My first apartment after college was within walking distance of two different farmers markets. I loved browsing the stalls, picking up new produce to try, and stocking my fridge with a rainbow of fruits and veggies. But all too often, I’d buy a piece of fruit only for it to turn into a gloopy, moldy lump seemingly overnight. As it turns out, I wasn’t paying attention to how I prepped and stored my produce.
“To help keep your fruits and vegetables fresh, it’s important that you store them properly,” explains Amy Kubal, a registered dietitian. ”A bowl of fruit on the counter isn’t going to last as long as one in the refrigerator!”
I consulted the experts about the dos and don’ts of produce storage, and here’s what they had to share.
The first step is to shop smart.
Make sure you buy fruits and veggies that are in good shape to begin with—that means no decay, shriveling, insect damage (like raggedy holes on leaves), or bruises. Your produce doesn’t have to be perfect looking—after all, there’s a serious issue with “ugly” produce ending up in landfills—but it shouldn’t be damaged, either.
When possible, buy local and seasonal items from farms, farm stands, farmers markets, and local vendors who sell to supermarkets. Still, even hyper-fresh produce won’t necessarily last very long.
“Storage times range from five days to two weeks or more and will often depend on the quality and freshness of your produce at the time of purchase,” explains Cara Harbstreet, RD, of Street Smart Nutrition. “If you find you’re not able to use your produce before it starts to spoil, you may be over-purchasing. With a little planning, you can avoid food waste while also minimizing trips to the store or market.”
Harbstreet says you should realistically think about how often you can grocery shop. Plan your trips, then plan your meals around those trips.
“Use the vegetables and fruits that ‘go bad’ the fastest first, and save the heartier ones for later in the week,” Kubal says.
Once you’re done shopping, there are various ways to prep and store your goodies.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says you should store your produce away from any raw meat, poultry, or seafood and wash your hands (with soap!) before you prep it. They also recommend washing everything under running water (without soap, according to Foodsafety.gov), even if you don’t plan to eat the skin or rind. Dry everything with a clean cloth or paper towel.
For cut-up fruits and veggies, you’ll want some containers like mason jars, glass tupperware, or resealable plastic baggies to keep everything clean and organized. A fruit bowl is also a great idea—having a full one in sight makes it super easy to grab healthy snacks.
Let ‘Em Be
Some fruits and vegetables fare better on the countertop, in your pantry (and, in some cases, in the cellar). Here are some items you don’t need to refrigerate:
– Potatoes and sweet potatoes: “Whether you have white or sweet potatoes, you’re dealing with a starchy vegetable,” Harbstreet explains. “When those starches are exposed to cold, they begin to break down, but instead of converting to sugars—hence, a sweeter flavor when you cook them—they become unpleasantly sweet with other ‘off’ flavors.”
– Onions and garlic: According to Harbstreet, the starches in onions can break down under cold temps, leading to soft, spoiled onions and a very stinky fridge. “This doesn’t apply to green onions and scallions, though, thanks for their higher water content. Those can withstand refrigeration for up to one week.”
Oh, and potatoes speed the spoilage of onions, says Harbstreet, so make sure you’re keeping them separate.
– Whole melons: Research suggests that it’s best to store them at room temperature to maximize their antioxidant content. To keep the antioxidant levels high, only store melon in the fridge after you’ve sliced it up.
10. Water Melons
If you haven’t opened your water melons, then there’s no need to place them in your fridge. Research has demonstrated that storing melons in room temperatures, will in effect, keep the antioxidants levels the same.
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– Winter squash and pumpkins: Rounding out the year, these are best stored at 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit according to research out of Oregon State University. Below 50 degrees, winter squashes and pumpkins deteriorate rapidly. This range is well below room temperature, of course, so storing them in a cellar would be best.
Keep ‘Em Cold
These fruits and veggies should go right in the fridge:
(Note: All numeric claims in this section draw from a document published by the Pacific Northwest Extension (PNW), a joint publication from University of Idaho Extension, Oregon State University Extension Service, and Washington State University Extension.)
– Trim the ends of asparagus stalks, wrap the trimmed ends in a damp paper towel, then put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Or you can stand them upright in a jar of water.
– Broccoli and cauliflower: These two are hardy veggies, and Harbstreet says they can last longer than the usual 3-5 days if stored properly—that’s between 32 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit at 90-95 percent humidity.
– Celery, which lasts 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator, can still go limp very quickly. To preserve whole celery, people swear by wrapping it in foil and keeping it in the fridge.
– Fresh herbs. Stored at 35-40 degrees Fahrenheit, they can last up to 10 days. “Store herbs like you would flowers, in a glass with water, and refrigerate,” suggests Rachel Meltzer Warren, RDN. If you have any windowsill space at home, it could be worth growing your own herbs indoor and snipping off what you need for individual recipes.
– Lettuce and salad greens. Whether they’re pre-bagged or still on a head of lettuce, toss them in the fridge, the FDA says. And be sure to wash loose salad greens carefully, too. If you want to make salad greens last longer, consider popping them into a container with a paper towel. The towel will absorb any moisture, preventing wilting.
– If you buy mushrooms in a plastic-wrapped container, put that right into the fridge without opening it. If you buy them loose, store them in the fridge in a paper bag. Harbstreet says that mushrooms can spoil quickly, so plan to use them within a couple of days of purchase.
Some items can go either way. Other items can go in both, depending on where they are in the ripening process (and when you plan to eat them):
– Avocados. “You’ve likely struggled with finding the perfect ripeness—avocados seem to either be rock hard or so soft they’re hardly edible,” Harbstreet says. “If you find yourself with the former, opt for the countertop, which speeds ripening, and if you have the latter but can’t eat it right away, go with the fridge.”
– Eggplant. Harbstreet prefers to store hers on the counter, but only if there’s not much humidity in the kitchen. “Eggplant is best consumed within 2 to 3 days from purchase, and you may find storing in the fridge helps it reach that second or third day with quality intact.”
– Citrus fruits are a true toss-up, lasting 10 days at room temperature and 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator, per the PNW document. The researchers, for what it’s worth, say it’s best stored at “cool room temperature.”
– Apples. Apples should be ripened at room temperature and then stored in the fridge, per the PNW doc—there, they’ll live on from anywhere 1-4 weeks, according to the PNW document.
– Tomatoes. “Have you ever had the sad, [measly] slices of tomatoes on your sandwich or in a salad? That’s likely due to refrigeration,” Harbstreet says. “The taste and texture of tomatoes is best when they’re allowed to stay at room temperature but out of direct sunlight.”
Like apples, it’s best to ripen these at room temperature and store in the refrigerator, unwashed, after that.
If you often have to throw away spoiled or rotten produce, consider buying some things frozen or canned.
Back in 2007, scientists at UC Davis published a paper comparing the nutrients found in frozen, fresh, and canned produce. As it turns out, frozen produce is equal in nutrition, and sometimes more nutritious, than the fresh stuff. That’s because frozen veggies and fruits were often picked when they are at peak ripeness and then frozen, basically pressing the “pause” button.
Another plus? Frozen items are usually cheaper than fresh ones, and they last way longer.
A few ideas of what to store in the freezer (or keep in the can):
– Hyper-seasonal produce like peaches, zucchini, pumpkin, or anything else you might purchase in bulk and not be able to use immediately.
– Ginger root can last for up to 6 months in the freezer, according to Foodsafety.gov, and frozen ginger is easier to grate for recipes than the fresh stuff.
– If you cook spinach regularly, buying canned spinach is a great idea. FoodSafety.gov says that spinach, a “low acid” canned good, can last two to five years if safely stored in the pantry.
– Even when refrigerated properly, berries only last a couple of days. Buying frozen berries is usually much cheaper than buying them fresh, too. Frozen berries are ideal for smoothies, desserts, and snacking—and Foodsafety.gov says the frozen stuff will safely last up to a whole year.
Oh, and don’t wash berries until you’re ready to eat them, advises Warren. “I’ve seen people do that thinking it will make the berries ready for snacking, but instead, the berries are more likely to grow mold and spoil faster.”
Now that you’re armed with all this knowledge, time to stock up on your favorite fruits and veggies.
If you want to try a few new things, visit your local farmers market and chat with vendors there. Browse grocery store circulars for deals and coupons, and look into local farm shares or community-supported agriculture programs.
No one’s perfect, so chances are you’ll still have some produce that goes bad before you can use it.
“If you’ve got fruits and veggies that are getting close to having outlived their useful life, slice them up and throw them in the freezer to use in soups, stews and smoothies later,” says Kubal.
If you really struggle with food waste, consider composting your kitchen scraps. Ultimately, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t always eat something before it goes bad. Just do your best—and enjoy whatever fruits and veggies you have access to.