Fall is here and we're ready for all things pumpkin spice and football (okay, maybe one more than the other). But it definitely pays to take advantage of autumn's seasonal fruits and vegetables, and go easy on the tailgating foods. When you buy foods that are in-season, they’re healthier, have richer flavor, and are generally more cost effective. That's because food is easier to grow in its proper season, it’s more abundant, and has time to fully ripen before being plucked off the vine, bush, or tree, and brought to a grocer near you.
To determine the most nutritionally dense fall produce, we went to Chris Romano, Whole Foods Market's associate global produce coordinator. Be on the lookout for these fruits and veggies when you hit the grocery store or farmers’ market this season—you'll enjoy the freshest, healthiest fruits and vegetables autumn has to offer.
Other than pumpkins, apples are the trademark fruit of fall and, from sweet Fujis to tart Honeycrisps, there’s a flavor for every palate. Apples are high in soluble fiber and vitamin C, so they’re perfect for on-the-go snacking, too. “To make sure you’re picking the best of the orchard, choose apples that are firm and free of blemishes or bruises,” Romano says. To keep them fresh at home, store them in a cool, dry place. “Apples emit ethylene, which speeds up the process of ripening, so it’s important to keep them away from other ethylene-sensitive produce, such as avocados, bananas, or citrus fruit,” he adds. And if you love apples, but hate how they turn brown after they’ve been cut, give them a squeeze of lemon juice. This will prevent them from browning.
You may not associate pears with fall, but this season yields a wide range of varieties and flavors (Anjous, Bartlett, Sugar Pear, Forelle, and Seckels). No matter the type, pick your pears while they’re still firm and allow them to ripen. “They ripen from the top down, so you know they’re ripe when they give with gentle pressure at the stem,” Romano says. Once soft, you can opt to store them in the fridge to slow the ripening process, or keep them in a fruit bowl and eat within five days. And just like apples, lemon juice can help prevent your cut pears from browning. What's more, pears are a hydrophilic food, meaning they’re water-loving and fill you up quick. They’re also loaded with a complex carbohydrate called pectin, which acts as a detoxifier, a gastrointestinal tract regulator, and an immune system stimulant; they help with digestion, lowering cholesterol, and regulating the body’s absorption of sugar, too.
Grapes boast their best flavor in fall, when you can enjoy them fresh from the vine. This includes varieties you can't get other times of year like champagne grapes (not what they make the popular celebratory drink from, but a miniature-sized grape), concords, and holiday seedless. Grapes are a good source of vitamin K, vitamin C, antioxidants, and resveratrol, an antiinflammatory compound that helps keep your skin looking young. You can eat them raw, or pop them in the freezer for a healthy, guiltless sweet treat. When looking for peak-ripeness, grapes should be plump and firm. “When it comes to color, green grapes should have a yellowish hue (known as amber), and red grapes should be a bright shade of crimson,” Romano says. “Avoid wilted stems or wrinkled grapes when browsing for the perfect bunch,” he adds. Keep your bushels in the refrigerator for up to one week, and be sure to wash them before consuming.
You may not be familiar with the delicacy from East Asia, but persimmons are a golden yellow fruit packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They look similar to small yellow-orange tomatoes, and they have the same protective compounds, such as beta-carotene and lycopene. “Persimmons can be extremely tart until they ripen, in which case the fruit becomes sweet and spicy,” Romano says. Hachiyas and Fuyus are the two varieties grown here in the U.S; the Hachiya persimmons are acorn-shaped, tart, and chalky until they become extremely ripe, whereas Fuyus are tomato-shaped, sweeter, and can be eaten when they’re firm and relatively unripe. Like most produce, you want to avoid any persimmons with brown spots or bruises.
Autumn is actually one of the best times to enjoy leafy greens—ironic as every other leaf is turning yellow, red, and brown—in terms of its variety and flavor. “Kale's popularity has skyrocketed in the past few years, and for good reason; it’s an excellent source of vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, and manganese,” Romano says. “But there are lots of other powerhouse greens that are at their best in fall like chard, watercress, leaf lettuce, mustard greens, arugula, raddichio, and chicory.” Take your pick and fill up. Leafy greens are an excellent way to add volume to a meal without weighing you down.
Cranberries are only in-season for a short amount of time; you actually won't find them fresh at any other point. The holiday staple is rich in phytonutrients, and is a good source of vitamin C, dietary fiber, and manganese. Though you probably eat dried cranberries in cereals and mixes, raw cranberries are healthier; they have way less sugar and a ton of vitamin A, which is said to promote healthy eyesight, skin, and lower bad cholesterol. “Look for brightly colored berries, and check each bag for any shriveled or discolored ones; these should be tossed,” Romano says. “To maximize freshness and flavor, keep the bag tightly wrapped in the refrigerator (they can stay good up to two months!), or freeze them for increased longevity,” he adds. And if you’re preparing them for Thanksgiving, make sure to remove them from heat as soon as they begin to pop so they don’t become mushy or bitter.
These nutritious root vegetables come in a rainbow of colors (seriously, they’re not just fuchsia). Whether red, pink, white, orange, or chioggia (their insides are striped white and red), beets are a deliciously versatile vegetable you can enjoy roasted, pureed, or eaten raw. Beets also offer a variety of vitamins and minerals including potassium, magnesium, fiber, phosphorus, iron, vitamins A, B, and C, beta-carotene, and folic acid. Naturally-occurring nitrates in beets can widen blood vessels, reduce the amount of oxygen your muscles need to perform, lower your blood pressure, and increase stamina, according to research from the University of Exeter. “Choose beets that are firm and smooth; if the beets still have their leaves attached, look for greens that are bright and spry,” Romano says. “And don’t wash beets until you’re ready to use them, as this can water down the flavor,” he adds. When handling, use gloves so the color doesn’t stain your hands, or rub salt on your fingers after handling beets—it’ll take the dye right off.
These root vegetables are equally delicious in desserts and savory dishes. And, despite their rich, sweet flavor, sweet potatoes are surprisingly nutritious. They’re loaded with carotenoids, vitamin E, potassium, and copper. Choose small to medium sweet potatoes that feel heavy in your hand, and buy them shortly before you plan to use them,” Romano says. Pay special attention to picking ones that are uninform in size, too, so the cooking time doesn’t vary. You want to keep whole potatoes in a cool, dark place, and toss any that’ve grown sprouts. During the fall, there’s a huge variety of sweet potatoes, including Hannah, Japanese, Jewel, Garnet, and Purple Stokes.
This hearty fruit is low in fat and full of dietary fiber, which keeps you fuller longer; it's also packed with carotenoids, which helps prevent heart disease, and yields nearly half of your daily dose of vitamin C per one-cup serving. And this season offers a wide range of hearty gourds and squashes perfect for roasting, mashing, and pureeing. “Choose squash that remains firm when pressed, contains an intact stem, and feels heavy for its size,” Romano says. Winter squash can be stored in a cool, dark place for several weeks if kept whole; you’ll have to keep them refrigerated for a few days if you cut them.
“From grown varieties like oyster and portobello to wild harvested ones like chanterelles and morels, all mushrooms should feel firm and dry when you’re selecting a perfectly earthy bunch,” Romano says. Fresh mushrooms are best kept in a paper bag between layers of damp paper towels in the fridge, and prepackaged ones should be removed from the packaging to maintain freshness. Mushrooms offer a host of nutrients, including selenium, iron, and vitamin D, and some varieties (like Asian mushrooms) even have anticancer nutrients and potent immunity boosters.