03/07/2014 10:47 am ET Updated May 07, 2014

A Beginner's Guide to Seasonal Eating

First appeared on Food Riot, by Dana Staves

I was twenty-four years old before I really became aware that growing seasons existed. And for awhile, I felt ashamed of that. How could I not be aware of such things? How silly is that?

But over the years, I have realized I'm not alone. We live in a world where tomatoes and strawberries can be easily procured year-round from the local grocery store. Hot houses can generally get us anything we want. The same way that flowers are available all year long, I just assumed the same held true for produce. No. Not even that. I just didn't think about it. Want a strawberry in January? Go for it. No questions asked.

So when I was twenty-four and got a CSA membership, I went to the local farmers market to pick up my haul of goods. And I noticed the major difference between their shelves and the produce displays at Harris Teeter or Farm Fresh: The farmers' market had a very specific inventory. Their produce was limited to what was in season in our region.

And I asked the question that I have heard from others when it comes to seasonality: how do you even know what's in season? And there are a few good ways to start that education.

But eating seasonally has more benefits than just knowledge. One is that you can eat what is plentiful in your region, which really connects you to the place where you live. Another is that you can diminish the carbon footprint by purchasing local produce, i.e. produce that didn't need an (expensive) airplane ticket to get to you. And another is that you can keep cost down in your own grocery shopping. By eating what's in season, you can generally get your fresh produce cheaper. Compare the price of tomatoes today to the tomatoes you'll get in June or July. Major price difference.

So here's a beginner's guide to seasonal eating.

1. Consult a growing guide. Each state will usually have a growing guide specific to produce grown there, and that's an excellent indicator of what's fresh when. When I moved to California, one of the first things I did was print off a schedule of the growing seasons so I would know what's in peak season at any given time of year. And when I move again, I'll do the same thing in my new home.

2. Pay attention to grocery store displays. You know that gorgeous moment when your local grocery store has gigantic bins of sweet corn and a courtesy trash can nearby for throwing husks and silks into? That's a clear indicator that corn season is in full swing. It's at that point that corn is abundant and cheap -- after all, they have to move that product quickly before it spoils, so it can be had at a bargain. Look for what's bountiful and prominently displayed in your grocery store.

3. Pay attention to your farmers' market. If you live in an area with a farmers' market, you can apply the same tactic here as well. Look for what's abundant and pounce on that fresh goodness. The really great thing about farmers' markets is that they operate on a much smaller scale, usually sourcing from local farmers, and so they are an even better indicator of what's truly fresh and in season in your region. You can get crops that were picked within the last 24 hours; those people are super familiar with what's in season.

4. Ask a farmer. If you have a local farm that you go to, or a farmer in your friend circle, or a produce vendor you are acquainted with, ask them about what's in season, what's about to go away, what's coming in soon. They are usually all too happy to tell you, and you may be able to score some really cool produce opportunities, like when Nikki got 20 lbs of peaches.

5. Consult Pinterest forecasting. It sounds corny, but Pinterest is almost scientific in the way that it can forecast food trends. As we got close to Halloween, we saw every imaginable candy corn craft, recipe, or use surface on Pinterest. Get close to Thanksgiving, and it's all pumpkin, all the time. When the peppermint explodes on your Pinterest, you can take it as a sign of Christmas cheer. And as sure as I sit here, when corn, tomatoes, avocados, strawberries, etc. come into season, Pinterest will have a deluge of related recipes for making the best of those fresh goodies. Watch your social media -- Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram - and you'll know what's in-season, at least on a more national scope. It's not foolproof, but it's a start.

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