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The 4 Pillars of Storing Fresh Produce (So You Actually Eat It Before It Goes Bad)

We solve the mystery of keeping produce fresh enough to enjoy.

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Talk to any registered dietitian and you’re likely to hear that you should be eating more fruits and vegetables. 

It’s true that most Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, and statistically, it’s likely that includes you—only 10 percent of adults eat enough of the good stuff, according to the CDC.

It’s also true that a healthy diet full of colorful produce can help improve your performance as a runner. Before you go out and buy an overpriced supplement, there is likely a piece of produce you could easily incorporate into your diet instead. According to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, a nitrate-rich diet that included leafy green vegetables improved muscle function over the 12 years of the study, independent of any physical activity. Fruits and vegetables are also full of beneficial fiber, water, and micronutrients that positively affect the immune system, as well as antioxidants that aid in recovery.

And some produce powerhouses (think bananas, sweet potatoes, beets, apples, and mangoes) are also loaded in carbohydrates, which we know both fuel and replenish the runner’s body.

But as anyone who’s vowed to eat more of the good stuff knows, watching that fresh kale you bought wilt before your eyes can be discouraging. It’s also not great for the planet. 

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According to ReFED, produce is the largest category of household food waste at 22 percent by weight. “Dairy and eggs are another big category in terms of weight,” says Brian Roe professor of agricultural, environmental, and developmental economics at the Ohio State University and co-director of RECIPES, a research network dedicated to improving the food system. “Plus these foods have a lot of environmental impact because they are so resource and energy intensive to produce, so when you throw these away, you are throwing away all those resources that went into their creation.” 

Planning and committing to eating the produce are important aspects of mitigating food waste, but how you store it in the interim also matters.  “Storage is one of many things that have to go right in order for a household’s food purchases to avoid being wasted,” says Roe. 

Because produce is not shelf stable, it’s just harder to get to them in time before they go bad in comparison to packaged pantry items. 

With spring farmer’s markets just around the corner, Roe gives advice on how to store your bounty of fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables.

1. Learn About the Item You’re Buying

We can make blanket statements about how to store certain types of food, but the reality is each family of fruit or vegetable has a different chemical structure, and therefore different rules for making them last. 

And while you might be totally familiar with exactly how long you can leave that bunch of bananas on your kitchen counter before you need to whip up some banana bread, there might be some more seasonal purchases that you’re less familiar with. “You have to pay close attention to storage for each,” says Roe. 

Luckily, there are incredibly thorough resources like Save the Food, which is run by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The website houses a catalog of hundreds of food items, with item pages full of information on the best way to store specific types of produce and how long to expect it to keep good.

This is helpful not only from a food waste perspective, but also in the name of food safety. 

2. The Fridge is Your Friend (And So is Your Freezer)

“Apples, grapes, berries, and oranges, along with almost all vegetables last longer inside the fridge,” says Roe. 

That’s because the cold temperatures slow down the ripening process. After ripening, the food will begin to decay. Therefore, the cold temperature is extending the life of the item.

Many items can also be stored for months in the freezer if you take the time to prepare them properly. If you know from your past patterns that you can only eat half a carton of strawberries before they go bad, for example, then you can plan to store half in the freezer right away. The best way to store strawberries in the freezer is to rinse and dry them and remove the stems. Freeze them first on a wax paper covered baking sheet before transferring to an airtight container so they don’t get stuck together. There, they will remain good for 8 to 12 months, versus 2 to 3 days left in the refrigerator. And you can follow the same process for other types of berries, too.

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Buying frozen fruits and vegetables from the start is also another great way to eat healthy while reducing food waste.

3. Keep Fruits and Vegetables Separate

Turns out there’s a reason your refrigerator has separate bins for fruits and vegetables. “Many fruits give off natural gases as they ripen, making other nearby produce spoil faster,” says Roe. That gas is called ethylene. 

He recommends keeping all fruits and vegetables separate if possible and storing bananas, apples, and tomatoes by themselves entirely, as they are strong ethylene producers. They should especially be kept separate from produce that are more sensitive to the gas like asparagus, broccoli, grapes, honeydew, onions, and squash.

Make a plan to eat your fresh produce by washing and cutting it ahead of time. Photo: Getty Images

4. Chop and Store

A tried and true motivator to eat your produce is to prepare it right after purchasing, rather than waiting until meal time. After all, it’s easier to reach for celery and peanut butter as a snack when the celery is cut and ready to go. You’ll also thank yourself when you go to prepare that post-run meal and the heavy lifting is mostly done. 

And while it is OK to leave some things loose or in breathable containers, most produce, once cut, must be stored in an air tight container. Keep in mind that some fruit, particularly raspberries and grapes, shouldn’t be prepped and washed until you are ready to eat them.

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