Until some of your produce unexpectedly goes bad or just tastes like it, it’s easy to forget about the importance of proper storage. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), fruits and vegetables have the highest rate of waste of all types of food. This waste is not only expensive but bad for the environment.
Aside from buying less and being more mindful of the products you have in the house, one of the best ways to avoid food waste comes in knowing how to properly store your fruits and vegetables.
To help you out, we’ve compiled some of the most common produce storage mistakes and some tips for avoiding each:
1. Don’t store your products based on how it’s displayed at the supermarket.
Just because an item is displayed at room temperature at a supermarket or farmstand doesn’t mean you should keep it on your countertop upon returning home.
“Farmstands rotate their produce and have it out for display, but it’s not ideal,” said Lucy Senesac, manager and educator at Sang Lee Farms, a certified organic farm on Long Island, New York. “Lettuces and pretty much anything leafy and green must always be in the fridge and in a bag if you don’t want it to wilt.”
To help your food live up to its storage potential, it’s important to do your research. Natural Resources Defense Council’s Save the Food storage guide is a good resource to quickly determine the best way to store your fruit and veggie haul.
2. Don’t keep tomatoes in the refrigerator.
We’ve talked about this before. Unless your tomatoes are overripe or already cut, they should be stored at room temperature, where they can ripen to maximum flavour. According to the University of California Postharvest Technology Center, unripe tomatoes won’t reach their full ripeness and red colour if stored in the refrigerator, and ripe tomatoes will lose flavour and turn mealy.
Senesac recommends leaving tomatoes on your countertop and covering them with a towel for protection from fruit flies.
3. Don’t refrigerate watermelon.
Once you’ve experienced the delight of cold watermelon on a hot summer day, it’s easy to assume it should be stored in the refrigerator. But the truth is, watermelon starts to lose its flavour and vibrant colour after more than three days in the fridge. For best results, store watermelon at room temperature out of direct sunlight, and eat it within a few days. Keep in mind that cut melon will need to be refrigerated for food safety reasons.
4. Don’t chill your zucchini in the coldest part of your fridge.
Some kinds of produce, like zucchini, require refrigeration but don’t thrive in extremely cool temperatures. Senesac recommends storing zucchini in the crisper or wrapped in paper towels for protection from the coldest parts of the refrigerator. For best results, eat it within five days.
5. Don’t store cucumbers or eggplant in the refrigerator.
You may be accustomed to tossing cucumbers and eggplant straight into your crisper drawer, but for the best flavour and shelf life, both prefer room-temperature environments. What’s the reasoning? According to the UC Postharvest Technology Center, eggplants are sensitive to temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit and susceptible to discolouration and other damage if kept too cold for somewhere between six and eight days. The same goes for cucumbers, but they can become damaged as soon as two or three days after refrigeration. It’s OK to store either in the refrigerator for up to three days, but be sure to use your produce right after removing it from refrigeration.
6. Don’t toss out old spring onions.
Spring onions have a shelf life of about seven to 10 days under refrigeration, but did you know you can regrow them if the roots are intact? “During your prep, cut off the bottom inch of the onion and put it in a cup of water and watch it grow,” said Yvette Cabrera, food matters project manager at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
This is a great option for someone looking for a little summer DIY project that doesn’t require very much work. Plus, you’ll save some money, too.
7. Don’t wait too long to freeze berries.
Berries are well-loved for their flavour and beauty, but they spoil quickly. Typically, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries are at their freshest for two to three days, while blueberries can last up to 10 days.
“If you see they’re on the verge of overripening, throw them into the freezer and use them in your smoothies at your leisure,” Cabrera said, adding that you can do the same with bananas—just remember to remove the peel before freezing.
And just because you notice some mould on a few berries doesn’t mean you need to toss the entire container. Simply pick through the berries and throw away the ones that have gone bad.
8. Don’t store herbs without water.
If you normally toss your herbs in the refrigerator and call it a day, you may want to rethink your strategy. Herbs can be stored similarly to a bouquet by sticking them in a glass of water and covering the top with a bag, Senesac said. A reusable cotton produce bag may get the job done, but it will depend on the product.
“With the glass of water, we’re trying to simulate the conditions of a greenhouse where humidity helps keep the product fresh longer,” said Andrea Spacht Collins, sustainable food systems specialist at NRDC. “You won’t get that same quality with a breathable bag, but you could do just as well with waxed paper or another airtight container.”
Most herbs require refrigeration, but basil is more sensitive to the cold and should be stored somewhere above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, such as your countertop.
9. Don’t store fruits and vegetable side by side.
Did you know it’s actually not a good idea to store fruits and vegetables beside one another at random? Most fruits produce a ripening hormone called ethylene that can cause other types of produce (both fruits and vegetables) that are ethylene-sensitive to quickly over-ripen or go bad.
For this reason, you’ll want to store ethylene-producing fruits (like apples, avocados, peaches and peppers) separately from ethylene-sensitive produce (like eggplant, lettuce, cucumbers and greens). You should also avoid storing ethylene-producing items in airtight containers, unless your intention is rapid ripening, as they could quickly become overripe or rot.
Keep in mind that some products, like apples and avocados, both produce and are sensitive to ethylene.
Here’s a good list of which fruits and vegetables produce ethylene, which are sensitive to it and which aren’t.
10. Don’t store root vegetables without a bag.
“Beets, carrots and a lot of roots will keep for weeks or months even if they are in bags in the fridge instead of just loose in there,” Senesac said. “They need something like a bag to hold the moisture in.”
Other root vegetables include sweet potatoes, turnips, ginger, garlic, onions, fennel and radishes. Bags are also useful for keeping your produce separated and organized, as well as to keep produce from bruising on your way home. The bags don’t have to be plastic, either ― reusable cotton bags are effective too, Senesac said.