Whether you’re planning to cook a meal for a special occasion or just want to get something on the table for dinner tonight, few things are more disappointing than opening up your refrigerator and discovering that the herbs or vegetables you planned to use have gone bad.
Households in the U.S. threw away 38.1 million tons of food in 2017, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Wasted food means you don’t get to enjoy the meal you were planning. It also costs you money and puts more strain on the environment. Unless you compost, the food you toss out is likely to end up in a landfill, where it produces methane gas as it breaks down.
The EPA notes that there are four things you can do to reduce food waste at home:
- Meal plan
- Store food properly
- Prep food in advance
- Use up what you have
Figuring out how to store food correctly, especially fresh produce, can seem tricky. Should you put something in the fridge, or will it be happier on the counter? Are there certain fruits you should keep away from others? It’s vital you know the answers to these and other questions to save both money and your dinner plans.
How to Store Your Produce for Optimal Freshness
There’s a way to store pretty much any type of produce to maximize its shelf life and help you avoid food waste and disappointment.
Getting the temperature right can be the trickiest part when it comes to storing fresh vegetables and fruits. The maximum refrigerator temperature recommended by the Food and Drug Administration is 40 degrees F. Per the University of California Post-Harvest Center, although some types of produce keep best in temperatures below 40 degrees, a fair number of the vegetables and fruits you’re likely to bring home are happiest in temperatures around 50 degrees F.
One solution to storing your produce in a too-cool fridge is to keep the varieties that like things a bit warmer in a wine refrigerator, which is usually in the 45- to 60-degree F range.
1. Greens & Lettuces
Greens like kale, spinach, chard, and collard greens need two things: a cold environment and humidity. If the temperature is too warm, they’ll start to rot quickly. If they don’t have enough moisture, they’ll dry out.
The best way to store hardy greens is in the refrigerator, preferably in the crisper drawer in a sealed plastic or glass container. You can use a plastic zip-close bag if you prefer. The air in your refrigerator will speed up the decomposition of greens, so make sure whatever containers you use can seal tightly.
The plastic or glass container helps trap moisture, keeping the greens at the ideal humidity level. You can toss a damp paper towel into the container before you seal it to help increase the humidity level. Spritz the paper towel with more water if you notice it drying out.
You can similarly store lettuces or salad greens. If you’re buying whole heads of lettuce, you can extend their shelf life by leaving the head intact until you’re ready to use it. In the case of prewashed bagged salads, your best bet is to keep the bag sealed until you’re ready to use it. Opening the bag lets in air, which can accelerate the decay process.
One thing to note when storing tender or delicate lettuces is that it’s essential you make sure your refrigerator isn’t too cold. You want the greens to be chilled, but not frozen. When lettuce freezes, the water in its cells expands, ultimately destroying the cells, according to Indiana Public Media. As the lettuce thaws, you end up with a slimy, unappetizing mess of green.
A tomato in the refrigerator is a sad tomato, for the most part. Cold air affects the flavor of tomatoes and can cause chilling damage to the fruit (tomatoes are botanical fruits), according to food scientist Harold McGee’s book “On Food and Cooking.” Keep tomatoes at room temperature by storing them on a countertop away from direct sunlight.
But there are some cases when it is OK to put your tomatoes in the refrigerator. If you’ve cut into a tomato and aren’t going to eat or use the entire thing at once, you can store the remaining portion in a plastic or glass container in the refrigerator. When it’s time to use it, bring the tomato out of the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.
If you don’t have air conditioning at home or if your kitchen is hotter than average, you can store a fully ripe, intact tomato in the refrigerator to extend its life. Take the tomato out of the fridge a day or so before you plan to eat or cook it to reverse any damage to its cells and restore any lost flavor.
3. Cucumbers & Other Soft Vegetables
Soft vegetables, such as summer squash, cucumbers, eggplants, and peppers, can be a bit tricky to store at home. The air in your refrigerator is just a little too cold for most of these vegetables (which are, like tomatoes, technically fruits). Room temperature happens to be just a little too warm. Because of their finickiness, soft vegetables don’t have much of a shelf life, so eat them as soon as possible after you bring them home, usually within a few days or up to a week.
- Cucumbers. The ideal temperature range for storing cukes is 50 to 55 degrees F, according to the University of California. The vegetable suffers chilling injury if stored at temperatures below 50 degrees for more than three days. Your best bet with cukes is to eat them quickly after bringing them home. Store them in a plastic bag on a shelf in the middle of your refrigerator (keep the bag away from the back, which tends to be colder).
- Zucchini and Summer Squash. Unlike their cucumber cousins, zucchini and summer squashes can handle colder temperatures. The ideal storage temperature range for summer squashes is 41 to 50 degrees, slightly warmer than your fridge should be. You’re likely to see signs of chilling injuries, such as pitting and shriveling, if you keep them in a cooler location for more than two days. Keep the squash in a plastic zip-close bag or other type of plastic or glass container and eat it quickly.
- Peppers (Hot and Sweet). Peppers are a little more resilient when it comes to the cold. They can be stored at temperatures below 45 degrees and last about two weeks at 41 degrees. After that, they’re likely to start showing signs of chilling injuries, such as softening and pitting. Green peppers are more likely to develop chilling injury than fully ripe peppers. When you get your peppers home from the market, put them in a sealed glass or plastic container or a zip-close bag and store them for up to two weeks before use.
- Eggplant. The ideal temperature range for eggplant is 50 to 54 degrees. You can put eggplants in the fridge, but aim to use them within a week if you do. The vegetable is likely to develop pitting and turn brown if stored at the average refrigerator temperature for longer than that. Like cukes, squashes, and peppers, keep your eggplants in a sealed plastic bag or container.
Once picked, berries like the cold. The best way to store them is to put them in the refrigerator in the package they came in. The shelf life of the fruit depends on the type of berry. Delicate raspberries and blackberries tend to have the shortest shelf life, usually just a couple of days when stored around 32 degrees F. Blueberries can last for up to two weeks when stored at the same temperature.
5. Apples & Pears
While both apples and pears are the first signs of fall for some people, the fruits have some different storage requirements. Store-bought pears usually need some time to ripen before they’re ready to eat. Let the pears ripen on a countertop at room temperature. According to USA Pears, a pear is usually ripe when the neck yields to gentle pressure.
When the pears are ripe, you can put them into the refrigerator (if you’re not going to eat them right away). Refrigeration slows down the ripening process, helping to extend the fruit’s shelf life. At about 35 degrees, you can keep a pear in the fridge for five days or so.
You don’t have to wait for apples to ripen after buying them. Instead, they should go right in the refrigerator, preferably in a disposable or reusable plastic bag or other type of container. You can keep apples for weeks when stored at temperatures around 35 degrees.
6. Stone Fruits
Once ripe, you can keep stone fruits like peaches, plums, nectarines, and cherries in the refrigerator. The ideal temperature is around 32 degrees. Generally speaking, the sooner you eat stone fruits after they’re ripe, the better. You can keep the fruits in the fridge for a few days. If you don’t think you can eat them within that time, you are better off freezing or preserving them.
How you store bananas depends on what phase they’re in. It’s best to store green bananas on your countertop at room temperature since they need time to ripen. Once the peel has turned yellow, the bananas are ready to eat.
If your bananas are ripe but you’re not ready to eat them, move them to your refrigerator to slow down the ripening process. If the bananas are overripe and the peels have turned all brown or mostly brown, you can use them to make banana bread or whip. But your best option is to freeze them if you don’t plan to do so right away.
To freeze the bananas, peel them first, then place them in a zip-close bag. Press out the air before sealing. Or you can use a vacuum sealer.
8. Citrus Fruits
Although citrus trees tend to thrive in warm, sunny climates, once the fruit is ripe and picked, its preferred place is somewhere cold. The fruits also prefer a humid environment.
The best way to get the most out of your lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits is to store them in the refrigerator’s crisper drawer. Lemons and limes do best in a sealed plastic bag while oranges and grapefruits prefer a little airflow and will last longest stored in a mesh bag or a plastic bag that’s left open.
9. Onions & Garlic
The best way to store onions and garlic depends on the type of onion or garlic and whether it is fresh or cured. Usually, fresh onions and garlic are available at farmers markets at the start of the harvest season. The bulbs haven’t been dried (or cured) yet, so they won’t last as long as the cured varieties you usually find in the grocery store.
Keep fresh garlic and onion bulbs in the refrigerator. They usually last a few weeks stored at average fridge temperatures. To keep the bulbs from spoiling more quickly, try to keep them in a part of the refrigerator that’s relatively dry.
There are some exceptions to the rule when it comes to onions and garlic. Green onions, also called scallions, like to be in the refrigerator. The best way to store them is as though they were a bunch of cut flowers. Fill a glass jar with enough water to cover the root ends of the green onions and put them in the jar. I keep my green onion jar in the refrigerator door and have found that they last for weeks that way. The root ends of the scallions will suck up the water, so change it when it gets low or when the jar is dry.
You can divide herbs into two major categories: soft, tender herbs and hardy herbs.
Tender herbs include basil, parsley, and cilantro. Hardy herbs include oregano, sage, thyme, and rosemary. You can tell whether a herb is tender or hardy by looking at its stem. The stems of basil, parsley, and cilantro are soft, while oregano, sage, thyme, and rosemary are woody.
The best way to store tender herbs is as though they were flowers. Trim the ends of the stems a bit and place the herbs in a glass jar filled with a little bit of water. Keep an eye on the water level and refill it if you notice it getting low. Don’t be surprised if you see the stems of the herbs forming roots. If you prefer, you can invest in specialized herb savers, which provide a small reservoir of water to hold your herbs and often fit in the refrigerator door.
Cilantro and parsley should go in the refrigerator, but basil should not. Keep your jar of basil on the counter. The cold air of the fridge will turn its beautiful green leaves dark brown.
Hardy herbs can go in the refrigerator and don’t need the jar of water. Instead, wrap them in a damp paper towel, then place the wrapped herb bundle into a plastic bag. Keep the towel moist by spritzing it with water if you notice it drying out.
11. Root Vegetables
Root vegetables like carrots, beets, and radishes can last for months if stored properly. The best place to store root vegetables is in a root cellar, according to Michigan State University, but building a root cellar isn’t exactly practical for the average person.
Instead, keep your root vegetables in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. The ideal temperature for most root vegetables is around 32 degrees.
Store them in a tightly sealed container or bag. Whether you keep the greens on is up to you. If you plan to store the vegetables for a longer period, such as for more than one week, it’s usually best to cut the greens off and either compost or use them in your cooking. You can store the tops of roots, such as beet greens or turnip tops, as you would any other hardy, leafy green.
12. Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, & Broccoli
Cabbage and cabbage family vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts like it cold. They keep for a week or longer when stored in your refrigerator at a temperature near 32 degrees F. For best results, keep these vegetables in a plastic bag or container in your crisper drawer. Leave the container or bag slightly open to let air circulate. To increase the humidity in the container or bag, place a damp paper towel inside it (spritz the towel with water if you notice it drying out).
The best place for avocados depends on the state they’re in. If you pick up some hard, bright green avocados from the grocery store, they need time to ripen. Leave them on the counter at room temperature for a few days.
If you find avocados that yield to gentle pressure and are dark green in color, they’re ripe and ready to eat. You can extend the life of a ripe avocado by putting it in the refrigerator for a few days. The cold air of the fridge delays the ripening process.
If you only need to use half an avocado for a recipe, placing the remaining half, cut side down, on an avocado saver will keep it from browning. Put the cut avocado in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it (preferably within a day or two). You can also submerge the cut avocado in water and save it for a few days. The water keeps oxygen from getting to the avocado’s surface, preventing browning. You can also use the trick on guacamole. Just gently pour about an inch of water over the top of the dip, seal the container, and put it in the fridge. When you’re ready to eat, carefully pour off the water.
It took me a while to realize what I was doing wrong with potatoes. I’d buy them, bring them home, put them on the counter, and they’d turn green in a few days. I didn’t get why people insisted potatoes were a storage vegetable when mine barely lasted a week.
It turns out potatoes don’t last long in bright conditions. I’ve started putting mine in a paper bag and folding the top down so it’s closed but not sealed tight. Stored the right way, potatoes really do last for several weeks or more.
The location also matters. Store your potatoes in a paper bag or potato sack on the counter, but keep them far away from onions, apples, bananas, and other fruits that produce ethylene gas. It speeds up the ripening process and causes potatoes to spoil more quickly. Also, keep them out of the refrigerator, as the cold air can damage their texture and cause the flesh inside to turn dark brown.
15. Winter Squashes
If you’ve ever bought winter squash to use as decor around your home in the fall, you probably already know it can last a long time. When stored at temperatures between 50 and 55 degrees, winter squash can last for up to six months, depending on the variety, according to Iowa State University Extension.
If you don’t have anywhere in your home that’s 50 to 55 degrees, it’s fine to store your winter squash on the countertop at room temperature. Just keep it away from fruits like apples and bananas. Also, keep an eye on the squash. If you notice any bruises or signs of damage, use it as soon as possible to keep the entire vegetable from spoiling.
Along with keeping your fruits and vegetables at the temperatures and in the conditions they prefer, there are a few other things you can do to extend their shelf life and avoid wasting food. Wait to wash your produce until you’re ready to eat or cook with it. Although some humidity is fine, wet vegetables and fruits are likely to rot more quickly or grow mold. Moisture in the air around the produce is fine, but standing water on the leaves, stem, or berries isn’t.
What do you do to maximize the shelf life of your produce?