Research done in the past by the University of Arizona, in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture, found that on average families throw out up to a quarter of their fruits and vegetables due to spoilage. By knowing a few facts about proper storage, and following a few simple practices, you can minimize how much of your produce spoils before you eat or use it. This can save quite a bit of money.
The Arizona study from 2002 found that the amount of produce that spoiled in an average home before it was eaten amounted to 470 pounds a year, about 14 percent of all food brought into the home, which amounted to throwing away about 600 dollars a year—a higher figure today adjusted for inflation. You can lessen this loss greatly by purchasing or picking at the right stage, not storing certain fruits and vegetables together, storing them properly (not all like it cool), and using some before others.
In regards to purchasing, there are a couple main points. Most stores have the produce as you enter, so you buy it before all else, lengthening the time it is not cool and moist. Instead, pick the produce last after you’ve chosen the non-perishable goods. Then get the produce home as soon as possible. Plan other errands before this shopping, or carry a cooler (especially if warm outside) in your vehicle if not going directly home.
Also, pick or purchase at the right stage and in good condition. Apples or peaches without bruises, firm oranges, dark green spinach, bananas that are slightly green and not all the way yellow with brown spots-- these are all examples of good quality produce. Such details, including harvesting from your garden, are covered in more depth in books and online sites such as from Cornell University (www.gardening.cornell.edu).
While it is tempting to store produce in air-tight bags, don’t. As produce ripens it respires or breathes. Storing any in tight plastic bags stops this, causing them to suffocate and speeding up decay.
Some fruits and vegetables, as they ripen, emit ethylene—a gas that is odorless and colorless, but that can speed ripening of other sensitive crops. That is why spinach will turn yellow in only a couple of days if in the refrigerator crisper along with an apple. So keep such ethylene releasers apples, cantaloupe, and honeydew separate.
Don’t refrigerate other ethylene producers at all, including avocado, unripe bananas, peaches and nectarines, pears, plums, and tomatoes. If fully ripe you may store these cool, but return to room temperature for best flavor.
Other crops not to refrigerate include potatoes, onions, winter squash, and garlic. Cold (not freezing) delays ripening and spoiling of many crops, but not these. These are cold sensitive, and can lose flavor and moisture when too cold, or their smells can taint other produce. Keep in a cool, dry space that may stay between 50 and 60 degrees (F). They may store a month or more with proper conditions. A special note on potatoes: keep them away from light, as in a paper bag, to prevent them from greening and becoming inedible. The University of California at Davis has a simple guide on where to store what (usfoodsafety.ucdavis.edu/files/26301.pdf).
Finally, after you’ve bought or picked fruits and vegetables, use the ones first that spoil most quickly. But don’t bruise or break their skins, such as pulling stems off, before ready to use as decay microorganisms will enter and begin their work. In the first one to three days, eat or use asparagus, ripe avocados, ripe bananas, broccoli, cherries, corn, green beans, mushrooms, mustard or similar greens, and strawberries.
Next, in days 3 to 5 from purchase, use cucumbers, eggplant, grapes, lettuce and similar greens, pineapple, and summer squash such as zucchini. By 5 to 7 days from purchase, plan to use many other crops such as bell and similar peppers, blueberries, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, leeks, oranges, parsley, peaches, pears, plums, spinach, tomatoes, and watermelon. Under proper conditions several crops will store and can be used much later after a week, including apples, beets, cabbage, carrots, celery, garlic, onions, potatoes, and winter squash.
In spite of your best efforts at purchase, storage, and use, you still may have some produce left. Rather than let it spoil or throw it out, have a “plan B”. Mine is to either freeze or can if room and time, or I have some recipes such as casseroles, soups or stews that can use up much leftover produce. I then freeze the finished product, what we don’t eat, making future meals quick and easy with a simple thawing and reheating.