Before we can answer that question, it’s important to define exactly what “eating seasonally” means. According to Brigitte Zeitlin, MPH, RD—founder of BZ Nutrition in New York City—it’s about knowing when certain fruits and vegetables grow naturally in your climate, and then eating them only in those seasons. In the United States, this can vary widely from state to state, and many types of produce grow in more than one season. But, in general, fall and winter are prime time for things like sweet potatoes, cauliflower, citrus fruits, and pears. Spring and summer are when berries, zucchini, tomatoes, and eggplant are at their freshest and most flavorful. (The USDA Seasonal Produce Guide is a good point of reference for a more comprehensive list.)
Shopping at a farmer’s market or subscribing to a CSA inherently lends itself to eating in season, as the majority of the produce there is often grown nearby and picked at its peak. It gets a lot trickier at the grocery store, however, where fruit and vegetables are shipped in year-round from all over the world.
Consuming fruits and vegetables in season has an impact on the food’s nutritional value, says Zeitlin. “You get the maximum amount of nutrients the [produce] has to offer when it’s picked at its ripest and sold to you over the next few days.” Indeed, research shows that fresh produce loses certain nutrients over time once it’s harvested. The longer it sits in storage, travels to the grocery store, and hangs out on store shelves, the more nutrient depletion can occur—spinach, for example, has been found to lose 47 percent of its folate content after eight days of storage, and 80 percent of its vitamin C content after just three days. (Fat-soluble vitamins like A and K are less vulnerable to degredation, as are other produce items like This is less of an issue if buying truly fresh produce, but those blueberries shipped in from Chile in December may not be as nutrient-dense as the ones you enjoy during the summer.
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Just as importantly, eating out-of-season has an environmental downside. “The fuel from trucks that ship out-of-season produce around the country adds up tremendously,” Zeitlin points out. Even worse when they’re flown in on planes, which create up to 10 times more carbon emissions than a commercial truck. “When you’re eating seasonally, you’re eating what’s currently growing on the farms nearest your town, and the fuel used to get from that farm to your kitchen is a lot less.”
There’s a money-saving benefit to eating in season, too. “It’s also more cost-effective to eat seasonally, since out-of-season items are not as abundant and coming from farther away,” Zeitlin says.
At the end of the day, Zeitlin recommends that her clients eat seasonally whenever possible. “It gets them trying different fruits and veggies throughout the year that they look forward to eating when that particular season rolls back around,” she says. “Plus, seasonal fruits and veggies just taste better. I’m a big believer that food should taste good, and that starts with how and where you buy them.”
That said, not everyone lives in a place where a wide variety of fresh produce grows year-round. Thankfully, studies show that there are other impactful ways to reduce your environmental footprint through diet—for example, reducing food waste and meat consumption. Eating plants in general, no matter where they come from, is still one of the best things you can do for your health and that of the planet.
Use these seven plant-based meal formulas next time you aren’t sure what to do with your farmers’ market haul. These five easy dinner recipes are also bookmark-worthy—they all use 5 Trader Joe’s ingredients or less.
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