"Why should my family eat seasonally?" a friend asked me the other day while we were at lunch. I'd just turned down a bite of strawberry, noticing a white cap on the fruit, indicating an under-ripe and out of season berry. I couldn't wait to explain to my friend what a travesty a tomato is in February.
What IS Seasonal Eating?
It means to eat produce when it's traditionally ripe and harvested, during the right season for that produce. I've been living with seasonal eating since I was a kid. I was taught by my parents to change my eating throughout the year to take advantage of what was in season. We're all lucky to live when we do because the growing season has been extended by modern technology--allowing us to enjoy fruits and vegetables on either side of their traditional harvest season--but there's a limit to how far you can push produce, and here's why:
Fruits and Vegetables Taste Better in Season, Period
First, fruits and vegetables just taste better when they're in season. A strawberry tastes like heaven in June. It tastes like sour, vaguely strawberry-flavored cotton in January. When people say they don't like tomatoes I'm positive it's because if you eat a tomato any other time but the late summer, it tastes like sand. You can read more about why tomatoes are truly terrible out of season with this crazy story here called Tomatoland (Go read that, seriously, if you're one of those grown-ups who "doesn't like tomatoes" because it explains why.)
My Kids HATE Eating Fruits and Vegetables!
STOP FEEDING THEM GROSS VEGGIES. If you start eating seasonally your kids will eat more vegetables because they taste better. It's basic stuff. Don't force your kid to eat a tomato on their sandwich in February, those tomatoes are gross! I don't want to prejudice my kids against eating their fruits and vegetables by feeding them nasty produce. You know what it's like to just try to get your kids to take a bite, don't make it a bad one.
Stop Breathing Bad Air
That's a blunt way of saying that sure, a peach might be in season in January in Chile, but what does it take to get to your grocer's shelves? Picked early, before it has a chance to ripen, stuffed into plastic packaging to take the long journey, warehoused, transported across an ocean, waiting at the border for entry, warehoused, taken by truck to your grocer. Think about how much fuel and carbon emission was used to take that peach from one place to the other. Do you really need to make the air you breathe worse because you want a peach right now?
Let's say you do want that peach. You're paying a whole lot more money for that peach than a grapefruit that's currently in season. When food is in season there is usually plenty of it (taking aside any natural disasters, market upheavals, and geographic location.) You'll pay 59 cents for a green pepper instead of $1.49. Modifying your family's meals and menus to fit what's available at the market is simply less expensive. Will you splurge for a special ingredient, of course, but generally cooking the produce that's in season will overall cost you less.
Where's That Apple Been?
So you really want an apple in May, when apples are not in season. Where do all those apples on the shelf come from? They've been in gas-controlled storage containers since the harvest last fall. I'm not saying that to scare you; I don't think those gases are harmful to your health, but I am saying that it takes a lot of resources to keep those apples fresh-ish for you, and generally they don't taste as good as apples do in September. I love apples, I eat one almost everyday, but if you can't tell the difference between an apple you eat in May and one you eat in October, you need your taste buds examined.
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What Should I Do if there's NO Produce is in Season?
Although there are fruits and vegetables in season in the winter, root vegetables and squashes aren't that sexy. If you need to use produce that's out of season, you don't have to buy it fresh. Frozen is a better option, since those vegetables are picked at the height of their season and retain more nutrients and taste than those sad, limpy, wrinkled, out-of-season veggies on the stand. Canned produce can also be healthier than the "fresh" stuff on the stand.
Eat Where You Live
Apples are expensive in Hawaii because they have to be shipped there, and they don't taste as good. Eat a pineapple if you're in Hawaii. This is tricky when you live in areas where produce doesn't naturally grow and must be shipped in, but you can do your best. A farmer's market is a great way to find produce that's in season where you live. I remember finding fresh sour cherries at our local market a couple years ago--they're almost impossible to transport anywhere and have a short season (a couples weeks, max,) which is why you only find them processed into pie filling. I mean, I still turned them into a pie, but WHAT a pie!
Teach Your Kids
My kids beg for strawberries right now and I always say, "No." Why they ask why I tell them those berries are too expensive and aren't going to taste good. We can start buying strawberries again in April, which is when the earliest in-season strawberries start coming into the stores. And you can tell the difference. Smell that package of strawberries right now and it will smell vaguely like something strawberry-scented, but mostly of nothing. Smell a package of strawberries in June and the smell almost knocks you out it's so strongly sweet. A cantaloupe right now tastes like gummy water, but when you walk past a bin of them in July, you can smell them from two aisles away.
Produce that's grown out of season and transported all over creation has a price, and it's not just in dollars, worse air, higher gas cost, and migrant children's hours, it's in taste. You would be horrified if you knew how much produce is wasted and spoiled because it doesn't survive the journey from the field, to the truck, over the roads, to your store. Eat closer to where your produce is grown if you can, because it's just being more responsible and careful with the bounty of the earth.
How do I Know What's in Season?
I recommend Field to Plate because they have a state-by-state guide to what's in season and when for when you buy locally. I live close enough to California that I can cheat on the seasonality of some items (like eating strawberries in April instead of having to wait until June, but I would never buy them in December.) Generally, think back to when you were a kid and what you would eat and when. Citrus comes during the winter months. Apples, pears in the fall. Peaches in late summer. Asparagus in the spring. Brussels sprouts (yes, I eat and love them) during the winter.
Eat seasonally because it's healthier for you and your family. It wastes less. It tastes better.
What do you think? Are you ready to start eating seasonally? Do you already eat seasonally? What are your reasons?
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