Trying to eat healthfully means you are most likely adding more fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs to your grocery list. These foods provide lots of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and crunch to our diets. How do we keep that fresh “crunch” of crisp fruits and veggies? Here are some tips to help increase the shelf life of some of your most perishable foods.
Examine Your Produce
Let’s start in the grocery store or farmer’s market. It is important to start with the freshest produce. Examine what you are purchasing carefully – look for wilted or yellowing leaves, blemishes or soft spots – avoid purchasing any produce with these features. Look for fresh, perky leaves, blemish free skin and no soft spots.
Where to Store Your Produce
Fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs do better in certain temperatures, dark or light places and may not stay fresh around certain other types of produce. Here is a guide.
To Refrigerate or Not to Refrigerate
Produce that DOES NOT go in the fridge are:
Potatoes (may last 1-2 months) and sweet potatoes (may last 2-3 weeks)
They need a cool, dry and dark place and make sure they are not in plastic bags or containers. They need to have air circulation. Also, you should not store potatoes next to onions or bananas. Bananas and onions produce a gas called ethylene gas which causes some types of produce to ripen more quickly, thus decreasing its shelf life.
Onions (4 weeks) and garlic (whole bulb 1 month)
They need a cool, dry place with air circulation. You can store these foods together. Do not store in a plastic bag – that can cause moisture and accelerate the spoilage. Store leftover cut up onions or garlic in the refrigerator for later use in an airtight container. If your onions or garlic start sprouting it is fine to still use them and you can eat the sprouts, too.
Winter Squash (2-6 weeks or longer depending on variety)
Acorn, butternut, pumpkin, spaghetti, kabocha and others should be stored at room temperature. Keep them away from bananas and onions (and anything that produces ethylene gas).
What Goes in The Fridge?
Carrots (4 weeks), Beets (1-2 weeks), Turnips, Rutabaga, Parsnips, radishes (up to 3 weeks) and Ginger – most last a few weeks properly stored and refrigerated. These vegetables can be stored anywhere in the fridge and next to most other produce.
If you purchased any of these vegetables with the leafy greens on top, cut them off before refrigeration. You can use the greens for other dishes, such as soups and stews, so do not toss them. You store the leafy green tops, like other greens (see below). They will last about 1 week. You can also freeze ginger root and use as needed.
Carrots can also be stored whole, submerged in water in a covered container – change the water every few days.
Cabbage (1-2 weeks), broccoli (3-5 days) and cauliflower (3-5 days)
Cabbage can be stored without any container or plastic bag in the vegetable crisper. Whole heads of cauliflower and broccoli can stay fresh longer in plastic bags or containers with lids for up to 2 weeks.
Place in the refrigerator unwashed in zip-closure bags. Excess moisture causes leafy greens to rot faster. That is why you do not wash them until you are ready to use. However, if you prefer to wash them first you must dry them off well and store them with a clean paper towel in a zip-closure bag.
This hardy vegetable can stay crisp for about 2 weeks in a zip- closure bag or you can cut up the stalks and store them submerged in water in a food storage container with a tight fitting lid. Change the water every few days.
Apples and pears
Store these fruits in the vegetable crisper in a plastic bag. Apples and pears also produce ethylene gas, which is why it needs to stay in a plastic bag to not affect the other produce.
These fruits can be stored on the counter for about 1 week and then need to be put in the fridge so they last longer. Oranges and grapefruits are not sensitive to ethylene gas and can be stored with apples or pears. Lemons and limes are sensitive to ethylene gas and should be stored away from apples and pears.
Store tomatoes on the counter until ripe. Once they are ripe, they should be eaten or cooked before they get too ripe/soft.
Store on the countertop alone – do not put them in the refrigerator. Bananas produce ethylene gas and can accelerate the ripening of other foods if they are stored together. If your bananas get too ripe to eat, you can use them to make banana bread, banana muffins, breakfast biscuits, put in a smoothie, add to waffle/pancake batter or peel and freeze them in a zip-closure bag until you can use them.
These items should be stored with the stems in water (trim end of stems first), cover in a plastic bag and stored in the refrigerator. They can last about 7-10 days. Keeping fresh herbs on hand makes any dish taste even better.
The time frames listed next to some foods are estimates – some foods may stay fresh for a shorter or longer time frame. If something does not look right, smells bad or is soft – it needs to be tossed. The tried and true food safety rule: “When in doubt, throw it out” is solid advice. You never want to risk getting sick.
In addition to the above storage tips, you can also freeze produce for later use. Berries can be washed, dried and placed on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and placed in the freezer. Once the berries are frozen, they can be stored in a zip-closure bag and placed back in the freezer. This can also work with other fruits (take peel off first). For vegetables, blanch them first and then freeze in freezer safe containers. Most can last up to 3 months in the freezer.
When we know how to properly store and handle fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs, it makes it easier to cook with more healthful ingredients. When you can, purchase produce when it is in season and from local farms – it is usually fresher. Look for a variety of vibrant colors – the color in produce is from natural pigments (vitamins and antioxidants). The more variety, rich color in your diet, the more nutritionally dense your diet is. Also, diets rich in produce, are higher in dietary fiber, which help with gut/digestive health, satiety (keeping us full) and weight management.