Eating in Season
Foods that are in season contain peak nutrients and generally put less of a dent in your budget than those purchased out of season. Whether you want to grow your own fresh produce in your backyard, stop by a farmers market, or shop at your local grocery or co-op, the following hints and tips lead you to the freshest produce and where to find it.
First of all, to eat in season means choosing fruits and vegetables at their natural peak growing times. When produce is grown in conditions that require minimal care, they’re in season; think of how berries grow fat and ripen in the hot steamy months of July and August. Here is a list of commonly known produce best eaten in the summer months: basil, green beans, beets, all kinds of berries, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, celery, chicories, collard greens, cucumbers, fennels, arugula, all kinds of herbs, lettuce, mustard greens, onions, peas, peppers, radicchio, spinach, summer squash, tomatillos, and tomatoes.
Some produce is best grown in your backyard, while others taste better left to the pros. So, which vegetables are best purchased fresh or picked from your yard?
The Joys of Gardening
There are several benefits to growing your own produce. For one, you know exactly what has been placed on or around the garden. This is the only certain way to know if your produce is organic or not. You’ll also have a greater appreciation for where your food comes from. Starting a garden from seeds or young plants is also much cheaper than buying produce from a grocery store. In addition, it’s fun to pick a cucumber or tomato from your back yard to include in your dinner. In this way, gardening tends to be a rewarding experience.
>>What to grow: While vegetable (and fruit) gardening varies by temperature zone (see garden.org/zipzone/ to find your specific zone), there are a few staples that can be grown just about anywhere. These include tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, and lettuce. Berries grow best in moderate climates, especially in the northern United States, but citrus fruits are best grown in year round heat…think of Florida’s famous oranges.
>>What to do with too much produce: Sometimes your tomato plants offer up far too many tomatoes for you and your family to eat. Canning these vegetables preserves the taste and freshness throughout the year. How nice it would be to open a jar of tomatoes in winter to include in a soup or stew!
>>The environmental benefits of gardening: In addition to the immediate cost benefits of gardening on your monthly grocery bill, the cost of gardening is also minimal on the environment. Consider those imported Chilean blueberries you can buy at the supermarket in January. Those blueberries were picked before they were fully ripened (drastically reducing vitamin and mineral contents) in order to ship them to your supermarket before spoiling. Thousands of gallons of fuel are consumed by tractors, trucks, and airplanes in order to get those blueberries to your table. The same is true for most, if not all, fresh produce purchased during winter months if you live in northern climates. Of course it’s always beneficial to your health to eat fruits and veggies, but consider where these foods come from. The closer the food is grown, the better for your health, your wallet, and the environment.
Fresh Farmers Markets
Whether found in urban city centers with hundreds of vendors or a roadside stand with five farmers, there has been a recent farmers market revival due to the high quality of the food.
>>More bite for your buck: This rise in popularity is mainly due to the generous amount of food you get for your dollar. At a farmers market, you’re buying directly from the farmer or the farmer’s family, eliminating the markup from supermarkets and grocery stores. In addition, the foods purchased are fresh! Like foods picked from your garden when ripe, the produce sold at farmers markets are rarely picked prematurely. This ensures the best taste and nutrient value.
>>Fewer dents in the environment: Like gardening, the environmental impact of shopping for produce at a farmers market is much less than shopping at a conventional supermarket. However, some farmers and consumers may have to travel long distances to participate in a farmers market, especially urban markets. Regardless, shopping at a farmers market is a great way to ensure food quality and healthfulness.
>>Connecting with the farmer: At farmers markets you often purchase produce directly from the farmer and can speak to him or her about the food you’re buying. Knowing the person or people who grew your food can be a rewarding experience. It makes you feel more connected to the food you’re eating.
Farmers markets can also be a great place to socialize. What other place can you think of where urban dwellers and rural farmers mingle? There are often people from all walks of life depending on where the market is. Urban markets tend to be larger and feature more ethnically diverse foods.
>>Popular market eats: According to a 1998 study done by Rutgers University, the most popular foods purchased at farmers markets are apples, blueberries, broccoli, carrots, melons, peaches, peppers, snap beans, strawberries, sweet corn, and tomatoes. In addition to freshly grown food, there are often artisan-baked goods available. Other commonly available items are plants, flowers, jams/jellies, fresh fruit juices, dried fruits, cheese, organic meats, honey, farm fresh eggs, and nuts.
Again, there are seasonal aspects to farmers markets. Oftentimes there are summer, fall, and winter markets featuring respective produce. Winter markets are likely to favor gourds, squash, sweet corn, and canned or preserved goods. Depending on what produce or goods you’re looking for, shop in season. Mid to late summer is the best time for abundant farmers markets.
Co-ops and Supermarkets
If you’re looking for the freshest, most nutrient-rich foods, growing your own garden or shopping at a farmers market is your best bet at success. However, if other factors are hindering your time in the garden or at the market, consider your alternatives—the supermarket or a food cooperative.
>>Food cooperatives: Cooperatives are usually much better at providing fresh, in season produce than supermarkets. The main reason is because most, if not all, produce sold in food co-ops is grown locally, much like at farmers markets.
While co-ops depend on member support, it should also be mentioned that you don’t have to be a member of the co-op to shop there. However, when you do become a member (usually for a moderate fee) the food you purchase is often discounted. So if you plan on shopping at your local co-op often, perhaps a membership would be appropriate for your budget.
Speaking of a budget, co-ops tend to be a bit pricier than your standard supermarket, but if supporting a community-based organization is something you’d like to contribute to, keep in mind your dollars go directly back into the store.
It’s also worth mentioning that co-ops are more likely to have a better variety of cruelty-free, environmentally friendly foods (as well as dietary supplements and natural or organic body care products) than a conventional supermarket.
Again, to maximize taste and the impact on your pocketbook, buy produce in season.
>>Supermarkets: Supermarkets often have a bad reputation in regards to the freshness of their produce. According to the Sydney Postharvest Laboratory in Australia, apples nearly nine months old, pears three months old, and grapes three weeks old have been found in supermarkets. The study also states that this incident isn’t only specific to Australia; supermarkets in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States are also responsible for keeping nearly spoiled produce in stock. The real problem of keeping produce in stock for so long (aside from being slightly disgusting) is that the nutrients within the food decrease with age. And regardless of the age of the apple, you’re still going to pay full price for less than full nutrition.
The most likely way you’re going to get fresh produce at a supermarket is to purchase foods that are in season as often as possible. Sure, it’s okay to get some apples during the winter months, but don’t bet on them tasting the best.
When choosing fruits and vegetables, look for those that have the most vibrant color, as this is often an indicator of the nutrient value within the produce.
The vegetables should be firm—never mushy, dented, scratched or bruised—and perky looking. Wilting lettuce with pink, brown, or spotted leaves is a no-go. When choosing onions, they should never have any strong smell with the outer skin still on; a strong smell is an indicator of rotting.
Fruits such as bananas and pears gain tenderness after harvest. Therefore you should buy green bananas and firm pears. Allow pears to ripen in a dark place, such as a small brown paper bag. Ripening times vary from 4-10 days, so check your pears often.
While shopping for fruit at a supermarket, keep in mind what you’ll be using the fruit for: eating fresh or for baking. Waxed fruit impacts flavor in cooking and baking due to the heat changing the chemical makeup of the wax.
Supermarkets use wax on fruit because the wax retains moisture, allowing the fruit to remain ripe longer. These waxes are usually made up of petroleum and natural sources including paraffin, shellac, carnauba, polyethylene, and synthetic resins. While no adverse health effects have been found to stem from waxed produce, if you prefer not to eat wax, look for organic and/or unwaxed produce. You can tell if a food is waxed if you run your fingernail gently over the skin of the fruit and can see the wax on your fingernail. You can often simply feel a wax coating by just touching a fruit or vegetable. Commonly waxed foods are: apples, bell peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini.
In regards to money, when produce is in season, it’s often less expensive than at other times during the year. This means that a half-pound of strawberries is no longer $6, but $3. If possible, buy a large amount of fruit in season and deep freeze it. While this may not be the freshest thing to do, it will certainly save you money.