Maximizing Produce, Minimizing Waste

Smart buying strategies and proper storage can help you get the most nutritional bang for your buck.


Nobody intends to overbuy fresh produce, but we’re all familiar with the mystery bag of green mush at the bottom of the crisper drawer. Buying too much food, serving too much at meals, and improper storage are ways Americans waste food at home, to the tune of $2,200 per year, according to researchers at Tufts University.

Fresh is Not Always Best: Buying frozen fruits and vegetables is an excellent way to avoid produce waste while still getting nutritional quality that is at least as good as fresh. It is also a money saver when foods are not in season. Frozen berries, for example, can be used year-round in favorites like smoothies, parfaits, and oatmeal. Frozen is also ideal for whatever go-to vegetables you like to always have on hand. Choices like broccoli and green beans can be stand-alone sides or ingredients in soups and casseroles. It doesn’t hurt that most frozen produce is conveniently pre-cut. Some canned vegetables, like tomatoes, corn, and mushrooms, are also smart choices for stocking the pantry. They are nutritious (opt for the no-salt versions), have a long shelf-life, and are a time-saver.

Making the Most of Fresh Produce: The first rule of shopping for fresh produce is to plan a few recipes for the week. Before making a shopping list, take stock of what you already have in the refrigerator, then buy as close as possible to the amount you need. It’s generally better not to pre-wash produce until ready to use, as this removes any protective coating it may have. The moisture remaining on fruits and vegetables can cause them to mold and spoil prematurely. An exception to this rule is lettuce, which should be washed and dried before refrigerating the leaves in a plastic bag with a few dry paper towels to absorb excess moisture.

Proper storage of fresh produce maximizes flavor, preserves nutrients, minimizes waste, and saves cash. Storage choices have a big impact on how long produce stays fresh and can also affect taste and texture. Tomatoes, for example, can develop an unpleasant mealy texture when refrigerated. Pineapple, bananas, whole melons, peaches, plums, and pears are best kept on the counter—at room temperature and out of direct sunlight —until they ripen. Potatoes, onions, and garlic are ideally stored in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place, such as an uncrowded pantry shelf or a countertop out of direct sunlight.

All other produce should be kept in the fridge, preferably in crisper drawers to maintain moisture. The ideal refrigerator temperature is between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Avoid storing strawberries, grapes, cherries, and blueberries in unventilated bags or containers; they keep better when they can release moisture. Some vegetables, like asparagus and fresh herbs, do well wrapped in a moist paper towel or standing in a glass of water in the refrigerator.

Reduce Food Waste: Buying frozen (or canned) fruits and vegetables and limiting portions of fresh produce can help cut food waste. Freezing (or canning) fresh fruits and vegetables is a great way to preserve them. Utilize the freezer to keep extras for future meals and to save overripe produce and scraps for use in vegetable stocks, smoothies, and baked goods. Some foods, like berries, can be frozen as is. Others should be sliced (like bananas) or blanched (like green beans) before freezing. It’s practically impossible to avoid all spoilage. If produce does spoil, toss it into a compost bin.

Plan to make the most of your produce by purchasing the type—fresh, frozen, or canned—and amount that suit your needs, and be sure to utilize the best storage strategies to minimize food waste.

Storing Produce

Ripen These on the Counter, Then Refrigerate:

-Stone Fruits (peaches, apricots, plums)
-Tropical Fruits (pineapple, mango, papaya)

Do Not Refrigerate:
-Garlic, Onions
-Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes
-Tomatoes (for best taste/texture)
-Winter Squash


  1. I live in the Equatorial zone. Most potatoes, onions, squash do well outside the refrigerator as you suggest. Everything else ripens very fast and just as they start to ripen, we refrigerate. Waste is a big issue and your advice is appreciated.

  2. One concern not mentioned is that of packaging. It’s become my practice to buy unpackaged fruit and vegetables or only items in compostable containers, if at all possible—one reason I don’t buy much frozen food. I also clean and dry ziplock and similar bags, as my mother did before me, to store home-frozen extra veg, either from the garden or the store.
    Another good way to avoid waste is to sauté chopped onions and/or garlic/shallots, steam leftover veg in the microwave for a few minutes, drain and then cook with the onions as a vegetable dish or to put over rice or pasta. Using fesh herbs freely adds flavor and uses up the often fading herbs that so often are sold in large bunches.

  3. I met Mary (78) in a recent trip to South Carolina. She takes half of three fresh fruits and half is offered to her husband (82). After eating fruits as first meal, Both drink one large glass of water every day. Mary look young- and enjoy working.

    Challenge is how to make fruits and vegetables affordable and how to increase the consumption of gut microbiota friendly foods in the USA?
    USDA and Schools can help every one to use functional nutrition on five days. It will reduce the risk of chronic diseases by 30-50%.

  4. I totally understand using frozen vegetables. I do. Mostly spinach, cauliflower, corn, green beans. I have to say, tho, some frozen vegetables lack in taste and texture. But. If one wants to make soups etc, frozen vegetables work just fine. Broccoli is the exception. I never tasted a frozen broccoli that I liked.. Fruits are wonderful frozen. Carrots, not so much. It’s the texture and taste that get me. However, frozen greens are just fine. . .collards, turnips. . .It is not hard to get vegetables into every day meals. Aromatics are the key when cooking them.

  5. Can you elaborate on which vegetables are best well wrapped in damp paper towels and which in dry. In addition to herbs and asparagus, I always put a wet paper towel around the bottom of celery. I’m never sure how to best store scallions and peppers. I have learned that keeping fresh mushrooms in a paper bag in the refrigerator, but out of the crisper, is the most successful method of storage.


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