I aim to be more sustainable wherever I can in both my kitchen and my home. One big challenge I continually face is food waste and, more specifically, keeping produce fresh until I’m ready to use it. Some weeks are better than others. There is a delicate balance between buying enough produce to last my family and me through our next grocery run and buying too much produce, having to throw half of it out anyway.
All fruits and vegetables go through different ripening processes from the time they’re grown. For some produce, natural ethylene gas is emitted during this process. Other types of produce are particularly sensitive to ethylene gas, so it is essential to store produce effectively to reduce the chances of quick spoiling or flavor transfer.
Use the following as a guide to start this process in your kitchen to reduce waste. I hope to simplify some of this information for you on best practices for storing and using your produce. You may be surprised at how making small changes can save you money in the long run. Remember, we are all individuals and what may work for my kitchen may look a little different for your space. Be creative and use this as a guide to help you think about how you may reduce food waste in your kitchen.
Countertop or Pantry
Two important words for room temperature storing: COOL and DARK. While the pantry would be the coolest and darkest, I like to be able to see my produce so I don’t forget to use it. Finding a darker corner of the countertop under cabinets works great.
If you have limited counter space, you could store the things you’re unlikely to forget in the pantry, like onions or garlic – the base to so many recipes.
If you want to speed up a ripening process, you can put produce in a closed brown paper bag. To slow it down, most produce would be okay in the fridge until you are ready to use it.
The refrigerator is all about humidity and airflow. Your fridge should have at least one crisper drawer that allows you to control the humidity. In general, fruits tend to spoil or rot with too much humidity (not enough airflow). Vegetables are sensitive to moisture loss, so high humidity is key. Think about a carrot that gets dry when left out.
Rule of Thumb:
Low humidity – things that spoil or rot (usually fruit)
High humidity – produce that wilts or dries out (usually vegetables)
Since both airflow and the releasing of ethylene gas contribute to how well produce stays fresh, it’s important to not pack the drawers to the rim when possible so they do not spoil quicker.
I also line my crisper drawers with towels to absorb excess moisture (and to make cleaning them easier).
Freezing produce halts the ripening process, which is great if you have a lot of perfectly ripe produce but not enough time to eat it.
Overall, most fruits tend to do very well when frozen and can be used seamlessly in baking or for smoothies with or without thawing. Fruits can keep for 12 months before losing flavor quality.
Most vegetables also do well, although they will be better used for soups, pasta or stir fry rather than salads or roasting. The best vegetables are ones you already see in the frozen section (think: broccoli, green beans, peas). Avoid high-water containing vegetables (think: cucumbers or mushrooms). It is a good idea to blanch (boil then shock in ice water) and dry thoroughly before freezing. Vegetables can keep for around 18 months before losing flavor quality.
To prevent frozen “clumps”, you can spread fruits and vegetables on a lined baking sheet, freeze, then transfer to a freezer-safe container.
If you step into my kitchen and my garage, you will quickly notice it’s my favorite kitchen tool. There are many reasons I love Mason Jars in my kitchen. It allows me to use less plastic when storing leftovers and produce from farmer’s markets & my garden. The transparency and easy organization help me see clearly what food I have to eat, reducing my food waste. I also love using jars to put herbs in my window sill and displaying fresh flowers.
The shelf life of cut and washed vegetables and fruits are typically very short – about two days. But if you put them in a mason jar, they will last up to 1-2 weeks depending on the food. Jars are airtight and keep some food from spoiling quickly. I typically don’t have to throw out food. Plus, it makes it easier to see what’s in them so nothing is forgotten in the back of the refrigerator!
There are a lot of “scraps” (peels, stalks, leaves, and ends) involved even when we use our produce on time. A great way to use the entire vegetable is by making homemade vegetable broth. Vegetable broth can be used in many recipes like soups, pilafs, and more flavorful rice.
Staple vegetables in broth are what you might expect: onions, celery, & carrots. Other great additions are garlic peels, mushroom stems, bell peppers, and herbs like parsley, rosemary, and thyme. Cruciferous vegetables like kale, broccoli, and Brussel sprouts can add bitterness, so use in moderation.
Store scraps in a bag in the freezer. When ready, combine a gallon bag’s worth of scraps (add any additional onions, celery, carrots, salt & pepper) with 10-15 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for an hour. Strain out vegetables (optional: strain a second time through cheesecloth) and store them in jars or freezer bags.
Produce Storing Specifics
Onions & Potatoes
Do not store onions & potatoes together! While potatoes are sensitive to ethylene gasses, the reason to keep onions and potatoes apart has to do with moisture. Both onions and potatoes release moisture, which can lead to faster spoiling. It’s best to store them separately in an area that has good airflow, is dry, and somewhat cool. Both need to be stored in a dark, cool place where you will not forget about them. You might choose a drawer, pantry, or on the counter in a dark place. I like to be able to see my food.
Do not store in the refrigerator — I consider this a food crime to the lovely flavors of a tomato! Tomatoes do like cool, darker storage, so finding a corner of your counter or in your pantry may be best.
Store on the counter. To ripen* bananas quicker, place in a brown bag. Overripe bananas can be peeled and frozen for smoothies.
*Unripe or more green bananas are actually better for your blood sugar (low glycemic index).
You can keep in a cooler with high moisture. Limes, lemons, and oranges – I still like to store on the countertop because we use them fast. You can keep in the fridge, personal preference. If they look like they are going to go bad, I will go ahead and juice them.
Apples do well in either the low-humidity drawer of the fridge or on the counter (I prefer room temperature, but this is a personal preference).
Take out of the bag and put in a bowl on the countertop.
Store avocados on the countertop until ripe. (You’ll know when the stem on top pops off, or when it is slightly squishy to the touch.) To slow down the ripening process, put them into the refrigerator until ready.
*BONUS TIP: Help leftover guacamole stay fresh – Flatten out in a container and put a few drops of water on top and put in the refrigerator. When you are ready to eat, take out of the fridge and stir.
Cherries & Grapes
Use a container or jar with cheesecloth on top – you can screw on just the rim of the lid over the cheesecloth to secure it in place.
Put in a vinegar/water bath – 2 cups of water with 1 tablespoon of vinegar- 5-10 minutes. Dry with a towel. Put in a jar or container and put cheesecloth on top (if using a jar, screw on just the rim to secure in place). It’s important to put something in it that can absorb some of the moisture, like the sponge that comes in the bottom of the berry container. Berries can also be frozen to preserve freshness.
I love using small cute cups with a little water to put fresh herbs in. If You use the herbs reasonably quickly, you can put in a window sill in the indirect sun. To preserve a little longer, put the cup in the refrigerator (except basil which will turn brown in the refrigerator).
Just like a bouquet of flowers, cut off the bottom tips and place in a small cup of cold water with stalks upright. Store in the refrigerator. Asparagus will stay crisp and fresh. Also can be blanched and stored in jars or other closed containers.
Put in reusable paper or cloth bag, or in mason jars with cheesecloth over top – screw on just the rim of the lid over the cheesecloth to secure in place. This helps keep them dry and not lock in moisture. Store in refrigerator.
Rinse and dry completely. Either roll greens up in a towel or put in a mason jar with a towel to absorb moisture.
Carrots & Celery
Cut up and put in jars full of water – no lid – in the refrigerator.
Broccoli & Cauliflower
Store in an open bag or mesh bag. OR blanch and store in a glass container (like a mason jar) to keep for longer. Both are great options for freezing, as well.
Before use, ginger can sit on the counter. After you have cut a part off to cook with, pat the cut part of the unused portion dry, cover with a beeswax or plastic wrap, and store in the fridge.
Wrap in a towel and put in a reusable stasher silicone bag.
Brandy Hickman, D.PSC, AADP, CHWC
Brandy Hickman, Inspired Nutrition and Life Coach, leads sessions with authenticity and speaks from the heart. She shares her passions for mindfulness and spiritual connection in all aspects of life, from our food to our thoughts to our relationships.
Brandy helps women discover if their plates are too full OR just filled with things that don’t nurture, bring joy, and inspire them. She challenges women to have a different mindset and think differently about doing less and having more.