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Beginner’s guide to seasonal eating

Have you eaten a tomato recently? Chances are it was grown halfway around the world, picked green, shipped thousands of miles, and then ripened with ethylene gas. In fact, thanks to advances in transportation, growing methods, and booming global commerce, we can have raspberries from Chile or asparagus from Australia when they’re nowhere near in season locally. But just because we can, should we?

Eating in accordance with what’s in season in your particular region has many advantages. “The closer we eat to the source, and the less processing and shipping, the more nutritional value we can access. And there is less risk of contamination, less fuel used, and less waste in the environment,” says Terry Walters, author of the seasonal cookbook Clean Food (Sterling Epicure, 2009). As Walters points out, imported produce usually travels thousands of miles to reach your local grocery store. The next time you reach for a tomato in December, look at the label. Imported tomatoes travel an average of 1,569 miles, whereas one grown in your region in season may have traveled just 60 miles. And in-season, locally grown produce isn’t just tastier and better for the environment—it’s better for you, too. For example, one Penn State study found that spinach lost most of its folate and carotenoid concentrations after eight days of storage.

Want to know what's fresh in your area? Check out our seasonal produce by region guide.

There are additional health benefits associated with seasonal eating. The body naturally needs different foods during specific times of the year—foods that protect us from the effects of seasonal changes—say experts such as Elson M. Haas, MD, author of Staying Healthy with the Seasons (Celestial Arts, 2004). Haas’ recommendation draws on nutritional wisdom from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and natural medicine. For example, in TCM, spring is associated with the liver—one of the body’s primary detoxification organs. Synergistically, it’s also the time when dandelion and other greens are fresh and available. “Young, bitter-tasting greens support the liver’s function and its ability to cleanse the blood,” says Rebecca Wood, author of The New Whole Foods Encyclopedia (Penguin, 2010).

Cooking methods also play an important role in seasonal eating. We naturally crave hot soups in fall and early winter; that’s no accident, says Vaijayanti Apte, BAM&S, MS, founder of the Ayurveda Institute of America. “Winter is cold and dry; soup is hot and moist. It’s the perfect balance,” she says. Eating cold, uncooked foods during fall and winter can put stress on the body; it further chills you and takes extra energy to digest, putting a drag on your system. “However, in the summer, we eat more raw foods—so our homes and our bodies don’t get overheated when it’s already hot.” Every season has a specific health focus, with seasonal foods and cooking methods that support the body during that time. Above all else, listen to your body and trust what it says to you. “When you eat in season, you come into balance and your body will know what it needs to maintain that balance,” says Mary Lane, author of Divine Nourishment (Dog Ear, 2010). Here’s a quick guide to seasonal, healthy eating.


Health focus: Lightening up; detox and liver support

“Everything is green and light, and that’s how we should be eating,” says Wood. Sprouts, leafy greens, cereal grasses, and juices not only reflect the outward-moving, expansive qualities of spring, but also tonify the liver, the central organ of spring, making it easier to purge toxins that may have accumulated over the winter. Lightening the body’s load also can free up energy. Celery, daikon radish, millet, seaweed, and parsley further support the liver and aid with detoxing.

Pick of the crop:

Artichokes, arugula, watercress, asparagus, young chard, mustard greens, dandelion greens, cherries, spinach, parsley

Cooking methods:

Begin to reflect warmer temperatures and abundant spring rains. “In Ayurveda, rain and water are heavy and cold, so you want warm, dry cooking methods,” says Apte. Emphasize toasting, baking, and grilling.


Health focus: Hydration and cooling

Your body is hot and dry now; balance it with cool moist foods like seasonal melons, nectarines, and cucumbers. From a TCM standpoint, summer is the time of the heart and small intestine, says Nina Kapfer, LAc, DOM. “Cayenne pepper sprinkled over food will increase circulation and tonify both. And tofu, mung beans, and mint tea offer more cooling,” she says. You’ll also want to eat lighter, use less meat and fat, and avoid stimulants like coffee and black tea, which dehydrate the body and raise your internal temperature.

Pick of the crop:

Berries, eggplant, avocado, figs, fennel, green beans, tomatoes, peaches, apricots, plums, lettuce, peppers

Cooking methods:

Use as little heat as possible to maintain moisture; lightly steamed, blanched, and raw foods are ideal.


Health focus: Storing energy and building immunity

This is a time of gathering in, preparing for cold winter months, and shoring up the immune system in the face of cold, dry, windy weather. “Fall gives us immune-building foods rich in beta carotene, like pumpkin, squash, and kale,” says Walters. “Those foods also provide extra sweetness while stabilizing blood sugar, to keep us energized as the days get shorter.” According to TCM, sour foods like sauerkraut, lemons, olives, and tart apples gather in the scattered energy of summer, and pungent foods like chiles, onions, garlic, and ginger clear toxins before winter sets in.

Pick of the crop:

Apples, pears, brussels sprouts, winter squash, pumpkin, persimmons, garlic, carrots, kale, chard, broccoli, cauliflower

Cooking methods:

Stir-frying, sautéing, steaming, and braising add heat and water, which prepares the body for the cold, dry winter months ahead, says Apte.


Health focus: Reserve energy and rest

Your body needs more warmth than ever now, so remember the principle that foods that take the longest to grow—carrots, sweet potatoes, and other root vegetables, as well as meats and eggs—are the most warming. This is because they take longer to digest and thus have the ability to support your internal temperature. Red beans—such as adzuki or kidney beans—black beans, and all types of seaweed fortify the kidneys, which are ruled by winter, says Wood. Meat, bone stock, and root vegetables also nourish the kidneys.

Pick of the crop:

Broccoli rabe, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, garlic, kale, rutabagas, parsnips, turnips, sunchokes, beets

Cooking methods:

Cook foods longer, and at lower temperatures; focus on slow-cooked stews, soups, braises, and roasts.

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