10 minutes of active cooking. This removes much of the guesswork around dinner time.
When I asked him to share how he developed his menu, he mentioned he cooks different recipes that are easy to make and sound tasty. If he likes the dish, he adds it to his collection. From his recipe collection, he develops a seasonal menu.
Granted, it’s not always easy to develop this menu. He tells me that the “process of finding the right recipes is a bit of a pain”.
But the benefits of front-loading the work are real. Meal times are less stressful, and there’s less temptation to eat restaurant food.
In time, Benjamin hopes to develop a personal cookbook with go-to seasonal recipes. This should speed up quarterly menu planning significantly.
Subscribe to a CSA
If you’re committed to eating seasonally, consider subscribing to a box of fresh fruits and vegetables from local farms. It could be a CSA box or a routine of visiting neighborhood farm stands.
“We mostly order from local farms so not eating seasonally isn’t an option,” Benjamin wrote me.
Learn what’s in season
Understandably, not everybody wants to commit to a CSA box.
Instead, you could research what fruits and vegetables are in season. Then plan your shopping list around these items, using price tags as an indicator.
Here are useful websites that tell you what’s in season:
- The Seasonal Food Guide shows you what’s in season by state, which is a major advantage over other more generic resources looking at the North America as a whole.
- I like the USDA’s seasonal produce guide because it breaks down the vegetables and fruit by season. Each item has a profile page where you can click on links to find more information.
- Finally, although specific to Northern California, I like the CUESA vegetable chart, which offers an alphabetical list of vegetables and highlights which month they’re in season. Here’s a printable version of the vegetable chart. CUESA also offers a fruit and nuts chart with the printable companion.
Shop at the farmers market
Some people enjoy gardening and growing food, which ensures eating seasonally and locally!
For those without a green thumb, dropping by the farmers market is a helpful reminder of what’s in season. It’s kind of hard to miss because farmers only sell seasonal produce (even if it’s not local).
I left this source of inspiration last because farmers markets aren’t the cheapest source of fresh produce (unless you shop at the end of the day when farmers sometimes offer fire-sale prices).
It’s admirable to support local growers. They usually give me advice for how to best cook and serve their produce. So if you’re drawing a blank on your seasonal meal plan, your local farmers market is worth checking out.
NOTE: Eating seasonally and locally are two different concepts that are often lumped together. Read the next section to learn the difference.
Local vs. seasonal
“These are the precious peaches we saved from the unexpected frost in April,” the fruit vendor proudly told me. When we stumbled on the Golden farmers market, this vendor’s fuzzy pink and gold globes beckoned us.
Earlier this year, Colorado’s snowy winter extended into early spring. Boulder even set a record for the snowiest winter.
This unwelcome frost killed many of the flower buds on fruit trees, resulting in a smaller yield of Colorado-grown fruits in 2020.
“He figured out how to put plastic sheeting over all the trees.” The stone fruit vendor was explaining the farm owner’s heroic efforts to save his crop of peaches a few months ago. “And then he had to move all the heat lamps up to the hillside where the trees were. He’s a genius!”
Eating locally in Colorado has been more challenging than in California. The harsher winters mean fresh lettuce and delicate greens aren’t available until later in spring and summer. The variety of fresh produce grown in Colorado is more limited too.
After hearing about the peaches, I walked over to the case of cherries. “Are these grown on your farm too?” I asked the vendor.
“No, those come from Washington state.”
Ah, therein lies the difference between eating seasonally and locally. When I bit into a shiny, wine-red cherry, a burst of sweet and tangy flavors hit my tongue. There was no doubt these cherries were in season. But they weren’t locally grown.
The 2008 U.S. Farm Bill (Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008) defines “locally or regionally produced agricultural food products” as food where “the total distance that the product is transported is less than 400 miles from the origin of the product” or the food is marketed in “the State in which the product is produced.”
I try my best to buy local produce because I understand the environmental benefits of shorter transportation hauls. I recognize the taste benefits of locally grown fruits and veggies that don’t lose their nutrients from sitting in an “18 wheeler” for a week.
Yet, eating locally all year round is challenging in Colorado. I don’t want to eat only cabbage, carrots, and turnips in the winter.
So, the reality is I buy canned and frozen foods. I buy produce that I’m pretty sure is grown in Mexico during the snowy months. I also eat the occasional bag of dried mango that’s surely from a different country.
I try not to feel guilty about this.
Sample seasonal meal plan
Of course, you didn’t think I’d end this story without sharing an example of our seasonal meal plans, did you?
Here was Benjamin’s summer meal plan:
- Tortilla with caramelized onions and peppers, barrel-aged feta and chipotle mayo
- Tomato mozzarella gnocchi with tomato, goat cheese and pul biber chili flakes
- Beef burger with onion chili relish, walnuts + French fries
And here’s his fall meal plan:
- Rogan josh spinach curry with rice and paneer cheese
- Udon noodle with peanut butter chili sauce and broccoli
- Creamy chicken, mushroom and shallots in mustard crème fraîche sauce
Here’s my winter meal plan:
- Soy sauce–braised beef and tofu with cabbage
- Homemade pizza with mozzarella cheese and marinara pasta sauce
- Tofu poutine with gruyère cheese cubes (sometimes modified to pan-fried tofu with melted sliced cheese on top)
- Hot pot with carrots, cabbage, tofu (always defrosted tofu), mushrooms, and thinly sliced lamb or beef
And a sample of my spring menu:
- Noodle soup or stir-fried instant ramen noodles with eggs and vegetables
- Shiitake mushroom meat sauce with steamed spring vegetables
- Thai coconut curry with carrots, broccoli, and other spring vegetables
- Lentil soup using a carrot, onion, and celery mirepoix
Leave a comment to tell me what your menu looks like for this season!