We’re talking in this particular instance about tomatoes, but we could say the same thing about any of a dozen produce items you’ll find at your local farmer’s market now. 'Tis the season to eat fresh, as the tender new growth of spring ripens into the rich abundance of summer. So why settle for "so-so" when you can savor the sensational? Consider the benefits of eating foods at the peak of their season. Seasonal foods…
- serve up the most flavor.
- pack the biggest nutritional punch.
- boost your budget.
- are tied to the special days and seasons of our lives: sweet, luscious watermelon paired with the memory of fireflies and fireworks; fragrant hearty soups that temper winter’s chill; sweet young vegetables that accompany spring’s first warm day.
But locally-grown seasonal foods often harmonize with our nutritional needs. For example, the beta carotene in the orange pigment of pumpkins and other squash will help bolster your immune system just in time to help ward off winter colds. And the oils of nuts—fats in their purest form—will provide nutrient-rich calories that help keep you warm as the temperature drops.
In fact, recent research shows that eating seasonally may have major health implications. A British study in 1997 found significant differences in the nutritional contents of pasteurized milk in summer as opposed to winter: iodine was higher in the winter, while beta-carotene (an antioxidant and immune system booster that helps the body create vitamin A) was higher in the summer. Similarly, a Japanese study found a three-fold difference in the vitamin C content of spinach harvested in summer versus that harvested in winter.
In practical terms, this means that you’ll get the most nutrition—not to mention the most affordable enjoyment—by eating seasonally. Although the exact season for specific items varies from region to region (you’ll almost certainly get that big beefsteak tomato much earlier in Georgia than in Ohio), follow these basic guidelines for optimal nutrition and taste:
- In spring, pick the new growth of the season: tender leafy vegetables such as spinach, Romaine or leaf lettuces, Swiss chard and early peas, as well as fresh herbs such as basil, parsley and dill.
- For summer, try lighter produce, with fruits such as strawberries, pears, apples and plums, and vegetables such as summer squash, broccoli, corn and cauliflower. You can also incorporate other summer-type herbs, such as mint or cilantro.
- During fall, choose hearty harvest foods, including sweet potatoes, carrots, onions and garlic. When cooking, emphasize "warmer" spices and seasonings such as peppercorns, ginger and mustard seeds.
- In winter, also pick hearty foods. Keep in mind the principle that foods which take longer to grow are generally more sustaining than foods that grow quickly. In this category are most root vegetables, including carrots, potatoes, onions and garlic, as well as eggs, corn and nuts.
- Focus on the fresh, minimizing the use of prepared foods as much as possible. When you must use prepared foods, make an effort to embellish them with one or more fresh ingredients.
- Pick a new produce item to try every week, whether the neglected rutabaga or the tropical mango.
- Cook at least one new dish each week, and look for recipes that will help you get acquainted with new ingredients. You can subscribe to a food magazine, search online or swap recipes with friends. Since food writers generally base their topics and menus on the foods of the season, take advantage of their offerings to reward yourself with wholesome, tasty meals.
- Experiment with regional or ethnic dishes. Most regional cuisines, developed in horse-and-buggy times, used local ingredients close by. Exploring new foods will keep mealtime both interesting and healthy.
- Don’t forget to take advantage of the useful food information your grocer provides. Whether you consult those little description cards that hang above specific fruits and veggies, or hold a friendly discussion with the produce manager on how to peel the leaves of an artichoke, you’ll find a wealth of ideas about preparing food.