14 Ways to Buy Produce for Less
Weigh First, Then Buy
I would like to try to reduce my grocery bill, especially by being frugal about fresh produce. But I realized that I am unaware about the interaction between seasonality and prices. Can anyone give me tips about when different produce items are in season and/or lowest price, or list a resource that will? Also, will these prices generalize to canned goods as well?
I worked in the produce industry for a number of years, so perhaps I can give you some insight into how the pricing of produce items works. The first rule of produce pricing is the bigger the supply, the lower the price. This is because produce is highly perishable, and when it is harvest time, it is harvest time! This week, not next week!
You should become aware of your local growing seasons. You didn't state where you live, but I'm sure with a little research, you'll locate the areas that supply your markets (try reading the boxes as they are unloaded in the produce dept.) or look at tags. Adverse weather can reduce supply of some crops and send prices soaring. Broccoli and strawberries drown in heavy rains, for instance. Freezes in citrus areas can ruin entire crops of oranges.
Start noticing what is available (and low priced) in your markets. If you keep track, you'll notice apples in the fall, citrus in the winter (mostly from Texas, Calif. & Florida), strawberries in March or April, artichokes and asparagus in the later springtime, and soft fruit (peaches, plums, nectarines) in the summer. You know your favorites. Just keep track and notice the trends.
Interestingly, many fruits and vegetables are now available year round. This is due to the increase in imported produce. Your big clue here is that the price will be high. But if you really need those peaches in the winter, at least they are available.
I am required to purchase produce for the restaurants I operated. So I have a good deal of knowledge on this. As was stated in Melissa's letter, we all know that seasonality affects produce prices. The easiest way to get information is to make friends with the Produce manager of your favorite grocery store. They should be able to give information on what's in season and what's available from where. Failing this, there are a lot of produce wholesalers that will give you the same information. Some even print this in newsletter form to distribute to hotels, restaurants, etc.
Are prices generalized to canned produce? Yes, to some extent, but their prices are mostly set by crop conditions since most processing company contract with growers well in advance of canning season. The easiest way to remember is that if it is May through September, the produce is mostly from the US and Mexico. From October through April, most produce comes from South America. It is generally picked early and "gas ripened."
There is a great book about produce that was written by green-grocer Frank R. Comella. It tells all about the best seasons for different produce and how to pick it. It is titled Produce Fact - What your mother maybe didn't tell you.
I find the easiest way to know when what is in season is to pick up a produce guide. These are usually printed by the county extension service. I get mine at a local farmers market or fruit stand. They list all produce, and the month that it is usually in season. Of course things can be off because of weather. The news and weather reports can help to determine that.
Nicole in Vancouver, Washington
When produce is really cheap, it's generally in season. For instance, mangoes are generally in season during the spring and early summer. Cherries are available only a few weeks during the year, but keep your eyes open for when they go way down in price; buy as much as you can and freeze after pitting. Pomegranates and cranberries are only available in the fall; cranberries, however, can be frozen and used throughout the year any way you like. You can also chat with the produce department people.
Amy O'D. in Houston, TX
The book Food Smart! by Cheryl Townsley has seasonal charts about which fruits and vegetables are in season each month. This book is an excellent resource!
Barb in Smithville, OH
To determine seasonality, consider when a particular item is at its cheapest or on sale often. That is probably when it is growing locally. An exception in the Northern states would be citrus fruits, which are cheapest in the winter in most cases. For more information, check the USDA website or this one at About.com.
Barbara in CT
Epicurious has a nice interactive map of what's seasonal (by month) for your state. You can find it here.
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