It is all too easy for us to think that every type of food is available all year round. Even in the depths of winter, summer foods such as tomatoes and salads appear on supermarket shelves.
This makes seasonal foods harder to spot.
Here’s an inspiring selection of ways to get the whole family on board with seasonal eating. Give it a try and benefit both the environment, and your food budget!
What Is Seasonal Eating, and Why Bother?
It is the simple concept of eating whichever foods are ‘in season’ according to the time of year. Eating in this way helps us to reconnect with the rhythms and cycles of nature. We can enjoy foods when nature intends us to, and not when the supermarket managers decide we should.
Following the seasons helps us rediscover the beauty and exclusivity of different food varieties. Asparagus for example has a tantalisingly short growing and eating season. It traditionally starts on St George’s Day, April 23, and continues until the summer solstice on June 21. The taste and texture of locally grown asparagus far outshines imported varieties from Peru and Mexico!
Eating seasonally brings money into the local economy. It also reduces food miles and expensive import costs. Local growers can sell their produce at markets, greengrocers, and farm shops. This direct route to sale cuts distribution time and long periods of food storage. As a result, foods are fresher which helps them hold their nutritional value.
The Cost of Out-of-Season Foods
Certain nutrients are affected by the gases used to preserve foods in transit. They can also be affected by the glare of bright supermarket lights. A fresh ripe strawberry grown ten miles down the road packs more vitamin C than an unripe berry flown in from Egypt to sit in a supermarket.
The environmental cost of growing un-seasonal food is huge. If we want to eat Mediterranean type foods like courgettes, tomatoes, and peppers all year round then large greenhouses must be heated. This adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Plus the heavy use of fertilisers and pesticides damages native wildlife habitats.
Water scarcity is an ongoing problem in many developing countries. Many water supplies are prioritised for the irrigation of export crops. This brings damaging social and environmental consequences to these poorer communities.
So, we know the reasons why seasonal eating is a good thing to do, but how do you get the whole family to care about it?
Turn the Kids into Food Detectives!
It’s never too soon – or too late – to engage your family with the idea of seasonal eating. Here’s our top five tips.
Tip #1: Start by checking out labels in shops and supermarkets to find out where foods come from.
Tip #2: Use online maps or a globe to locate these countries and talk about what life is like there. How far have the foods travelled? How did they get here?
Tip #3: Visit a garden centre to discover what can be grown here in the UK. What can you grow in your garden, light-well, or window box? I’m not naturally green fingered, but when my son was little we both got really excited growing potatoes in compost grow-bags!
Tip #4: Check out farm stores, farmers markets, and farm open days. In autumn, orchards all over the UK have apple festivals. Here you can sample and buy a vast range of traditional varieties not stocked in supermarkets.
Tip #5: If older kids are reluctant to wander round farmers markets, get them to help with online shopping via the Food Assembly. Their online platform allows you to order from local food producers. Your shopping can then be collected at a central pick up point.
What Seasonal Food Is Available in the UK in Winter?
Looking out the window on an icy cold dark winter’s day, you’d think nothing could grow in this weather. Yet it’s quite surprising just how much can grow here in the UK in the winter months!
UK winter seasonal foods between November and February include:
These foods suit the needs of the season perfectly. Winter foods such as stewed fruits and vegetable soups are packed with complex carbohydrates. They are designed to warm, energise, and nourish us throughout the cold season. Other examples include roasted squash, apple and rhubarb crumble and mashed celeriac and potatoes.
The lean time comes in March and April, when we have what’s called the ‘hungry gap’. Stocks of winter vegetables are running low. The purple sprouting broccoli and wild garlic are coming in, but spring planted crops are not yet ready to harvest. So during this time we do rely on imports from Southern Europe.
Foods grown on the Continent travels a shorter distance than long-haul imports from South America and the Middle East. Plus they generally don’t need carbon-footprint-heavy refrigerated air transport.
Tomatoes, courgettes, salads, and soft fruits can be grown in Spain and other southern European countries. These will tide us over until our own spring and summer crops are ready.
Plan with the Seasons
The easiest way to make the most of seasonal foods is to plan your shopping. Local veg box schemes can do the hard work for you (though do check up on sources of imported foods to keep an eye on the environmental impact).
You can also use the excellent calendar chart at Eat the Seasons. This amazing tool provides a monthly breakdown of seasonal foods (vegetables, fruits, meats, and fish) plus recipe ideas. Use seasonal items as the base for meals, and make the most of these fresh, nutritious crops.
It can feel disheartening to see so many imported foods in the supermarkets. But even small changes like growing your own salad leaves has a positive knock-on effect. It will reduce the demand for imported and expensive salad bags, filled with preservative gases.
Seasonal eating is a concept our great grandparents took for granted, but we now have to strive for. With a bit of planning, we can all rekindle our love of native produce. Plus we can support both local growers and the wider environment.