How Buying Seasonal Food Can Help You Save on Your Grocery Bill
“I spent way too much on groceries this week.”
Does that sentence sound familiar? Sometimes it feels as if no matter how hard I try, there’s an ongoing battle of eating healthy, saving money, and using up all of my groceries before they go bad.
Fortunately, there’s a way to save some money while getting the freshest and most delicious produce. All you need to do is focus on the food that’s in-season.
Types of food that can be “in-season”
When people refer to food that’s “in-season,” they’re probably referring to produce such as fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables (and some other products) come from plants, and each variety has its own growing season.
There are some plants that can be grown and harvested all year, making them fairly stable as far as pricing goes. Other plants can only be grown during certain times of the year due to the area in which they are grown and the climate of that area.
Fortunately, no matter what time of year it is, there are going to be plenty of fruits and vegetables that are in-season. Here’s a general guide of what types of seasonal produce you can expect during each of the four seasons:
|Sweet Potatoes & Yams||No||No||Yes||Yes|
Where to get your seasonal produce
One of the great things about seasonal produce is that it’s usually easy to find. Even so, it’s important to know your options so you can determine where you want to spend your money.
Grocery stores tend to advertise the types of produce that are in-season during any given week or month. You might recall walking into a grocery store during the summer to find yourself faced with bins upon bins of fresh corn. Some grocery stores also highlight fresh produce from local farmers throughout the produce section.
Sometimes you can get an idea of which produce is in-season by looking at a grocery store’s sales flyer, as well. Oftentimes, the in-season produce will coincide with common produce items for major holidays — think of the fresh berries during summer gatherings, corn for Labor Day barbeques, and hearty potato dishes during the winter holidays. At the very least, if you notice that a grocer has a particular type of produce on sale, chances are that it’s in-season.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
This option is a little less straightforward than going to a grocery store, but it’s a great way to get seasonal produce while supporting your local farmers directly. CSAs are when a farm or farmer offers a number of “shares” to the general public. Shares are usually a box of produce, but they can vary. Some farmers also offer boxes of meat, cheese, and other products.
To get seasonal produce from a CSA, you have to purchase a share, which is usually offered in the form of a CSA membership or subscription. The length of time and the number of boxes you get will depend on what the farm offers. Most CSAs assign certain days and times for members to pick up their boxes on the farm or at other designated locations.
CSAs can appear to be a costly investment, especially since most farms require payment upfront for your yearly membership. For some, the benefits make the upfront cost worth it. By purchasing a CSA directly from a farmer, you’ll know that all of the proceeds are going directly to the farm that grew your food. You can also develop a relationship with the farmer and get to know more about how your food is grown, including which pesticides are used.
Online subscription boxes
If you don’t have a CSA near you, you could also consider an online subscription box. These boxes work similarly to meal kits in that you sign up for recurring deliveries that usually arrive weekly. Some of the subscription boxes allow you to choose the seasonal produce that you receive, while others will just send you whatever is in-season and available. Misfits Market and Imperfect Produce are two popular subscription boxes that are currently on the market.
Farmer’s markets can be another way to support local farmers, and it doesn’t require a subscription or a higher upfront cost. Most areas have a local farmer’s market during the summer months, if not all year round. Farmer’s markets usually happen on a certain day each week during their open season, and you’ll find several local farmers and producers on any given week.
Each farmer at the farmer’s market will have their own stand with their produce. By visiting the farmer’s market, you’ll have the chance to speak with the farmer or someone who works on the farm at the stand. You can ask them questions about their produce and purchase a few items to see if you like the farm. Some people do this before deciding whether to sign up for a CSA from a particular farm, but you can also visit the farmers’ market weekly to stock up on your local produce if you’d rather do that.
You may also find other producers, makers, and sellers at a local farmer’s market, such as local breweries, jewelry makers, and more.
The costs of buying in-season produce
Buying in-season produce is more cost-effective for a few different reasons. When a particular type of produce is in its harvesting season, there’s often an abundance of it. Even though the demand for it might be high, there’s usually plenty of the produce available locally, leading to a lower cost.
When a produce item isn’t in-season locally, the item has to be shipped from other locations where the produce is able to be harvested. In this case, the cost of transporting the produce causes the price for the consumer to go up as well.
When produce can’t be produced anywhere during a certain time of year, you may notice that the cost is higher because there just isn’t as much of it to go around. For produce items that are available year-round, the cost likely won’t change much throughout the year.
To buy in season, you can:
- Keep an eye on your grocery store’s sales flyer and add the produce that’s in-season and on sale to your shopping list.
- Sign up for a CSA or produce delivery box. Even though the upfront cost for a CSA box is higher, the cost of your groceries will often be lower in the long run than if you had purchased from a grocery store.
- Visit your local farmer’s market weekly and focus your seasonal eating based on what the farmers are offering.
- Purchasing seasonal produce is a great method if your focus is on saving money.
- Fresh fruits and veggies are often of a higher quality when they’re in-season. If you purchase produce when it’s not in-season, the produce may have been frozen or otherwise preserved in a way that could have reduced its quality.
- By purchasing your produce from CSAs or farmer’s markets, you know that you’re supporting your local farmers directly.
- Signing up for a CSA or other subscription can help you keep a consistent food budget.
- Buying produce that’s in-season or signing up for a CSA can leave you with new-to-you produce. This is a great opportunity to get creative with your DIY recipes and try new foods.
- If you don’t like most types of produce or don’t want to try new foods, signing up for a CSA or other service in which you won’t get to choose your items may not be a good fit for you.
- Buying in-season can make your food budget and weekly plan a little less predictable. If a crop has a bad year, the costs might not be what you expected.
- If you prefer to purchase at a grocery store, you’ll have to take the time to see what’s in-season and on sale each week. This can make meal planning and prepping more difficult if you’re the type of person that likes to plan their meals further in advance.
The bottom line
There aren’t many downsides to buying seasonal produce. Not only are you saving money, but you’re also getting the freshest produce and the opportunity to support local farmers in the process. Buying seasonal produce doesn’t even have to take much effort if you don’t want it to, especially if you sign up for CSA and make your meals based on the produce that you receive. In fact, taking advantage of seasonal produce can even help support your wellness goals if you’re trying to incorporate more fruits and veggies into your diet.
The great thing about buying in-season produce is that there are many ways to do it. Whether you prefer shopping at the grocery store or making a habit out of visiting the farmer’s market, it’s easy to incorporate seasonal eating into your lifestyle. To get started, take a look at the in-season chart above and note which types of produce are in season right now. The next time you go shopping, see if you can find some of those items to incorporate into your meal plan for the week.