Frugal and health-conscious consumers know the disappointment of reaching into the fridge to pull out fresh produce, only to find that it's already gone bad. More than a third of the food produced in the U.S. is wasted every year, costing the average American family about $1,500. With a few small adjustments in food storage, though, you can increase the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. These seven tips can save you money and put fresh produce consistently at hand, helping facilitate a healthy diet.
One of the most basic ways to ensure that produce stays fresh is to keep the food whole until you're ready to eat it. The flesh of a sliced apple or pear will turn brown, of course, but this rule also applies to other fruits and vegetables. When you buy vine tomatoes, for instance, don't tear away the stems until you're ready to use the tomatoes. Detaching stems can cause damage and lead to bacteria growth.
It is easy to assume that all produce should be refrigerated; the cold air should help the food last longer, right? Actually, not all produce responds to cold air the same way. Tropical and warm-weather fruits such as bananas, avocados, nectarines, peaches, plums, and tomatoes ripen more slowly and lose flavor when refrigerated.
Another reason to keep the fruits previously mentioned out of the refrigerator is they release ethylene gas as they ripen, which speeds the decay of ethylene-sensitive produce stored nearby. Some fruits that produce ethylene gas do require refrigeration; take care to store them apart from other fruits and vegetables. A few notable examples are apricots, cantaloupe, and honeydew melon.
Some fruits and vegetables will spoil quickly if they are stored alongside gas-emitting produce. These ethylene-sensitive items include broccoli, cucumbers, eggplant, leafy greens, and watermelon. Store them in a separate bin in the refrigerator to keep them from ending up in the trash. (These types of produce can safely be stored together because none of them produce gas.)
Before placing vegetables in the refrigerator, remove any rubber bands or ties holding the produce together. These put extra pressure on the food, which can lead to bruising and rotting. Ideally, do not store items on top of each other and leave space for them to "breathe." Generally avoid leaving produce in plastic bags, too, as the bags trap any gasses produced and lead to faster spoilage.
Herbs are the most finicky of produce and require extra attention to maintain freshness and flavor. Best practice for storing herbs is to wash them, dry them well, and cut off the ends. Then place the herbs in a small jar with a small amount of water, as you would display a bouquet of flowers. You can also store washed and dried herbs in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel to create a humid environment.
Even with optimal storage, all fresh fruits and vegetables have limited shelf lives. Make sure you reach for the ones that spoil more quickly first and save the longer-lasting produce for later. For instance, sprouts tend to go bad after two to four days, so don't bury them at the bottom of the crisper. Keep them on top of things like cabbage, which lasts two to three weeks, so you'll see them right away.