Being able to eat seasonally is not a new concept, but it is one that has been made more complex by our increasingly globalized food system. For this reason, the UK Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs has come up with a definition of seasonality based on where the food was grown versus where it was consumed:
- Local Seasonality: Refers to foods that are both produced and consumed locally.
- Global Seasonality: Food that is produced in season in one part of the world, but consumed in another.
Eating seasonally was a necessity for our ancestors who obtained most of their food from land-hunting, foraging, farming, and preserving. In these technologically-advanced, busy times, things are a little different. It means making locally grown foods the foundation of daily meals and making a conscious decision to support local farmers and growers by choosing as many foods as possible from the local state or region.
Along with new flavors and great-tasting opportunities, buying locally-grown, in-season produce offers many benefits – to you and your community!
What are the benefits?
Produce at its peak will be packed with vitamins, minerals, and flavor. Eating seasonally also adds a variety to your diet. It expands the range and diversity of nutrients you are taking in. Hopefully, through the following seasons, you will be inspired to try new plants and recipes.
Food quality is related to how long produce has been sitting since it’s been harvested. Time, temperature, exposure to air, and artificial light all play a role in affecting vegetables and fruit nutrients. Locally grown produce will reach your plate sooner, meaning the nutrients are preserved and intact. A study of the nutritional quality of broccoli found that vitamin C content varied by season, with fall varieties containing twice as much as those harvested in the spring. By shopping for produce when it’s in season, produce can be highly nutritious, flavorful, and varied!
Buying locally will tell you exactly where your food comes from. You can ask local farmers or local market merchants about their growing practices, varieties that are grown, and questions about freshness. Overall, this can help to ensure safer food as it travels through fewer hands to get to your plate.
Reduced pesticide consumption
By avoiding out-of-season produce and choosing locally grown (and organic where possible), we can minimize the intake of these chemicals. Most studies of the health effects of pesticides have focused on occupationally-exposed folks, like farmers and pesticide applicators. Acute organophosphate pesticide poisonings may result in symptoms like nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, dizziness, anxiety, and confusion, which can be quite severe but are often reversible. Studies have found that chronic, lower dose exposure to pesticides is associated with respiratory problems, memory disorders, skin conditions, depression, miscarriage, birth defects, cancer, and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
Generally, eating local is cheaper as there is less transit time from farmer to consumer.
Environmentally and economically friendly
When you buy fresh seasonal produce directly from growers, you are helping to keep property taxes down, as well as supporting local agriculture. This in turn can support local jobs and tourism! By reconnecting to the local food system, we can also promote ecological diversity and protect natural resources. Locally grown foods require much less fuel and energy to transport, simply because they’re grown…locally! The cost and use of fuel are greatly reduced when stores stock produce from local farms, benefiting the environment, farmers’ profits, and consumer food costs.
Connect with your community
Choosing seasonal produce means not only supporting local agriculture but also giving you the opportunity to connect with the people growing food in your local community. Why is maintaining a connection with your community important? Studies show that social connectedness can promote longevity! Talking and interacting with people can help you live longer; one study of households in rural communities demonstrated that fruit and vegetable consumption is highest among individuals who regularly visit farmers’ markets.
Depending on your region, crop availability and growing seasons vary. Some greens and carrots, beets, and radishes may be harvested year-round in temperate climates. Harvest times start earlier and last longer in warm areas, and they start later and end earlier in colder zones. As temperatures start to rise with the beginning of spring, produce begins to bloom!
A Guide to Seasonal Produce
- Collard greens
- Swiss chard
- Fava beans
- Green garlic
- Pea greens
- Snap peas
Late Spring/Early Summer:
- Valencia oranges
- Spring onions
- Sweet onions
- Wild mushrooms
Try out some of the recipes below to take full advantage of your spring produce!
- Foul Mudammas (Egyptian fava beans)
- Tangy rhubarb salsa
- Chickpea, Artichoke, and Avocado Salad with Apple Cider Dressing
- Simple Sauteed Swiss Chard
- Lemon Garlic Sauteed Cabbage
- Grilled Radicchio Salad with Gorgonzola and Balsamic Vinaigrette
- Pea, Zucchini, and Pesto Orzo
- Cilantro Lime Chicken with Rice and Beans
More Seasonal Eating Tips
- Try growing your own fruits and vegetables at home with an indoor herb garden or outdoor vegetable garden boxes.
- Freeze, dehydrate, or can fresh produce when it is in season.
- Buy frozen fruits and vegetables during the winter since they are often less expensive and picked at their nutrient-dense peak.
- Try fermenting and pickling seasonal vegetables to preserve their nutritional value.
- Download resources to help you make seasonal food choices, like the Seasonal Food Guide.
- Become a member or support farmers’ co-ops.
- Look through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) directory and find a CSA near you.
Dietitian Approved Frozen Meals
Convenience foods can be a lifesaver sometimes, right? They are easy to heat up or prepare, take minimal effort, and can be taken on the go if need be. But, with millions of items on the grocery shelves, how do we know which products are considered healthy?
Reading labels can be overwhelming, and questioning whether food is healthy or unhealthy can be exhausting! My goal is to help individuals and groups to make quality nutrition their lifestyle in a simpler way. Many people ask me if frozen meals are healthy. Like most answers within the gray area of nutrition, it all depends! There are definitely some frozen meals that can include quality nutrition, but to call it truly healthy depends on a couple of factors. Below, I break down a few terms that are beneficial to know and understand when we are looking for a well-rounded, higher-quality frozen meal when shopping.
Low sodium is defined as any food product or item that contains less than 400 mg of sodium. Many of the frozen meals I recommend as healthy contain more than 400 mg. So you may be asking, why would the dietitian recommend this? Based on research and what is on the market, it is VERY hard to find products that are low in sodium. Oftentimes, convenience products have higher levels of sodium as a preservative and flavor enhancer, which can take away from the quality nutrients. High levels of sodium increase blood pressure, which increases our risk of heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, heart failure, and heart disease.
For most frozen meals, I usually recommend choosing products with less than 600 mg of sodium, as it is rare to find meals with less than 800 mg. A good reminder: it is recommended that we consume no more than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. For many people, 1,500 mg is an even better goal to prevent the risk of developing cardiometabolic disease.
So why aren’t the products we find in stores lining up with what we are being recommended to consume (low sodium)? There are many people who are currently battling to have sodium guidelines changed in the restaurant and foodservice/manufacturing industries. Over the next two and a half years, the FDA is aiming to cut average sodium intake from 3,400 to 3,000 mg per day, which is significantly more than the federally recommended limit of 2,300 mg. That’s equivalent to one teaspoon per day, which can be found in about two slices of pizza, 20 chicken nuggets, or two tablespoons of soy sauce.
Check out this toolkit to learn more about effective ways the community can reduce sodium!
Protein-rich is another term I like to use when describing a balanced meal. That means the meal contains adequate amounts of protein. This is important because, without adequate protein, most people become hungry within two hours after eating a meal. Protein helps to satiate or provide a feeling of fullness and satisfaction. Don’t miss that last part…satisfaction! Many foods we’re drawn to, like added sugars, actually make us crave those empty calories or energy more without ever being fully satisfied.
I have found that a sufficient amount of protein per meal for most people ranges from 15-30 grams. This is based on research as well as learned experiences with clients in the Nutrition Counseling Program. There are many ways to get protein through animal and plant-based sources such as beans, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Something I have learned through experience is that vegetarianism is not a guaranteed healthy diet. It is what you make it! Vegetarian frozen meals are often associated with being “healthier,” but some of those meals can actually contain 60-80 grams of carbohydrates, with little protein or fat. Our bodies cannot optimally absorb more than 60 grams of carbohydrates an hour, meaning this many carbs at one time can cause blood sugar spikes and increased insulin resistance. It is important to eat quality protein with carbohydrates, fiber, and healthy fats to help maintain blood sugars, whether it’s through meat or vegetable sources.
Low carb has been a very popular term in our culture. It emphasizes eating vegetables, mostly non-starchy vegetables, as they are lower in carbohydrates than starchy vegetables and grains. Most people associate weight gain with eating a diet high in pasta, rice, bread, and starchy vegetables like potatoes.
Plenty of frozen meals contain 60 grams of carbs from mostly pasta or rice, but a more well-balanced carb intake would be provided by more than half of your meal, as non-starchy vegetables like these are going to be higher in water, vitamins, and minerals. These vegetables are also good sources of fiber! Ideally, a meal should have at least 5 grams of fiber to help you get closer to reaching your daily fiber goal and feel fuller for longer. Most of the meals I recommend contain good sources of non-starchy vegetables.
Check out my go-to brands:
- Trader Joe’s
- Good Food Made Simple
- Lean Cuisine
- Healthy Choice
- Performance Kitchen
- Primal Kitchen
If you like meat:
- Good Food Made Simple Lemon Chicken or Chicken Black Bean
- Evol’s Fire Grilled Steak
- Healthy Choice Sweet and Zesty BBQ Seasoned Pork
- Healthy Choice Adobo Chicken
- Performance Kitchen Mediterranean-Style Lemon Pasta
- 365 by Whole Foods Market, Quinoa with Organic Vegetables
- Eating Well Vermont Cheddar Mac and Cheese
- Lean Cuisine Sicilian Style Pesto with Lentil Pasta
- Daily Harvest Sweet Potato + Wild Rice Hash Harvest Bowl
- Healthy Choice Green Goddess Power Bowl
Ready for more nutrition tips and lifestyle recommendations? The YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »
—Mattie Lefever, RDN, LDN