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5 Tips for Keeping Vegetables Fresh

Are you seduced by fresh vegetables in the grocery store, only to have them rot at home? See more pictures of vegetables.
Noel Hendrickson/Digital Vision/Getty Images

When times are tough, it's important to consider how we're spending our money. Dining out is often one of the first sacrifices we'll make for our personal budget, opting to eat meals at home instead. Off we'll go to the grocery store, planning out meals that will be just as delicious as those made at our neighborhood bistro, but much, much cheaper.

However, the sacrifice goes for naught when we consider how much food we throw away. According to a 2002 study, families living in the United States throw out an average of 470 pounds (213 kilograms) of food each year, a fourth of which was made up of fresh produce [source: Levitt]. When food rots before we can eat it, we're not helping our budgetary bottom line. This article has five tips for keeping those vegetables fresh enough for your dinner menu.

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A good example of why you shouldn’t buy too much produce at once
A good example of why you shouldn’t buy too much produce at once
Ulrik Tofte/Lifesize/Getty Images

The easiest way to keep vegetables from spoiling is to purchase only what you'll use over the course of a few days. While it may be easier to do a week's worth of shopping on a Sunday afternoon, you may have some inedible produce by the end of the week. To ensure that your home always has the freshest vegetables, shop every few days for them.

When you do buy lots of vegetables, be strategic in your shopping, transporting and eating. Though many grocery stores have you wander through the produce section first, save this department for last so that your broccoli and lettuce don't wilt while you decide what breakfast cereal you'll be eating this week. It's best to go straight home after you buy vegetables so that you can store them, but if you must run lots of errands, consider bringing a cooler where you can stash your new goodies. Lastly, when you're planning your weekly menus, eat the foods that spoil quickly first. Fast-spoiling vegetables include asparagus, broccoli, corn and mushrooms, while beets, carrots and onions last much longer. Vegetables like cucumbers, zucchini, peppers and spinach should fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.

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Compatibility is a term we hear thrown around a lot in the context of dating: How compatible are two possible romantic partners? But it turns out that some fruits and vegetables are so incompatible that they wouldn't even want to hang out if they were the last pieces of produce on Earth. They wouldn't be paired by an online dating service, and they certainly shouldn't keep close quarters in your refrigerator.

Vegetables can be incompatible with other produce because of ethylene gas, which causes ripening. Fruits give off this gas, while vegetables are extremely sensitive to it. By putting all your produce together, you may be speeding up the demise of the sensitive vegetables. In the immortal words of the Offspring, "you gotta keep 'em separated."

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Here are some ethylene-producing fruits:

  • Apricots
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupe
  • Nectarines
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Tomatoes

And here are a few ethylene-sensitive veggies:

  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Green beans
  • Lettuce
  • Peppers
  • Squash

It looks like a yummy dinner could be made with the contents of those crisper drawers!
It looks like a yummy dinner could be made with the contents of those crisper drawers!
© iStockphoto.com/esemelwe

If you're a fan of classic cinema, you know that some like it hot. Vegetables, however, like it cold. Putting vegetables in the refrigerator is akin to putting them in a coma because vegetables are living, breathing organisms. Let them breathe too fast, and they'll expire quickly. But cold temperatures slow down that breathing process, keeping them fresher for longer. Most refrigerators should be set between 36 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit (2.2 and 3.3 degrees Celsius) to keep food fresh but not frozen [source: McKeough]. If your refrigerator features a knob labeled with numbers or descriptions like "cold" and "very cold," you may want to invest in a refrigerator thermometer. While vegetables enjoy cooler temperatures, they don't like arctic blasts, so keep them away from the back wall of the refrigerator -- that's where the coldest air is funneled. The crisper drawer is always a safe bet.

If putting vegetables in the fridge is like putting them in a coma, wrapping them up tightly in a heavy plastic bag is like suffocating them to death, which you don't want to do. Vegetables need some air to stay fresh, so either poke a few holes in the bag or store the produce in the bag it came in. One notable exception: Mushrooms, which will go rotten faster in plastic bags and should be kept in paper ones. You'll speed up decay if you pick off the stems or the peel, because those actions cause cellular changes inside the vegetable. Excess moisture will also age your vegetable, so keep the vegetable whole and unwashed (or washed and completely dried) until you're ready to use it.

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On the next page, we'll consider which vegetables shouldn't go in the refrigerator.

Potatoes, onions, squash and garlic aren't meant for the refrigerator. Instead, they should be stored in cool, dark places, such as kitchen cabinets and pantries; an article in Mother Earth News even suggested putting squash under your bed if you're short on space. Be sure that potatoes in particular get lots of darkened slumber, as they turn green when exposed to light.

Root vegetables can last for months when stored properly, making them a wonderful fresh option when other vegetables are out of season. One option for storing these kinds of vegetables is to put them back underground in a root cellar. A root cellar should be kept just above freezing for best results -- a basement will work only if it doesn't also have a furnace or other heating device. If you don't want to invest in a full-fledged cellar, you could also bury boxes or barrels underground, or cover a shallow trench with a few layers of blankets or mulch [source: Cavagnaro].

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If you're putting in vegetables underground, be sure to rodent-proof the area, and remember that you don't want the vegetables to actually freeze. Freezing is an option, though, and we'll consider it on the next page.

You’re frozen now, vegetables, but you’ll be warm and ready to eat by dinnertime.
You’re frozen now, vegetables, but you’ll be warm and ready to eat by dinnertime.
© iStockphoto.com/DGM007

The field of cryonics is concerned with freezing humans in the hopes that one day, all ailments will be curable. While it's currently not possible for people, the principle can be applied to vegetables. By freezing fresh vegetables, you can save them for later without sacrificing any of the nutrients, texture or taste.

You can't just throw a bunch of vegetables in the freezer, though. First you must blanch them, which is key to retaining the nutrients and flavor. To blanch vegetables, boil a gallon (3.8 liters) of water per pound (454 grams) of vegetable [source: Magee]. Using a wire basket or cheesecloth, submerge the vegetables into the hot water for one to two minutes. Then, immediately put the vegetables in ice water for a minute before draining, drying and arranging the vegetables in a single layer on a tray. Put the tray in the freezer; once the vegetables are frozen, you can wrap them in plastic or put them in an airtight container. When you're ready to use them, you'll only need to cook them for about half as long as you would have otherwise. Vegetables that do particularly well in the freezer include asparagus, broccoli, peppers, spinach, sweet corn and squash, while vegetables that contain a lot of water, like cucumbers and lettuce, will do poorly in the extreme cold.

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Sources

  • Bender, Michele. "Avoid Premature Spoiling of Fruits and Vegetables." Real Simple. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/avoid-premature-spoiling-fruits-vegetables-10000000681591/index.html#
  • Bittman, Mark. "Freeze That Thought." New York Times. May 6, 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/06/dining/06mini.html
  • Breakstone, Stephanie. "Keep Produce Fresh Longer." Prevention. July 2009.
  • Cavagnaro, David. "How to Store Fresh Vegetables." Mother Earth News. December/January 2005.
  • Erdosh, George. "How to win the battle to keep your food fresh." Christian Science Monitor. Nov. 7, 2007.
  • Levitt, Shelley. "Spoiled Rotten." Vegetarian Times. April 2006.
  • Magee, Elaine. "Home Freezing and Food Preservation Ideas: Fruits and Veggies." WebMD. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/home-freezing-and-food-preservation-ideas-fruits-and-veggies
  • Martin, Andrew. "One Country's Table Scraps, Another Country's Meal." New York Times. May 18, 2008. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/weekinreview/18martin.html
  • McGee, Harold. "Harold McGee on Food Freshness, Emulsions, Cloudy Ice and more." New York Times. Aug. 11, 2008. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/11/harold-mcgee-on-food-freshness-emulsions-cloudy-ice-and-more/
  • McKeough, Tim. "Avoiding Frozen Lettuce." New York Times. March 19, 2009. (Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/garden/19fixx.html
  • Pleasant, Barbara. "Easy Ways to Preserve Fresh Food." Mother Earth News. July 2009.
  • Sullivan, Dan. "Freeze with Ease." Organic Gardening. September/October 2003.

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