This month, we’re stepping away a bit from primary foods nutrition and focusing again on secondary foods, the ones we put in our mouths. As you find your way on your health journey, getting your food choices sorted can be what Charles Duhigg calls a keystone habit in his book The Power of Habit: a keystone habit is one that not only creates a desired change—it also has a cascade of other good habits that follow in its wake. This week, we’re taking a look at seasonal eating, the “S” in SOLE food.
Fall has always been my favorite season: I love autumn leaves, I love the temperatures, and I love the vegetables. I also love the slower, inward-focused energy of this time of year.
My culinary background has overlapped with my health coaching in many ways, and one of the offspring of this pairing is an interest in food energetics and Traditional Chinese Medicine, often called TCM.
In food energetics, this inward shift of energy and attention is reflected not only in the food we choose but in how we choose to cook it: fall veggies have spent the warm months concentrating their nutrition into compact packages and can stand up to longer cooking times required by roasting, braising, simmering, and stewing.
Unlike the light spring and summer greens that grow above the ground and reach toward the sun, root vegetables are an apt metaphor for the fall season: they are associated with the lower half of the body, our roots to the earth, and they nourish us with a focusing, grounding energy.
Why does seasonal eating matter? We can get any produce we want at the grocery store, so why limit ourselves?
As I discovered in my own family’s journey toward a SOLE food diet (that which is seasonal, organic, local, and ethical), eating seasonally definitely has benefits.
For all four of us, it has boosted our immune systems: to our doctors’ dismay, we refuse flu shots, and yet if we catch that year’s virus—we often don’t—we seem to suffer less and recover much more quickly than others. The difference in our children’s school attendance records and those of others is pretty striking.
For me personally, the benefit of seasonal eating became very clear when we moved from sunny Southern California to wintry Michigan. Growing up in Vermont and living in Colorado and Illinois, I had always been one of those people who was perpetually cold—cold fingers, cold toes, cold nose…. I think the only time in my earlier life when I felt truly warm was when I was pregnant, especially with my son, who continues to be a portable space heater.
I used to try to “eat healthy” by choosing salads for lunch, even in the winter, when what my body really wanted was some heavier, stew-y food. When I finally experimented with eating what I really wanted for lunch and replacing cold green salads at dinner with heartier dark green leafy veggies available in the fall and winter, I suddenly discovered that I wasn’t constantly cold … and no, I didn’t gain weight!
Can I scientifically prove any of this? No … and yet if you’re willing to try an experiment, you can prove or disprove it for yourself. No clinical trials involved, just you, your kitchen, and your journal.
If you are used to shopping at the grocery store, you may not know what produce is in season in your region because you can get just about any fruit or vegetable any time of the year. And you’ve probably noticed that the produce you buy there can vary greatly in how tasty it is!
Produce doesn’t require a nutritional label, but I encourage you to start noticing the required “COO” label, which stands for “country of origin” and can tell you a lot about seasonality: you’ll find the information on the fruit or on the sign next to it. Usually, if your food is being shipped from a different hemisphere, you can bet that it’s not in season where you live.
Want to really learn about what’s in season? Visit your local farmers’ market. Think it’s more expensive? There are some indications that conventionally grown produce is priced about the same as in a grocery store, which organic produce can often be less expensive at the market! Better yet, many markets now accept SNAP (food assistance benefits) and some even offer incentives to those who shop there using their EBT cards.
Many farmers’ markets have rules about what farmer/vendors sell there, meaning that the food has to be grown by them and within a certain radius of the market. Beware of markets that have laxer requirements: if you see bananas at a market in Michigan, you can bet it’s a resale arrangement!
If you shop at the farmers’ market on a regular basis, you will come to know what grows in which season in your area and will learn to appreciate seasonal eating. Most farmers are happy to share recipes for what they sell!
Cooking vegetables is not difficult once you understand a few very basic principles. If you’re just starting to cook them, my Fl!p Your K!tchen cookbook gives you a home cook’s version of the culinary school curriculum on vegetable cookery. Other books to check out are Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Vegetables and Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.
Now that you’re supplied with seasonal veggies and armed with recipes, try eating seasonally for a few weeks. Record what you eat, and more importantly, journal about how you feel. What do you notice about your digestion? Your energy levels? Your state of mind? Remember that you are bio-individual: your results may be different from anyone else’s … and they can still inform your food choices going forward.
Drop me a comment below about the results of your experiment!