Woman choosing produce at a grocery store.

As you stroll through the grocery store aisles on a quest to eat seasonal food, it may strike you as odd to see bins of watermelon or berries if it’s the middle of winter where you live. You know it’s not the local growing season for these traditional summer fruits — so how exactly is this produce available year-round at your local grocer?

There are three reasons:

  1. The different growing regions in the United States
  2. The use of greenhouses
  3. The country’s reliance on imports

Many of the Southern U.S. states are able to grow year-round, whether it’s in the ground or in greenhouses. Additionally, the U.S. imports fruits and vegetables from other countries, such as Mexico, to help supplement the supply people crave throughout the year.

However, there are a handful of reasons you should only eat food that’s in-season where you live — and skip over those “evergreen” options.

Benefits of seasonal produce

Buying seasonal produce is important for several reasons, explained celebrity chef and certified nutritionist Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN, who creates meals and nutritional plans for A-list clientele such as Kerry Washington and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

Flavor and texture

“Food that is picked from a farm down the road during its peak ripeness is going to have more vibrant flavors than a piece of fruit picked halfway across the world — often before it is ripe — and then shipped on planes and trucks before it gets to your plate,” said Poon. Additionally, the texture could suffer when it’s shipped from far away, as it can get banged and bruised in transit.

Sustainability

When you find out-of-season produce, that means it was grown somewhere else and shipped to your region. Let’s say you live in New England and find a package of strawberries from California in the produce section … in December. Think of the journey that one package of strawberries had to take to get there. The labor to pick them, processing, packaging, air travel, land travel — all that effort, all those emissions.

By skipping that strawberry purchase, you’re actually reducing your carbon footprint and protecting our planet.

Nutrition

From a nutritional perspective, some research points to a difference in vitamins and minerals in seasonal foods compared to nonseasonal options. This is due in part to the produce slowing dying while in transit — especially when it’s picked at the peak of ripeness, as its nutritional value can only go downhill from that point. “Seasonal produce is going to nourish you more because it is more alive,” said Poon.

There’s also something to be said for abiding by Mother Nature’s plan. For instance, many winter fruits, such as oranges, are brimming with vitamin C, which may be helpful for keeping the immune system boosted during cold and flu season. And summer fruits tend to be higher in sugar, which was useful to our ancestors, who used this season to bulk up in anticipation of their winter hibernation.

Cost

When managing your household budget, know that in-season fruits and vegetables are often more affordable. Food revolves around supply and demand, and that means you’ll pay less for something that’s abundant at certain times of the year (think about how cheap corn can get). Further, imports can come with a steeper price tag, Poon explained, “because you are not paying for shipping fees.”

If you need to buy an off-season (and therefore more expensive) fruit or vegetable for a recipe and you can’t find a substitute, balance the expense by using coupons on other items you’re purchasing. You likely won’t find a coupon for an avocado, but you might find one for pasta sauce or cereal on our website. That way, you can offset the price of the off-season purchase.

How to find and eat seasonal food

One of the easiest ways to shop in-season is to buy produce at your local farmers’ market — anything for sale at a farmers’ market is likely harvested just down the street and brought to you in its freshest form, said Poon. You can also shop at a grocery store or co-op that prioritizes local produce.

When shopping at a traditional grocery store, it’s wise to read labels. Locally grown produce will usually be marked with a sign or tag with a street or farm address in your region; similarly, most imports will clearly state their origin on the label.

When you’re ready to cook, your seasonally sourced ingredients are sure to make any recipe shine. Not only will in-season produce add more vibrant flavors to your dishes, but they’re sure to leave a little extra cash in your pocket, too.