We’ve all felt the guilt, shame, and disappointment of letting fresh fruit and vegetables languish in the fridge or on the counter until they’re old, wilted, and even rotten, right? Sometimes it’s because we forgot what we bought, or had to change our best-laid dinner plans, or just got over-ambitious and ended up with too much food. Taking a little extra time to properly store your produce won’t ensure you never throw out another bunch of limp herbs or liquefying cucumber again, but it will help everything last a lot longer.
It may seem annoying to have to tackle a bunch of mini-chores after going grocery shopping—when all you want to do is shove things onto shelves and into cupboards and be done with it—but in the long run, it will save you money, reduce food waste, and give you a sense of satisfaction. Here are some best practices and useful products to help you make the most of your fruit, veggies, and herbs.
It’s a great idea to grow your own herbs, but if you can’t for whatever reason, you definitely don’t want to waste the fresh bunches you buy at the store, especially since they’re often fairly expensive. When you get them home, take them out of whatever packaging they’re in, remove any brown, dessicated, or slimy bits, and give them a quick but thorough rinse in cold water to remove debris and decay-encouraging bacteria, then blot them dry. If you have a salad spinner, you can use that to help get even more water out. They don’t have to be bone-dry, but excess moisture is a great contributor to rot.
When they’re mostly dry, transfer the herbs in a single layer to a dry paper towel and roll it lengthwise into a cylinder, like you’re making a cake roll or maki, but way easier. Place that in a plastic bag and stash it in the fridge, preferably in the crisper drawer. The plastic bag can either be a zip-top type with the zipper left open, or any shopping bag, but in the latter case, you may want to poke a dozen or so pinprick holes in it to help air circulate. If you prefer not to DIY it, you can also buy specially designed VeggieZips storage bags, or go with breathable, washable, reusable mesh bags if you’re not a fan of plastic.
The paper towel method should work for pretty much all herbs, but for basil, which can be damaged by colder temperatures, try keeping it in a loose bunch (i.e. without the original rubber band or twist tie), with the stem ends submerged in an inch of water, in pretty much any drinking glass, glass jar, or even plastic container—as long as it’s tall enough to hold the herbs upright. Be sure only the stem ends are submerged in the water; submerged leaves will quickly rot. This can sit out on the counter, and the basic set-up also works for other delicate types like cilantro, but they should be kept in the refrigerator; if the container has a lid that fits without crushing the leaves (which you can gently fold over or tuck down a bit if need be), you can pop it on to prevent spills, but obviously, the vertical method still takes up more space.
If you know you won’t use all your herbs before they go bad, chop them up, portion them into ice cube trays, barely cover with water, and freeze, then transfer the cubes to plastic bags or other storage containers to use whenever you need them. Alternatively, learn how to dry fresh herbs at home.
If you buy heads of lettuce, treat them like you would tender herbs: trim off the stem to separate the leaves, wash them, dry them, roll them up in dry paper towels, and put them in a bag or storage container to help protect from bruising. Many sources advise against washing produce before refrigerating it, but as long as you don’t store it completely drenched, it should be fine, and may even be beneficial. Since you won’t remove all the water after rinsing the leaves, the paper towels you wrap them in will become damp, which is okay—but if they get truly wet, you should replace them. And periodically check for any limp leaves, and throw them out. For bunches of kale, spinach, and other greens, remove any rubber bands or packaging and treat them in the same way. At minimum, wrap the whole, unwashed heads or bunches in paper towels to help prolong their life in the fridge.
While pre-bagged and boxed spinach and salad mixes are definitely a beloved shortcut, they are more likely to harbor pathogens, and to go bad more quickly if you don’t eat them right away. But if you can’t resist, look for one with the farthest-out expiration date, and if you think it might sit in your fridge a while, transfer it to another container, like one of these Rubbermaid FreshWorks Produce Saver Food Storage Containers. These particular containers work for other produce too, and work best when you don’t wash your fruit or veggies first, but you should at least pick through the leaves and discard any that already look past their prime. Just as one bad apple spoils the bunch, a few slimy spinach leaves will hasten their company’s demise.
For carrots, beets, turnips, and the like, if you buy them with the greens attached, it helps to trim the tops off if you’re not using them, since they’ll go bad faster than the roots. (And if you don’t want to just toss the greens out, you can wash and dry them and add to a large scrap container in the freezer with other veggie odds and ends for eventually adding to homemade broth to boost the flavor). You can wrap the root vegetables in paper towels too, but it’s not as important as it is with more delicate greens.
Potatoes and onions don’t need refrigeration, but should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place, and always separately; potatoes produce ethylene gas, which onions are sensitive to, so mixing them together can cause them to go bad faster.
Hardy squash like butternut and acorn can also be stored in a cool, dark, dry place without actual refrigeration.
Most other vegetables are fine to simply place in your crisper drawer until you need them: zucchini, celery, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, radishes…For things like snap peas or green beans, which you usually bring home in a plastic bag, you can transfer them to lined storage containers first, but they should last at least a week as-is, as long as none of them were damaged to begin with. You might consider investing in DualPlex Fruit and Veggie Life Extender refrigerator drawer liners, which work on the same principle as paper towels, but instead of wrapping around the produce itself, they go on the bottom of your fruit and veggie drawers to wick away excess moisture that contributes to spoilage. (Some moisture is good for produce in general, but too much speeds up rot, so the key is balancing it out.) The liners also allow more air circulation, which helps things stay fresh for longer.
Another factor in ripening—and in the next step, rotting—is the aforementioned ethylene gas, which some types of produce emit and others soak in. To help mitigate its effects, you can purchase something like the Bluapple, which sits in your crisper, fruit bowl, or cold storage bins and absorbs the excess gas, or OXO Good Grips GreenSaver Produce Keeper storage containers, which are breathable and have similar carbon filters built right in.
A few other vegetables are actually better off stored on the counter at room temperature, like eggplants, cucumbers, and bell peppers. You can see a full chart of recommended storage practices from UC Davis here, and even print it out to post on your fridge. That said, remember that “room temperature” usually means about 70 degrees or a bit cooler, so if your house is significantly hotter, the fridge will be your best bet for anything you need to keep around a while.
Don’t wash any of these vegetables until right before you’re going to use them. Same goes for mushrooms, which should be stored in a paper bag in the crisper.
The only good avocado is a ripe avocado, and it will only ripen on the counter (although there are tricks you can try to help it along). Once it’s ready, it’s best eaten as soon as possible, but you can store it in the fridge for a few days to delay over-ripening.
The conventional wisdom says never, ever, ever refrigerate tomatoes, and although some newer, informal research argues it might not be such a bad idea after all, it’s a hard habit to break. One thing most sources agree on is that covering the stem end of a tomato (if it’s fully detached from the stem and vine already) helps slow spoilage. You can either flip the tomatoes upside down on a plate or on the counter, or simply place a piece of tape over the stem scar.
Delicate berries grow fuzz fast, especially at their peak perfection in summer, but washing them in a mix of one part distilled white vinegar to three parts water—then rinsing in plain water and making sure they’re completely 100% dry before refrigerating—can help inhibit the growth of mold. Other sources say you should not wash the berries until you want to eat them, but in either case, always pick through them and get rid of any that are crushed or already moldy right away, and transfer them to a new container lined with paper towels. You’ll want to store them in the fridge, but not in the crisper, since it’s a bit more humid there.
Let them hang out on the counter, but keep them well away from ethylene-sensitive foods that might be sharing the space unless you’d like them to ripen faster. Once the bananas are ripe, put them in the fridge to stop them getting too soft and sweet (or if it’s already too late for that, make banana bread).
Peaches, plums, nectarines, apricots, and other stone fruit should be kept on the counter until ripe. At that point, eat ASAP, but store in the fridge for a few days if need be. Putting them in a paper bag in the fridge helps protect them. Cherries can be refrigerated from the get-go.
Apples can stay on the counter for about a week, but if you want to keep them longer than that, place them in the crisper drawer—preferably separate from ethylene-sensitive foods—or store them like potatoes in a dark, cool, dry place.
Whole watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydews, and other melons don’t need to be refrigerated, but you can chill them for a few hours or up to a day if you prefer to eat them cold.
Check them for any damaged globes and discard those, then store in a breathable bag in the fridge; the one they’re sold in is fine. Don’t wash them until you’re ready to eat.
A Note on Cut Fruit and Vegetables
Once you cut any fruit or vegetable open, you’ll want to store the leftover portion properly wrapped in the refrigerator. Plastic wrap is generally the go-to, but if you’re looking for a more sustainable alternative, try Bee’s Wrap Eco Friendly Reusable Food Wrap or similar products, which are coated with naturally derived waxes to both promote a seal around the food or container, and to protect the cloth itself so it can be washed and reused. They work directly on food like cut avocados or toasted nuts, or can be used to cover bowls and dishes of leftovers. The use of beeswax makes many of these unsuitable for vegans, but you can find wholly plant-based versions online; just be sure to look at the ingredients.
Despite your best intentions, and even best practices, you’ll probably still lose some food to spoilage. When in doubt, check out this resource on how to tell if food is bad. And if you don’t yet make weekly meal plans, that’s another great option that can help you limit food waste and get to enjoy all your fruits, vegetables, and herbs while they’re in their prime.
Header image courtesy of Pixabay.