Eating Seasonally: Two Simple Tips

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Lately, it seems a lot of people have been writing books and articles and blog posts giving us advice on how to eat more healthfully, including two of my favorite food writers, Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan. Once you boil away the excess, their advice always comes down to the same thing:

Cut back on processed foods and meat. Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Surprisingly, I have seen quite a backlash to this simple, commonsensical advice on the blogosphere. Eating fruits and vegetables is expensive. It’s downright elitist!

Huh? Okay, I’ll grant you that for the urban poor who live in food deserts, a fresh fruit or vegetable is hard to come by. And our inequitable food system subsidizes “product” crops such as corn and soy over whole fruits and vegetables, making them seem more expensive.

But… Many people can still afford to eat fruits and vegetables. Here’s what I think is a big part of the problem. We here in America have forgotten how to eat seasonally.

For the better part of human history, people ate fruits and vegetables when they were ripe and harvested. Yes, we have figured out some ingenious ways of preserving the harvest. Canned tomatoes are one of the great products of civilization, in my opinion. But unless you had frozen or jam on hand, you didn’t expect to eat blueberries in March or to have pears in the spring.

In our modern food culture, though, we’ve grown accustomed to having all fruits and vegetables available to us at all times. But when you buy produce out of season, it’s two or three times as expensive, and it doesn’t taste nearly as good. That’s because it was picked before it was fully riped and shipped all the way from Chile or some such place. It’s simply a bad deal all around.

One commentator on this post remarked that she tried to give her kids healthy snacks like blueberries but they cost so much. Of course they do. Blueberries don’t grow this time of year in our part of the world, so their scarcity is going to make them much more expensive. On the other hand, avocados are selling 2 for a dollar at my local grocery, and tangerines are 6 for 99 cents. That’s because they are in season and plentiful right now. They’re awfully yummy too.

If you try to eat seasonally, you’ll find that your produce bill will go down. I know it can seem like a drag, not getting to eat blueberries in the winter, but think of how much more you’ll appreciate them when they’re ripe, tasty and abundant. If you absolutely must have something out of season, buy it frozen, where it will probably be cheaper.

A while ago, I learned two simple rules to help me eat seasonally. The first is to remember what’s in season when. I just think of the life cycle of a plant and buy produce to match. For example:

  • In spring, when plants are budding, eat tender leaves and flowers, i.e., greens, fresh shell beans, peas, asparagus, artichokes.
  • In summer, when plants are at their most beautiful, eat colorful soft fruits, i.e., berries, melons, peaches, eggplant, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini.
  • In autumn, when plants are distributing seeds, eat nuts and firm fruits, i.e., apples, pears, pumpkin, winter squash.
  • In winter, when plants have gone dormant, eat root vegetables, i.e., carrots, parsnips, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips.

Here’s another simple rule for deciding how to prepare those seasonal fruits and vegetables:

What grows together, goes together.

Here are several links to other food blogs to help you eat better on a budget via MetaFilter. Happy eating!

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3 thoughts on “Eating Seasonally: Two Simple Tips

  1. […] Eating seasonally: Two simple tips […]

  2. Erika 21 March 2010 at 8:15 pm

    It always saddens me a little that this information, which seems like such simple common sense, is so foreign to so many people. I’m glad to see the push from writers and bloggers to educate. And I’m glad Michelle Obama took up healthy eating as a cause because maybe, just maybe, it will click for some of our countrymen and women. Thanks for laying it all out in here.

  3. […] a recent post, I posited that you would spend less money on fresh fruits and vegetables if you made an effort to […]

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