When I first started trying to shop smarter, the phrase, “buying produce in season” is something I heard over and over. I understood the whole premise—buying something when it is in season means it will be freshest. But I didn’t know why it made it fresher, or even how to I was supposed to know what was in season when. I felt like it just made grocery shopping more complicated than it needed to be. So I did some investigating, and here’s what I learned.

In season produce is fresher and tastes better because it is allowed to ripen naturally on the vine/tree and is harvested when it is ready. What I didn’t know was that when produce is imported from somewhere else, it is harvested early and then chilled so that it can be transported. Then, when it reaches its destination, it is heated artificially so that it can ripen before it is put on the shelves. All those steps obviously have an effect on the flavor. There’s a big difference between that and fruit plucked off a tree at a farm nearby and shipped to a store, then put directly on the shelves.

When produce is picked too early, it doesn’t have enough time to mature. And while it affects flavor, it also affects nutritional value. The longer it takes from the time it is harvested to the time it is consumed, the more the nutrients decline. So if you want the most out of your fruits and veggies, the fresher you’ll want them to be.

In theory, in-season produce will also be cheaper. This happens for a number of reasons. Partially it is a quantity thing; when there is more of something (like a food naturally ripened), the price per item goes down. Secondly, it costs less as far as transportation goes, because we aren’t resorting to having it flown in from some other country. No extra steps need to be taken to make it grow—no hothouses, no chilling, no nothing. That also keeps the cost down.

And now that you know why it’s better (tastes better, more nutritious, cheaper), the big question is how you find out what’s in season. Luckily, there are a few ways to tell. The first way is to look it up online. The USDA has a guide right on their website! If you have a local farmer’s market or farm stand nearby, they’ll be selling whatever they recently harvested, so that’s a pretty good measure of what’s in season as well. Often, grocery stores will feature in-season produce in their circulars or display them prominently in-store. They will likely also be cheaper than other produce for reasons I listed above.

There you go! I hope you learned something with this post and you will start buying more local and in-season produce. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer you.