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How to Keep Your Produce Fresh

We all have the best of intentions when it comes to feeding our families. We strive to provide healthy food, carefully budget, and safely prepare fresh fruits and vegetables. But nothing is more frustrating than opening the refrigerator to find that your best intentions have, quite literally, spoiled!

What are best practices when it comes to purchasing and storing fruits and vegetables? How can you make sure your hard-earned money isn’t wasted on produce that ends up in the trash while preventing foodborne illness in your household?

Consider these important guidelines when selecting and preparing fresh produce.

At the store:

  • Plan ahead so that you only buy what you know you can use. If possible, purchase produce frequently. At the store or farmer’s market, avoid choosing produce that is bruised, smelly, moldy, slimy, or shriveled. Check prepackaged items carefully.
  • Keep produce separate from uncooked meat, poultry or seafood to prevent cross-contamination. Bag all produce at the grocery store.

At home:

  • Store produce separately from uncooked meat, poultry or seafood in the refrigerator, and use separate cutting surfaces or clean and sanitize between uses.
  • All produce should be rinsed of visible dirt, even items with a peel.
  • Precut produce should be kept cold.
  • It is not necessary to rinse bagged, pre-washed produce.
  • Rinse produce by either spraying or immersing in a sink of cold water. Allow it to air dry on a towel or pat dry with a paper towel before putting it away.
  • Storing fruits and vegetables in plain sight may motivate you to eat them more often. You may choose to rinse all of your produce at once so that it is ready to eat or cook, or even pre-cut certain items and store them in airtight containers.
  • Discard any rotten produce immediately, before it starts to spoil other produce.
  • As long as cross-contamination is avoided and “best by” dates on pre-packaged items are adhered to, the only limit to the longevity of produce is its taste and visual appeal. When in doubt, throw it out!

In storage:

  • The two most important factors in making your fresh produce last longer are moisture and ethylene gas. Some produce fairs best with a little bit of moisture (lettuce, greens), while others will spoil faster or mold if moist (berries, peppers).

Refrigerator crisper drawers often allow for control of the humidity levels so that you can store items in the appropriate moisture range. Some produce produces higher amount of ethylene gas, while other fruits and vegetables are more sensitive to the gas and ripen quickly when exposed to it. Try these tips, specific to certain types of produce:

  • After rinsing, store lettuce wrapped loosely in a paper towel in an unsealed plastic bag.
  • Keep unripe fruits and vegetables such as peaches, apricots, plums, avocados, bananas, mangoes, melons, and kiwis on the counter until they ripen, then put them in the refrigerator. You can speed up the ripening process for these types of foods by putting them in a paper bag to trap the ethylene gas.
  • Vegetables such as potatoes, onions, squash, and tomatoes should be kept in a cool, dry cupboard.
  • Rinse berries just before serving and eating.
  • Certain fruits like apples and citrus will last a considerable amount of time on the counter, but they may last longer in the refrigerator.

Following these tips, you can be confident that you are providing your family healthy and safe fruits and vegetables without having them spoil quickly and go to waste.

Erin Johnson, M.Ed., C.S.C.S.
Erin Johnson is the Fitness and Nutrition Education Coordinator in the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition, and she aims improve the health and well-being of families and help children reach their full potential. She has Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology and a Nutrition Science minor from Indiana University, a Master of Education in Sport & Exercise Education from The Ohio State University, and she is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength & Conditioning Association. She is a fitness and nutrition educator, an athlete (albeit not a natural or excellent one), a mom of two active, perpetually-hungry boys, and an enthusiastic foodie/eater, which has molded her professional life into one of passion for teaching, physical activity, food and nutrition, and health and social justice for all children.

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