Updated on 12.02.09

Why Are Oranges Always on Sale in December? Seasonal Food Sales and How to Take Advantage of Them

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. Little House says:

    I’ve noticed this too. I’m also lucky to live in Southern California, so much of our produce is on sale through out the year. I try to purchase fruit from California (instead of Peru which I did once and felt horribly guilty!) and always check the stickers to make sure it is a local crop!

  2. brad says:

    “but the flavor is always tremendous.”

    does this mean that the flavor is better after freezing? or considering its been frozen the flavor is pretty good? i is confoosed.

  3. Todd says:

    If you like to know about these trends, I heard about the book “Buy Ketchup in May and Fly at Noon: A Guide to the Best Time to Buy This, Do That and Go There” one day when listening to NPR. I haven’t had a chance to see it yet (my local library system doesn’t carry it yet), but I’m curious to read it. It basically tries to outline these types of trends – when to buy things at the lowest prices.

  4. Michael says:

    Don’t freeze squeezed orange juice! It’ll ruin it. And oranges go bad when frozen too.

  5. Johanna says:

    Cherries in July! That’s a fond memory I have of living in Chicago – getting cherries from Michigan every summer for ridiculously cheap. Cherries freeze well, too – but do take the pits out first.

    I’m a big fan of eating seasonally, and there are fairly few foods that I try to preserve past their seasons (cherries being one of them). It’s fun to look forward to the first asparagus of spring, the first tomatoes of summer, and the first butternut squash of fall. I’ll eat my fill of each of them, and by the time I can’t stand them anymore, there’s something new and delicious that’s come into season.

  6. Peggy says:

    I have two or three favorite cookbooks and I’m compiling a cookbook for my children for when they leave home. I add seasonal information alongside these recipes. My homemade cookbook will include a monthly index of recipes that can be made with food at its peak.

    Over the course of the last year I’ve learned that even meats have a season. Eating locally has completely changed the way we shop, prepare meals and eat. In a great way!

  7. Ally says:

    I love trying to eat things in season – they seem to taste better – especially tomatoes in August versus tomatoes in January. ick! There is no comparison for me. I also love canning, and it is easiest and cheapest to can something when it’s in season – like you said, it’s so much cheaper. I bought a bushel of Cortland apples this fall for $15 and made 25 quarts of cinnamon applesauce, which I now have for Christmas gifts and to have as a fruit with my lunch through the winter. I do the same with fruit for jam – berries (especially if you can find a u-pick place) are cheaper in the summer, and for me there is nothing like homemade jam.

    I have recently gotten into books and cookbooks that discuss this, specifically Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Vegetable Miracle, and Sarah Raven’s In Season. Thank you for sharing this, and I hope you write more about eating with the seasons!

  8. Sandy says:

    @ #4 I wouldn’t put a blanket judgement on freezing squeezed OJ. When we lived in Florida 18 years ago, we were delighted that our older Florida home had a very productive juice orange tree. Each Dec and Jan and early Feb, I’d spend several hours each week squeezing my oranges and freezing the juice. The taste was slightly tangier than fresh, but otherwise it was fine. Out of that one tree, I was able to produce 3+ months worth of juice (not including squeezing fresh during harvest) Ahh..that reminds me…our neighborhood there had numerous citrus trees…several of us would bring our oranges, grapefruits,lemons, etc…and have a swap…good times..

  9. Having a big freezer will pay for itself in a short time, with the right sales.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  10. DanT says:

    Pardon my ignorance, but what’s the point of soaking the veggies in water before freezing them?

    I would think that would make them absorb the water, and since water/ice expands as it freezes, would cause the ice crystals to rupture the cells of the veggie. I can see that being the cause of the change in texture.

    We just ordered our first chest freezer, so I foresee a lot of freezing in our future, and would like to know the reason behind soaking veggies in water first.

  11. Stacy says:

    I grew up in central Florida, and remember those freezing days in January. The orange and strawberry farmers would go nuts. The TV weatherman on the 11:00 news would be live from the orange groves with a big thermometer, waiting for the temp to hit 32. At that point, they would spray water on the fruit to give it a protective cover of ice. But it was always a big deal.

  12. Vicky says:

    Heh, the magic of The Strawberry Festival…

    You get the BEST strawberries out of Plant City, FL the last week of March.

  13. Rachel says:

    This also goes hand in hand with the podcasts recently from Planet Money and This American Life. They went to a produce market, and everyone had too many oranges, making the price drop. Interesting.

    When I was growing up, I could always count on Santa bringing me an orange and the largest KitKat you could find. It never occured to be that this might have any heavier significance other than my fondness for them both. I’ll have to ask my parents about it, now.

  14. partgypsy says:

    I recently read an article that for the holidays (really all year) should buy local, therefore no cranberries for Thanksgiving, no citrus at Christmas. I thought that was going a little too far. I look forward to the months where oranges, clementines and grapefruits are cheap and plentiful.

  15. E says:

    omg, your first paragraph could have been written by me. My dad grew up in postwar Poland and oranges were a special treat indeed.
    We still get oranges every year at xmas, and we give them too. They’re not as “special” as they were, but still fun and quite tasty. :)

  16. Courtney says:

    I am also curious about why you would soak fruits and veggies before freezing. Blanching, maybe, depending on the type of vegetable – but why soaking?

    We freeze berries, onions (chopped or sliced ahead of time to cut down on meal prep time), and our favorite, sweet corn. Load up on it in August, cut it off the cob into freezer bags, and then enjoy all winter. Yum!

  17. Gretchen says:

    Another “why are you soaking” comment?

    What ruins foods is ice. (unless you mean blanching, which is not what you are describing.)

  18. Kate says:

    Oranges at Christmas–reminds me of the children’s Christmas book An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco.

  19. melissa says:

    What do you do with your turnips? I’m trying to find a recipe I like that I can use with my CSA turnips.

  20. Marcella says:

    One thing you haven’t mentioned is that not only is it cheaper to buy in harvest season, you will probably be buying “local” produce that will taste better and it is better for the environment as well.

    When you buy a fruit or vegetable out of season, where you think this has come from? Probably somewhere overseas, flown in. It will be more expensive, because you are paying for all those additional logistical and transportation costs. The food will be less fresh because it was maybe picked a week ago and frozen slightly or something like that to transport to your supermarket.

    There are a lot of parallels between being frugal and being green. Buying in season is just one example.

  21. Vanessa says:

    Turnip is so, so good, and very underrated! You can add cooked, peeled turnip in to carrot and squash soups and puree them for a hearty, winter cream soup. You can add chunks to stews and curries. You can serve it raw with a veggie tray and dip. You can cook and mash it before freezing it. Then, as needed, you can add 1/2 a cup or so to mashed sweet or white potatoes, or blend with equal parts carrots and add some butter, salt, pepper, and dashes of nutmeg and cinnamon for your own version of a Scottish “tatties and neeps”. I even have hear of people who make a turnip pie, or a blend of turnip and pumpkin pie.

    One important note, some kinds of turnip can take a long time to cook, so take that into account for recipes and pre-blanch, or cut into very small chunks.

  22. DanT says:

    I guess we’re never gonna learn why we should soak our vegetables before we freeze them.

  23. kathy walsh says:

    How do I order cortland apples to be delivered to southern california?

  24. Rozann says:

    Naval Oranges, as well as tangerines are on sale in December because that is when they are at peak and very plentiful. Valencia oranges (used for making juice) are ripe and plentiful in June.

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