When I was a kid, each year my Christmas stocking had a large orange in the toe. I always thought of this as a bit strange, so when I was a bit older, I asked my parents about the orange. It turns out that oranges were pretty hard to get ahold of when my father was young, so an orange in the stocking was considered a magnificent treat.
Two years ago, I thought this would be a fun tradition to continue with my own son, so I went out to the store a few days before Christmas. What did I find? Amazingly low prices on oranges. I don’t remember the exact price, but I bought multiple pounds of oranges, took them home, and made fresh orange juice out of them.
It turns out that December really is the cheapest time of the year to buy oranges. That’s because orange crops tend to be heavily harvested just as the winter months begin because oranges are very sensitive to freezing and, although oranges grow in very warm climates, freezing during the winter months is still a concern.
This same phenomenon holds for almost every kind of produce. To put it simply, produce is cheapest during the typical harvest season for that crop. Often, there are secondary products that see a price decline as well: for example, gardening supplies tend to go on sale at the same time that gardens are being harvested in your area.
Knowing this schedule and planning ahead a bit can be a big boon to your food budget. Obviously, seasonal food calendars are never exact because of both the vagaries of your local area as well as the year-to-year variations in food crops and in temperatures, but here are ten rules of thumb I use for my own fresh produce purchases (well, at least as fresh as I can acquire in northern Iowa).
Asparagus – late April and early May
Broccoli – late February and March
Cauliflower – late March and April
Cranberries – October
Oranges (all but Valencia) – December
Raspberries – mid-August
Strawberries – late June through early August
Sweet Corn – early August to early September
Turnips – February
Watermelon – July
These aren’t so much learned from my own garden but learned from when local stores tend to put produce on sale.
How do I take advantage of this?
One, I save recipes and meal ideas. If I have some ideas for asparagus, I save those asparagus ideas until the asparagus appears discounted and very fresh in late April. Out of season, the asparagus isn’t nearly as fresh and it’s also much more expensive. The same holds true for a lot of produce.
Two, I freeze some of the items. Many fruits and vegetables can be frozen and later thawed for meal use – sometimes the texture is a bit altered, but the flavor is always tremendous. If we do this, I just soak the items in water for a bit, then freeze them individually on a tray in the freezer. Once they’re frozen, I’ll put them in a bag or other container together and clearly label them. If you freeze them individually like this, they tend to not stick together (much) in other containers, making them easy to use later on.
This type of planning lets us get our fill of the produce in season, plus often try a few recipes again at the opposite point of the year. So, for example, we’ll often thaw asparagus in October or November for a recipe or two.
Three, it all comes back to using the grocery flyer. If I hang onto asparagus ideas, for example, I don’t even have to think about them until I see that asparagus is on sale. If that sale matches up with my rule of thumb about when those items should be fresh and on sale, I’ll spring at the opportunity to not only get a delicious fresh ingredient on sale, but also to use those ideas I’ve been storing up.
Plan ahead a little with your food and you’ll wind up saving a lot.