Your ancestors may have had no choice but to eat with the seasons. If local trees produced apples, they ate apples. When rice crops were lush, they ate rice.
Entering a grocery store today, you may feel overwhelmed by food choices, let alone the media focus on particular foods and diet plans. One diet plan that's perhaps the most natural option is seasonal eating -- enjoying fresh, ripe foods reaped during peak harvest time. Eating in season generally means eating more locally grown produce. Fresh produce begins to lose flavor and nutrients as soon as it's picked, often over-ripening while still in the shipping crate.
Opting for seasonal produce not only means better taste and more nutrients but also a way to support local and regional farmers, who are generally less aggressive than large commercial farms in their use of chemicals. "If you can incorporate more fresh, seasonal and local produce into your diet, you'll eat fewer over-processed foods," said Dan'l Mackey Almy, a fresh-produce marketing executive and founder of the Fresh Produce Organization, a group of growers and farmers invested in raising the profile of fresh foods and educating consumers.
"You're going to be healthier and live longer."
Also, as fruits and vegetables are low in calories and rich in fiber, you can use them to help manage your appetite and slim down before swimsuit season. For best results, swap out calorie-rich, lower-nutrient items in your diet -- such as candy, soft drinks, sweetened canned fruits and potato chips -- with fresh, seasonal produce.
Sweet red strawberries are packed with fiber and nutrients. Since they typically peak in March and April, spring is the perfect time to incorporate them into your meals, snacks and desserts.
How popular are strawberries? According to consumer research studies and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, they're very popular. Elementary and high school students in the USDA's 2004 Fruit and Vegetable Pilot Program favored strawberries and carrots among a variety of survey choices.
A 2007 online survey by Ketchum West showed strawberries the clear favorite of adults over 18 when choosing their favorite fruit from a list of best-selling fruits: apples, bananas, grapes, oranges and strawberries. The survey was commissioned by the California Strawberry Commission.
With their vibrant color, tempting fragrance and heart-like shape, strawberries were considered an aphrodisiac in provincial France. Throughout history, strawberries have been a symbol of Venus, the goddess of love. They're a staple on Valentine's Day and an anytime romantic evening treat. From a nutritional standpoint, strawberries can ward off seasonal allergies, which peak during the spring, because they provide more of the potent antioxidant vitamin C than other fruit, including oranges.
Almy recommends purchasing large quantities of strawberries in season and extending their use. Consume as many as you can fresh, she explains, and then "lay excess berries flat, freeze them and use them for smoothies and other dishes as time goes on."
Doug Ranno, chief operating officer and managing partner of Colorful Harvest LLC, a Monterey, California, produce company, recommends vibrant-colored strawberries that are red "all the way through." His company uses heirloom seeds, similar to those used hundreds of years ago. As a result, Ranno says, these strawberries provide more antioxidants, including anthocyanin, and taste incredibly sweet. Ranno calls small strawberries "kid candy" and a superb way of improving your wee one's wellness.
Artichokes are like Tootsie Roll Pops to those who love them. Inside their colorful exterior hides a flavorful treat. While preparing the bulbous, prickly vegetable can seem daunting, the enjoyment and nutritional benefits are worth your effort.
Derived from the Mediterranean, artichokes can be grown perennially or annually but thrive particularly well during spring. A member of the sunflower family, the vegetable you consume is actually the plant's flower bud.
So how do you prepare these prickly eats? First, purchase artichokes that appear evenly green, with as little brown as possible. Since the outer leaves are inedible, you can either trim them away until you reach the soft center or fry, bake or steam the artichoke whole and remove the leaves before or during the meal -- with your teeth, as is customary in many restaurants.
Try steaming whole artichokes stuffed with whole grain bread crumbs, parmesan and Italian seasoning, or hollow out a whole, baked artichoke and use the exterior to hold vegetable dip. Artichokes, too, are dense in nutrients, including vitamin C, folate and potassium, and provide a low-calorie, nutritious alternative to fried chips, onion rings and other high-fat appetizers.
Spring is a fantastic time to stock up on cabbage. Although many leafy vegetables are available and in season throughout the year, cabbage tends to peak during spring months, appearing in coleslaw, Chinese chicken salads, fresh vegetable soups and alongside corned beef.
Along with brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower, cabbage derives from the Brassica vegetable family. As a rich source of vitamin K, vitamin C, manganese and fiber, cabbage promotes a strong-functioning immune system, digestive health and bone strength.
Since cabbage tends to maintain its freshness longer than other leafy vegetables, you can stock up without fear of it going bad. Terry Walters, author of "Clean Food: A Seasonal Guide to Eating Close to the Source," recommends soaking chopped cabbage in plum vinegar for two hours and then tossing it in a bowl with chopped red onion, carrots, radishes, fennel and a modest amount of grape seed oil for a tasty, nutritious salad.
Green, fleshy asparagus spears, derived from a flowering spring plant, have been a delicacy for centuries. March, April and May are prime times to enjoy them.
"I can make 5 pounds of grilled vegetables last all week long," Almy said. She purchases asparagus -- one of her favorite springtime vegetables -- and other fresh produce in bulk and then spends a few hours each Sunday with her family in the kitchen. They listen to music and chat while she chops and prepares a huge batch of grilled vegetables for use in egg white omelets, salads and "amazing" vegetable soups.
When you purchase asparagus, choose stalks that are brightest in color. At home, rinse asparagus and trim the ends away. Enjoy them fresh, or brush with extra virgin olive oil and set them on the grill. Roasting is an option, or use them as nutrient-packed components of soups, salads, stews and stir-fry.
By August McLaughlin