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Eating Wisely

Eating Seasonally

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 2, March-April 2002, pp. 60-61

As springtime approaches in the northern hemisphere, many of us turn our thoughts to gardens. We pore over seed catalogs, organize pots, place orders, and wait for the ground to thaw. Fall brings the opportunity to evaluate the year’s harvest and make plans for what to grow next year. For some, myself included, the prospect of growing a large portion of our food is very rewarding. The produce is eaten fresh throughout the growing season or may be canned or frozen for winter consumption. For many, eating with the seasons is a way of life.

Eating seasonally benefits the individual, the family, the larger community, and the environment. For those who are not gardeners, farmers’ markets and other local vendors provide a bountiful array of seasonal fruits and vegetables of which everyone can take advantage. When produce is trucked across country for out of season distribution (tomatoes in winter, for example), its nutritive value declines. Many vegetables that are shipped long distances are picked early or sprayed to delay ripening. Eating locally grown food can help limit exposure to chemicals and lend support to small regional farms. Nothing that can compare to the freshness of a hand picked tomato from your garden or peas from the farmers’ market. If you grow your own fruits and vegetables without using chemical sprays, you don’t need to peel them. Leaving the peels on fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, apples, and potatoes, adds important minerals, vitamins, and fiber to our diets.

Each region has different fruits and vegetables that are in season throughout the year. For my family in the Northeastern United States, eating seasonally means not eating fresh tomatoes, peas, zucchini, and peppers in winter. It means focusing on the outstanding selection of foods that are available throughout each season. It is exciting to wait for asparagus, rhubarb, and peas in the spring; cucumbers, berries, and corn in the summer; winter squash and apples in the fall; and root vegetables in the winter. Freezing or canning can help provide your family with summer foods, like tomatoes or string beans, in winter. Combine all of this with regional products such as local meats, cheeses, maple syrup, and honey, and you have a well-stocked regional and seasonal kitchen!

Research indicates that a diet high in fruits and vegetables plays a role in the prevention of heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, and other diseases. Incorporation of these beneficial foods can help reduce the incidence of illness and assists the nursing and pregnant woman in achieving a diet that is beneficial for both herself and her baby. In The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding it is recommended that nursing mothers and their families eat a variety of foods and a variety of plant parts. This will naturally happen if we eat with the seasons. Throughout the year, the seasonal eater is exposed to a whole variety of different fruits and vegetables. A person who is not a seasonal eater may fall into a cycle of consuming the same foods throughout the year, with little diversity.

Different plant parts are consumed when one eats seasonally. In the spring, leaf or stalk parts are generally eaten. This may include lettuce, spinach, rhubarb, or asparagus. In summer, fruit parts dominate and may include berries, tomatoes, peppers, and melons. In fall, look for leaves, fruits, and roots in items such as apples, leeks, potatoes, and kale. Beets, onions, and carrots (root parts) may be the focus of the menus during winter months.

How does one get started with seasonal eating? How can the transition be made to eating foods that have fewer pesticides, spend less time in refrigeration, and are more nutritious?

During the summer, buy produce from roadside stands, local farms, or farmers’ markets. Look for foods labeled “local.” Ask your grocery store to carry locally grown foods. Visit food cooperatives which often carry locally grown produce, cheeses, grains, and meats.

In the US, become a member of a Community Supported Agriculture Farm (CSA). How does a CSA work? A family pays a set sum up front to the CSA Farm and then picks up or is delivered produce throughout the season. Many CSA farms are organic. Joining a CSA is a great way to connect with the local farmers, understand weather and seasons, and know exactly where your food is coming from. Families can usually visit and help out on the farm. It is fun to watch your toddler picking peas and learning how carrots grow. Toddlers won’t be as timid about eating veggies when they are sitting in the grass picking them off the vine.

During the winter months, include potatoes, winter squash, beets, kale, apples, garlic, and other seasonal foods. Winter squash can be cut open and baked with currants, a little butter, maple syrup, and nutmeg in the center—delicious! Be open to trying new foods like parsnips, celeriac (tastes like celery, but it is a root), or Jerusalem artichokes (taste like water chestnuts).

Buy in bulk during summer and can or freeze the produce. Every year, I can or freeze a variety of items for winter use. Some of those include: tomatoes, berries, peaches, beets, and applesauce. What a treat to have peaches in February when there is a foot of snow on the ground. Many farms have a variety of berries you can pick yourself. It is quick and easy to freeze berries for the winter. Just place them on a cookie sheet and pop in the freezer. After they are frozen, store them in freezer bags. Cooperative Extension Offices (found in some states of the US) are great sources for canning and freezing information.

Eating seasonally encourages creative cooking. What does one do with all those beets? It is fun to utilize the foods from each season into new and interesting dishes. I have a favorite dish I only make in the peak of summer that uses many fresh summer vegetables. It just wouldn’t be the same if I made this dish throughout the year with out-of-season produce. Try the following for easy ways to start “seasoning” your kitchen:

  • Eat local fruit salad—top it with yogurt for breakfast or with whipped cream for dessert.
  • Too much zucchini? Peel the zucchini with a potato peeler. Then use the peeler to peel the zucchini all the way down to the seeds. This will leave you with a pile of thinly sliced strips that, when cooked, can take the place of pasta. Toss the strips with sautéed onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, garlic, and peppers; add Parmesan or Feta cheese to the top. You can use five or six zucchini easily this way.
  • Grill the many available summertime vegetables (peppers are outstanding when grilled!). Just brush the vegetables with olive oil and place on the grill, turning frequently.
  • Use local herbs to season foods throughout the growing season. Try basil with tomatoes and balsamic vinegar or parsley with a cucumber and grain salad. Many herbs are very easy to grow.
  • Sauté mustard or other greens with garlic, onions, salt, and pepper. Serve as a side dish or over pasta or rice.
  • Of course, don’t forget smoothies! What a great way to combine the many fruits of summer with other healthy ingredients. Just throw whatever takes your fancy in the blender, starting with fruit and adding items such as milk/soymilk, nutmeg or cinnamon, tofu, seeds, vanilla, and/or cottage cheese. You’ll end up with a cooling, refreshing, not to mention nutritious, drink! Be creative! There are many options for utilizing seasonal food selections in smoothies.
  • Forgo the lettuce in winter. Make a salad out of grated cabbage, carrots, celeriac, and mushrooms and toss in other ingredients such as apples, crumbly cheese, sunflower seeds, and/or toasted nuts.
  • Make potato and leek soup in the fall.
  • Make chili with those canned tomatoes! Tomatoes are a great source of vitamin C. Use ground turkey or tofu instead of beef to lower the fat. Include a variety of beans.
  • Try a “root crop” soup with carrots, parsnips, and potatoes in winter. For protein, add meat or tofu. Many herbs, such as parsley, sage, and oregano, are accessible into winter or can be brought into the house in pots until spring. Flavor the soup with different herbs.
  • A wonderful dish in winter is roasted root crop vegetables. Cut up beets, parsnips, potatoes, onions, and carrots. Toss with olive oil and place in a single layer in a baking dish. Sprinkle on salt and pepper and add bay leaves on top. Bake for 20 minutes at 450 degrees F and then for another 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees F. When they are tender, remove from the oven and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar. Outstanding!

To learn more about seasonal eating, contact your local organic farm. In the USA you can contact your local CSA or Cooperative Extension Office. Look for cookbooks that have recipes categorized by the season—there are many. A local arboretum, horticultural society, or gardening club may also provide such information, and you may find friends with gardens.

I love seasonal eating because I know it benefits the health of my family, my community, and the environment, just like breastfeeding. Together the choices we make in our life can create a world that is connected and healthy.

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