Foods that are in season may taste better and offer greater nutritional value, and buying them can support local farmers and your community’s economy. Here’s how to find (or grow!) seasonal food.
A ripe summer peach. A crisp Autumn apple. A delicate bunch of spring asparagus. These are examples of foods and the seasons during which they’re at their peak.
“Seasonal eating” is a term tossed around frequently: restaurants use it, chefs use it, farmers use it, dietitians use it — it’s a catch-all phrase referring to the practice of eating food when it’s at the peak of freshness.
This article explores seasonal eating in-depth, from what it is to its potential health benefits.
Each food has a growing cycle. Once a plant reaches its peak growth, or maturity, it’s harvested. Plants that are harvested for food are typically at their best at this time, offering maximum flavor and nutrition.
If you think about it, it’s not unlike how our ancestors would’ve eaten. They used land to grow or forage what they needed, harvested the plants at just the right time, and then enjoyed or preserved what they harvested.
Eating seasonally today is more than just about flavor and nutrition. It’s also about sustainability and doing what’s best to conserve and preserve our natural resources.
The health benefits and other potential positive effects of sustainability are driving the increased popularity of seasonal eating.
We can expect much more in the way of education and promotion as we continue to find ways to deal with climate change and pollution and work to create a more sustainable way of life.
Seasonal eating is a term used to describe the practice of eating food — produce in particular — when it’s at its harvest peak. Eating seasonally may have health benefits and may offer a sustainable alternative to other practices.
The best way to find seasonal foods in your area is to make a trip to the local farmers’ market. Peruse the stalls and talk to the people who grow the food. Ask them what’s ready to eat now and what’s coming soon.
If you frequent the market often, you’ll notice how the produce changes. One month, there may be a bounty of rhubarb, and then the next, a plethora of berries. Remember, these foods all have varying times when they’re at their peak.
Farmers aren’t grocers; they only sell what they grow and harvest. That’s what makes the markets such insightful places to learn about the seasonality of food.
If you don’t have access to a farmers’ market, head to a nearby grocery store. While in-season produce might not be clearly labeled, you can still identify it most of the time.
At the grocery, in-season produce is typically abundant and often on sale. Because of the high volume, the store needs to move the food quickly to the consumer before it’s past its prime.
Also, check for in-store signage about sourcing, as grocery stores often feature local farmers and growers.
Katie Webster, a professional seasonal recipe developer based in Vermont, told Healthline that “many regional grocery chains work with local farms to bring in local produce. Look for ‘local’ labels to help guide you.”
Webster recommends stopping at roadside farm stands or joining your local community-supported agriculture group (also known as a CSA). CSAs offer a variety of farm-fresh foods that you can explore and cook.
You can also check out co-operative urban garden spaces, which can be found in many areas, especially in larger cities.
How do you know when food is in-season?
Because climates and soils vary throughout the United States, the plants that grow here vary, too. There are many handy resources that can help you find what’s in-season in your area.
You can talk to folks at a CSA or farmers’ market or consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Seasonal Produce Guide.
Another option: find what grows best in your area by referencing the Farmers Almanac. You can even grow your own food (more on that later).
Discovering seasonal foods is simple. Head to a farmers’ market, join a CSA, or grow your own produce. Some grocery stores offer local choices; just check store signage or ask employees about the farms they’re featuring.
Each food has a specific time that it’s best grown and harvested. Knowing foods’ growing cycles provides insight on best practices for eating seasonally.
Harvest times for these foods will depend on the type of plants, their germination cycles, and how long it takes for the plants to mature.
(Note that this a general guide for areas that experience four distinct seasons. In warmer areas, the cycles will happen earlier.)
These are “cool-season” crops and begin to germinate in colder soil and can tolerate cold temperature.
Examples include asparagus, spinach, radishes, rhubarb, scallions and chives, fiddlehead ferns, ramps (sometimes called wild leeks or spring onions), and garlic scapes.
These are “warm-season” crops that thrive in hot conditions and are sensitive to frost.
Examples include melons, cucumber, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, stone fruits, summer squash, and herbs.
End of summer or fall
These are the plants that are harvested for storage.
Examples include hard-skinned winter squashes, root vegetables, onions, and potatoes.
All produce has a growing cycle with harvest times that vary depending on the variety of plant, its germination cycle, and the time it takes to reach maturity. That’s how you know which foods are at their seasonal best.
Proponents of seasonal eating say that foods at their peak not only offer the best flavor, but provide greater nutrition, too. Studies suggest that storing fresh produce can cause chemical changes and nutrient losses.
Kelsey Lorencz is a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) at Graciously Nourished and a contributor to Healthline.
“The longer a fruit or vegetable takes to get from field to table, the more nutrient loss occurs,” Lorencz said. “One study found that leafy greens lost almost 50% of their original vitamin C after transport, storage, and 3 days of sitting on the grocery store shelf” (
The study Lorencz referenced also found that the vegetables’ levels of potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, chlorophyll, and absorbic acid fell substantially in the grocery store (
Similary, Justine Chan, MHSc, RD, CDE, founder of yourdiabetesdietitian.com, cited an older 2008 study that found that broccoli in the fall had nearly twice the amount of vitamin C compared with broccoli in the spring (
Chan said that out-of-season produce often needs to be harvested early and imported, which results in less flavor — as well nutrient losses.
One study found that many fruits and vegetables lose phenolics, vitamin C, and anthocyanins — which are antioxidants that fight free radical damage and oxidative stress in the body — after 15 days of cold storage (3).
It’s important to recognize, however, that many canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are harvested and packaged at their peak.
Frozen foods generally don’t lose nutrients, and some foods may even have higher levels of some nutrients after freezing. Therefore, these foods are viable choices for seasonal eating as well (
Many fruits and vegetables are at their peak nutritionally when picked ripe at harvest, but transportation and storage can cause nutrient loss. Try eating foods soon after they’re harvested to take full advantage of their benefits.
Webster and Chan agree that eating seasonally can lower your carbon footprint. Sourcing food seasonally means you’re potentially lowering greenhouse gas emissions associated with trucking and holding the produce in cold storage.
Because your food spends less time traveling, it’ll be fresher — and perhaps less expensive, since there will be fewer costs associated with shipping and storing.
You’ll also be supporting your local farmers and economy, according to Lorencz.
Farms provide employment and are integral parts of our food system. Buying local keeps small farms in business and promotes food diversification.
Beyond health benefits, eating seasonally also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating the need for extended travel and cold storage, while supporting small farmers and the local economy.
If you’re up for it, growing your own food is a fantastic way to eat seasonally. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to have a close, hands-on relationship with your food.
Luckily, you can grow food anywhere, even in a tiny apartment or on a small deck using pots or containers designed for gardening.
If you’d like to test out your green thumb a try, Beebe Okoye, gardening enthusiast and founder of Kiva Cafe in New York, has these tips to offer:
- Plants for small spaces: All can be “interplanted” with edible flowers or herbs and grown in containers, so you don’t need a container or grow bag for each plant. Consider these:
- lettuce and Asian greens
- Plants for large spaces: They can be grown in the ground or in raised beds. Consider these:
- in-ground trees
- rows of corn and other grains
- larger amounts of any foods
Other tips for first-time gardeners include:
- Be consistent with nurturing your plants. Don’t forget to water and feed them.
- Use compost. It’s the “black gold” that feeds the soil’s life, which in turn will nourish your plants.
- Attract biodiversity (pollinators, their predators, and their prey) and try to foster a balanced ecosystem.
- Spend time enjoying your garden and let the wonders of nature do their work. Learn how gardening can benefit your mental and physical health here.
Gardening is another way to eat seasonally. Growing food teaches you what grows in your area and when it’s at its best. Start small, especially if you have limited space, and build up to rows and beds of a variety of foods later.
More tips for eating seasonally
There are plenty of easy ways to eat seasonally. Here are some top tips from the experts we talked with.
- Shop at a farmers’ market. You can build a list of new foods and recipes to try that way, says Chan. Check out the USDA’s Local Food Directories, which can help you find farmers’ markets.
- Learn how to preserve your food. Canning, freezing, and dehydrating are all great ways to enjoy your seasonal finds year-round, according to Lorencz.
- Cook simply. Seasonal ingredients are already at their best, so there’s no need to over-complicate the cooking, says Webster. She recommends chopping up veggies, adding them to the main course, and tossing in fresh herbs at the end.
- Check out online resources. The USDA’s SNAP-Ed Seasonal Produce Guide can provide more information on what’s in-season where you live. FoodPrint’s Seasonal Food Guide is also a great resource.
Foraging is an activity that involves exploring your area to search for edible plants that grow there naturally. If done correctly and safely, it can be a fun way to learn about seasonal eating.
Okoye says that it’s important to do your research and read up on foraging before you head out. When you’re out, always identify the plant before consuming it, because while some parts might be edible, other parts may not be.
She recommends foraging with an experienced guide or expert, especially if you’re new to the practice. There also foraging groups and tours throughout the U.S. that can help with this. Find one close to you using Eat My Planet.
Learn more about getting started with foraging here.
Eating seasonally is an easy way to enjoy more nutritious produce and lower your carbon footprint.
Getting started is simple: you can visit your local farmers’ market or grocery store, or consider joining a community-supported agriculture group (CSA).
Foraging is another option for exploring food seasonality. Just join a foraging group or find an expert in your area to make sure you’re doing it safely.
Growing your own food can be a great way to learn more about food and growing cycles. Consider starting small and building your garden as you become more comfortable and knowledgeable.
Just one thing
Try this today: Set a goal to learn more about seasonal eating by visiting your local farmers’ market at least once during each season. Walk around to observe (and taste!) the foods offered at each booth. Ask questions and take notes.