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Season’s greetings and eatings from the produce aisle

If it’s not the most wonderful time of year for fruits and vegetables, it’s a very, very good one. Regionally or locally sourced produce doesn’t have to be in season for consumers to fill their baskets with fresh offerings, including coastally grown and imported items.

Vegetables and fruits are on almost everyone’s shopping list for celebratory gatherings and holiday dinners of many kinds, whether it’s potatoes for latkes, green beans for casseroles or pineapple slices to crown classic gelatin molds. Think about some of your favorite holiday side dishes: chances are, you’ve picked something with produce as an ingredient.

Beyond being a main ingredient in recipes for side dishes, appetizers, entrees and desserts, fresh fruits and vegetables appeal to customers on other levels.

During this sentimental time of year, the sight, smell and taste of certain produce dishes evoke memories for many people, extending back to childhood and other times of their lives. Maybe a shopper only pairs black olives, beets, gherkins, celery and carrots together once a year when she makes a relish tray that brings her right back to their grandmother’s kitchen. A whiff of apple-cranberry pie might transport another customer back to his aunt and uncle’s dining room table.

It doesn’t take much more than a spoonful of butternut squash soup to transport me immediately to November and Thanksgiving — even if I order it in the 100-degree heat in the summertime. Certain items have sentimental flavors that spark an immediate and positive reaction. It’s why people get so excited about pumpkin spice in the fall and fresh basil or lemon in the summer.

The sentimental taste of produce dishes is an effective selling point in various forms of customer communications during the holidays. The aroma of fresh-baked banana bread from the in-store bakery can spur a sale of some pre-made loaves or the purchase of bananas in the produce section.  Featuring classic recipes in a store e-newsletter or social media post is a heartstring-pulling purchase driver. Sampling mashed sweet potatoes or spiced pecans makes shoppers feel good — and might well make them pick up some of those items nearby.

In addition to the perennial popularity of produce-based side dishes and the positive consumer sentiment associated with them, there are other reasons people shop fresh produce in December and into early January. If the rich side dishes are part of the annual seasonal indulgence, fresh fruits and vegetables can also be positioned as a balance to that type of eating.

For example, as I head into the holidays, I start my own “training” to prepare for the coming indulgence: I eat salads during the week and prepare vegetables as part of weeknight dinners. Then I can justify the extras that I know I will be consuming.

Of course, the fresh-focused, healthy mindset returns front and center right after New Year’s Day, with the resolutions to eat better or at least take off the pounds put on during the holidays. Expect this to be even truer in 2020, with the halo around plant-based diets right now.

Bridging the gap between indulgence and healthy eating, produce can shine as a fresh touch to any number of holiday foods and drinks. After all, you can justify your martini if it’s made with pomegranate or your prime rib if you have some spinach soufflé.

Finally, the produce department can be a gift-giving destination during the holidays. Gift baskets filled with fresh fruit are a favorite choice for presents, as are boxes of Cutie oranges or trays of nuts. Get creative to meet the needs of shoppers interested in convenient, flavorful gifts for their family, friends, colleagues and neighbors.

(Rick Stein is the vice president of fresh foods for Food Marketing Institute)