Storing Produce to Make it Last

Food waste is a huge problem in Canada. Up to 50% of food produced gets wasted, with half of that waste occurring in the household. One of the best ways to reduce food waste is to properly store produce to prevent them from turning quickly.

Before jumping into specifics, I want to bring up the refrigerator crisper. Understanding the crisper is a game changer for extending the life of fruits & vegetables.

There are two options for your crisper, a high humidity drawer and a low humidity drawer. They are used depending on if a fruit or vegetable is either ethylene sensitive or ethylene producing. Ethylene is a gas produced by some fruits and vegetables that cause produce to ripen faster.

A high humidity drawer (the vent is closed, trapping in the moisture) is for produce that wilts. This is mostly vegetables, with a few fruit exceptions. These are produce that are ethylene sensitive. It might have a vegetable on the drawer.

A low humidity drawer (the vent is open, allowing moisture & gas to escape) is for produce that rots. This will be mostly fruits, with a few vegetable exceptions. This is the drawer for produce that produces ethylene, hence why you keep the vent open to allow for the gas to escape. It might have a fruit on the drawer.

If you want to get real serious, you can use the following list to figure out which fruit & vegetables should be stored where:

Ethylene Producing: apples, apricots, avocados, bananas (ripe), blueberries, cantaloupe, figs, green onions, grapes, honeydew, kiwi, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, pears, plumes, princess and tomatoes

Ethylene Sensitive: asparagus, unripe bananas, blackberries, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, ready greens, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsley, peas, peppers, raspberries, spinach, squash, Swiss chard, strawberries, and watermelon.

But I know ya’ll don’t have time to be checking this post out every time you bring groceries home, so below is a quick rule of thumb when you are putting your groceries away:

  • Fruits in the low humidity drawer (vent open)
  • Vegetables in the high humidity drawer (vent closed)
  • Keep your berries & bananas out these these drawers

Ripening Tip: If you need to ripen something quicker, like an avocado, toss into a bag with an ethylene producing fruit to help it ripen quicker. Now this won’t work magic, but it may help you out if you think of it the day before.

Storing Tips for Specific Fruits & Vegetables

Storing produce goes beyond just using the crisper. Below is a more detailed breakdown of specific fruits & vegetables. I try to take a sustainable focus with my kitchen, so I will be highlighting some reusable products. Plastic ziplock bags and paper towels can be used, but I encourage you to check out some alternatives to help cut back on your waste. I’ve linked the products I use & love.

~ Fruits ~

Apples: Can be stored in a fridge in the low humidity drawer or a cool, dark place such as a basement or fruit cellar. Be careful not to store your apples near onions or they will take on an onion taste.

Avocado: Store at room temperature until ripe, then pop into the fridge to extend their life. Avocado also freezes great, just remove the skins and cube before freezing.

Banana: Unripe bananas should be left on the counter, away from other fruits they might ripen (such as avocados). Once they ripen, you can place them in the fridge. The skin may still brown in the fridge as a heads up. Otherwise, pop them in the freezer for banana muffins.

Berries: Berries turn bad quickly, therefore eat as soon as possible. Avoid washing them until you need them (the moisture will cause them to ripen quicker) as well as remove any moldy ones before storing. I usually store mine in a small ceramic colander to allow any excess moisture to drip off. If they are about to turn, pop them into a reusable freezer bag (Rezip and Stasher are my favourites!) to save for smoothies, oatmeal bakes or crisps.

Grapes: Similar to berries, they are best stored in a container that drains. You can either keep them in the plastic bag they came in or transfer to a larger colander. By waiting to wash them before eating, you will also help extend their life.

Melons (ie. Honeydew, Cantaloupe & Watermelon) : Keeping a melon as intact as possible will help make it last longer. I typically slice in half, then cover the unused portion with a beeswax wrap (like this one) to help keep it fresh. Keep in the low humidity crisper drawer.

Lemon & Limes: Store in the fridge or on the counter depending on how quickly you are going to use them. The best way to keep a used one fresh is with a food hugger. This silicone tool pops on the the end of a cut lemon or lime, keeping it fresh longer (you can actually use it for lots of different produce). Otherwise, you can wrap the end in beeswax.

Stone Fruit (ie. Mango, Plums, Peaches & Nectarines): Store in the low humidity crisper. Nothing special here. If you have stone fruits that are going bad, they are great for jams/jellies. Pop them in the freezer and use them when you have time to make some.

~ Vegetables ~

Asparagus: Can be stored two ways in the fridge. Either upright in a mason jar with a small amount of water or wrapped in a damp towel. The goal is to keep this ends moist.

Broccoli: Keeps best in the high humidity crisper. Due to high water content, you should blanch before freezing to maintain the flavour & texture of the vegetable. 

Cabbage: I store unwrapped in the high humidity crisper. You may read elsewhere to wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, but I avoid this and find it still lasts 2-3 weeks.

Cauliflower: Similar to broccoli. Store in the high humidity crisper and blanch before freezing. If you you slice up for quick vegetable access, keep in a sealed reusable bag or container to help maintain moisture.

Green Onions: Keep wrapped in a damp towel in a reusable bag. Once I’ve used a good portion of of my green onions, I pop them into a mason jar with water to cover the bulbs. If you have good lighting, this will allow the onions to grow 1-2 more times. I will change the water every 1-2 days.

Herbs: Similar to green onions, I usually put them in a mason jar with a small amount of water, changing the water every 1-2 days . I will also trim off any stems or leaves that have gone bad. You can also wrap in a towel and store in a reusable bag in the fridge. I find mint does better in the fridge. Many herbs can be dried to avoid waste. Just tie the end together and hang upside down until complete dry. You can also whip up a quick pesto and freeze. 

Leafy Greens: Leafy greens keep best in the fridge if they are washed as soon as you bring them home. I will wash and cut into large pieces (if needed). Next, wrap them in a towel (I love Unpaper Towels) and place in a reusable bag.

Leeks: Wrap leeks in a moist towel and store in the high humidity crisper. Give them a good shake before storing with other vegetables, as they retain a lot of soil. If they won’t fit in the crisper, try a reusable bag. If they are still too big then store in the main fridge but keep the ends wrapped.

Ginger: I keep ginger loose in the fridge and find it keeps for a while. Otherwise toss it into the freezer. It will still grate frozen, so no need to take it out before hand.

Garlic: Store in a cool, dark place. If it is in a jar, ensure has has holes for it to breath. When green appears in the centre of the garlic, it indicates that it is aged and ready to sprout. While it is safe to eat, it has a bitter taste so it is best to remove.

Peppers: If you are going to eat them quickly, keep them on the counter for better flavour. They can also handle a cool, dark spot. Otherwise, keep them in the high humidity crisper.

Tomatoes: Kept best at room temperature as they ripen better when not in the fridge. If they are ripe, but you have no use for them yet, then you can place them in the fridge. I would just allow them to come to room temperature before using

Mushrooms: Keep them in a paper bag and store in the fridge. The paper bag will help with moisture control. There are usually some beside the bulk mushroom section at the grocery store. If not, then store in plastic packaging. Keep in large part of fridge, out of crisper. 

Root Vegetables (ie. Squash, Potato, Onions, Sweet Potato). Keep them in a cool dark spot outside of the fridge. I keep mine in a wicker basket under my bar cart. Securing a spot in a kitchen cabinet or in the basement works as well. If possible, store each vegetable in it’s own container (unfortunately I don’t have space for that).

Zucchini: Store loose in the high humidity crisper. It can be frozen, which is great for baking. Given it’s high water content, it is best to grate it then squeeze excess water out before freezing. 

An Argument Against Meal Prep

Flip open Instagram and you’ll find pages of the most beautiful meal prep you could imagine. Green smoothies, halloumi cheese salads and black bean burgers. All perfectly prepared in reusable containers for the work week.

A dream world where you ensure you eat healthy every day of the week. 

I truly admire the effort that goes into this extensive meal preparation (maybe with a hint of jealously), but a few questions usually come to mind:

  1. Does that salad ACTUALLY still taste fresh on Day 3?
  2. Don’t you get bored when you have the same meals three days in a row?
  3. What happens when your co-workers ask you to check out the new Mexican restaurant after work, but you have you have that black bean burger in the fridge at home?
  4. And most importantly, what about Sunday Funday?

Now, don’t get me wrong. Filling your fridge and pantry with healthy, whole foods is critical in making sure you are putting the right nutrients into your body.

But my argument is this: If we strive to complete this extensive meal preparation in a world that has too many unknowns, is this actually attainable for most people? I am the perfect candidate to being able to achieve this: no children, partner who also enjoys cooking and able to afford healthy fresh foods. Yet, I still can’t seem to get it done every week. Sure, I could leave the cottage on Sunday morning a few hours early, or skip out on the afternoon Bocce in the park… Yeah, no thanks.

So I say, drop the dream of completing this crazy meal prep. Enjoy your weekends and evenings. Learn to throw together healthy meals in a hot minute or actually take the time to cook some nights of the week with your friends & family (take leftovers for lunch).

Then, if you do happen to have the time to do a huge meal prep, take advantage! I can guarantee you will eat healthier. On a smaller scale, use that time to make some bulk recipes that might last you the week, such as homemade granola, soups, muffins or banana bread. If you are away for a weekend, you can always stock the fridge/pantry before you head out to make sure a full fridge exists when you get back.

So since I just bashed your meal preparation dream, I will leave you with some recommendations of foods to always have around (that don’t spoil quickly!) to help you make quick healthy meals.

Top Things to Keep in Your Kitchen

Well Stocked Fridge: frozen vegetables, frozen fruit, frozen banana, frozen bag of bread, frozen meat, yogurt, milk, vegetables you enjoy eating raw, eggs, cheese, hummus, mayonnaise, salsa

Well Stocked Pantry: canned beans, oatmeal, your favourite grain, nuts & seeds, peanut butter, whole grain crackers, olive oil, balsamic or red wine vinegar, canned tuna/salmon, potatoes, tomato sauce

How to Use These Ingredients in Healthy Meals

Quick Breakfasts: smoothies, overnight oats, parfait, peanut butter toast w/ bread & fruit, omelette w/ cheese and frozen vegetables, refried beans on toast

Quick Lunches: above omelette, cheese & crackers or two hard boiled eggs with a side of vegetables & hummus, bean pasta salad with oil & vinegar dressing

Quick Dinners: Tuna melt, salmon melt, salmon cakes, bean pasta with frozen vegetables, meat w/ friend potato & vegetable hash, fried eggs over a bed of vegetables & beans with salsa