We all do it: buy fresh fruits and veggies with the best of intentions to gobble them down, only to open the fridge a few days (or weeks) later to discover a rotten mess.
One tweetfest tapped into our pervasive shame over store-bought salad: "Almost left the grocery store without buying a bag of spring mix to throw, unopened, into the garbage in two weeks."
- "I thought I was the only one!"
- "I have one in the fridge. I'm afraid to make eye contact."
- "I have a friend who calls the veg drawers in her fridge, the rotters."
- "I find comfort in knowing this is a universal epidemic."
- "Good lord, there's so many of us! What percentage of store-bought spring mix is actually consumed? 8%?"
It doesn't have to be that way. You can learn to choose the freshest fruits and veggies, clean and store them properly and be assured at least a few more days of usable life.
Store bought spring mix and leafy greens
Let's start with our "universal" waste disgrace -- store-bought spring mix. First, check out the best-by or expiration date (it may help to pull from the bottom or back of the stack to get a date further in the future). Then before you buy, inspect. Are any wet or bruised leaves visible? If so, keep looking.
Once you've bought the freshest and driest salad you can find, you'll want to open it as soon as you get home and, with freshly washed hands, transfer the leaves into a large bowl. As you put those leaves back into the plastic container, remove any bruised or spoiled pieces and discard. Just as a bad apple will more quickly rot the barrel, those leaves will shorten the life of the rest of your salad greens.
Trouble keeping spinach fresh in those large, cheap containers? The same trick applies.
And if the greens say "pre-washed" there's no need to rewash them, according to Shuresh Ghimire, an extension vegetable specialist at UConn Extension at the University of Connecticut.
"The assumption is that the pre-washed salad is washed at a commercial washing facility with quality water following the FDA guidelines," Ghimire said.
Your sink, on the other hand, may be full of bacteria. In fact, it's one of the dirtiest places in your home. No wonder Uncle Sam has more faith in commercially pre-washed greens.
Greens by the bunch
If you buy lettuce by the head or greens by the bunch from the farmer's market or grow your own, they may contain sand or dirt as well as bacteria.
Before washing, trim the ends, discard outer leaves as well as any broken leaves. Breaks in the stem or leaves offer pathways for pathogens to enter the cells, therefore escaping a rinse or any antimicrobial you use.
Immersing the leaves in a bowl of tap water for a few minutes can loosen up any dirt. Again, don't use the dirty sink to soak.
But be careful with the water temperature -- and this applies to all vegetables and fruits -- it should be about the same temperature as the produce you are washing.
If immersed in water more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit colder than the produce, it will create a vacuum -- due to air cells contracting within the produce -- and pull in wash water, Ghimire said.
"If the wash water is contaminated, anything in that water, including foodborne pathogens, will be internalized or sucked into the produce," he explained, adding that it's likely to happen at the weak points of the stem and blossoms.
"Hot water is not desired as it would increase the temperature of the produce and decrease shelf-life," Ghimire said.
Studies show adding vinegar to the water before you soak leaves can reduce bacteria, but it also can leave an aftertaste and may affect the texture of the greens. Balsamic and white vinegar seemed to be the best at killing E. coli and other nasty bacterias. Try 50% vinegar and 50% fresh water.
If you choose a commercial produce cleaner, be sure it's labeled EPA certified.
After washing, spin the leaves in a salad spinner. If you're storing, pat dry with paper towels before putting them into perforated or vented plastic bags and putting them into the crisper section of your refrigerator.
"Using the crisper in your fridge can prolong the freshness of fruit and veggies," said nutritionist Lisa Drayer, an author and CNN health and nutrition contributor.
"I rinse and dry lettuce leaves or raw veggies, such as celery, broccoli, and cauliflower, wrap them in paper towels, and store them in plastic bags or in plastic containers lined with paper towels," Drayer added.
And don't forget to wash your salad spinner after about three uses -- if it will fit into the dishwasher, that's a great option to sanitize it.
"Select veggies in season for maximum freshness, flavor, and nutritional value," said Drayer. And they cost less when in season, an extra bonus.
To find out what veggies (and fruits) are in season, use this handy guide from the US Department of Agriculture.
"Firmness, shape, color, texture of skin, and aroma are keys to selecting the freshest produce," Ghimire said. "For example, a fresh broccoli would be firm, closed, dark-green florets, and tender stalks. Yellowing green-colored heads of broccoli are over mature."
Once they are home, you'll want to take them out of the plastic bags if the bags aren't breathable or perforated.
"Produce are alive even after harvest and they continue to breath and transpire even on your counter top," Ghimire said.
Brush off any loose dirt before storing.
Storing veggies depends on the type. Many do fine in vented plastic bags or plastic containers. Others may fare better in brown paper bags.
"As brown paper bags absorb moisture and are breathable, they would better work for produce like mushrooms and strawberries that have a short shelf-life," Ghimire said.
Potatoes and onions are also good choices for paper bags, Ghimire said. Because brown paper restricts the ability of light to penetrate, onions and potatoes won't turn as green as they would in clear plastic bags; it also reduces the chance of "hollow heart" in potatoes -- the black center you sometimes see which is caused by a lack of oxygen.
Corn should be eaten immediately, but if it's still in the husk, it might last in the fridge one to two days, according to the University of Maine's Cooperative Extension. Asparagus degrades quickly after it's picked. When you get home, wrap a moist paper towel around the ends, then place in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator.
Some vegetables need to be kept out of the 40-degree Fahrenheit refrigerator to stay fresh and tasty. You probably know that tomatoes should be stored on the countertop.
But did you know the same is true for basil, cucumbers, eggplants, onions, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, squash and sweet potatoes?
Cucumbers, for example, "may develop chilling injury if stored below 50 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two or three days," Ghimire said. "Produce kept outside the fridge should be stored in a cool, dry and well ventilated space."
Wash before eating, of course, by using a vegetable brush on hard varieties like potatoes and carrots before peeling; more sensitive veggies can be rubbed briskly between your hands under running water.
Again, selecting fruits that are in season will allow you to buy them at the height of their freshness, flavor, and nutritional value.
"Fruits that still have their stems or leaf, such as in an apple, pear, and clementine, will be fresh longer," said registered dietitian Rahaf Al Bochi, owner of Olive Tree Nutrition and a media spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"Look for fruits that are firm, don't have soft brown spots or bruises, and are not overly ripe," Al Bochi said, adding that they should not have an odor.
Pears, peaches, plums and other soft fruits should be washed under slightly cool running water and dried with a paper towel before storing or eating.
"You should also wash the peels of bananas, oranges, avocados, and grapefruit with cool tap water as bacteria can transfer from the peel to the edible flesh," Drayer said.
Melons, especially the type that have rough, pocked surfaces such as cantaloupes, should be washed with a vegetable brush under running water and patted dry before storing or eating. Why? Bacteria and other microorganisms can hide in those pits and be transferred to the inside flesh while cutting, or to other veggies and fruits while storing.
The exception to the rule are grapes, cherries and berries.
"Berries should be washed just prior to eating because the moisture can cause them to spoil earlier," Drayer said.
And here's a wrinkle: Some veggies and fruits don't play nicely together. That's because some release ethylene gas as they ripen, which can hurt some other produce.
"For example, apples, avocados, unripe bananas, peaches, nectarines, plums and tomatoes release ethylene gas -- and should not be stored with ethylene-sensitive produce, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, ripe bananas, lettuce, peppers, cucumber, eggplant, carrots, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes, as this can speed the decay of the sensitive produce," Dryer said.
Look for bright green foliage that isn't wilted. Once home, rinse them under cool water and then lay on paper towels in a single layer to dry. Some suggest using a salad spinner -- but gently.
Storage will depend on whether the herb has a soft or woody stem.
Soft herbs: Treat soft herbs like tarragon, parsley, cilantro, dill and mint like they are fresh flowers. Cut a half-inch off the ends and put the ends down in a jar of water. Cover the jar loosely with a plastic wrap and store in the fridge, changing the water every few days.
Do the same with basil, but store it uncovered on the counter where it can get a bit of light.
Woody herbs: Wrap herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, and chives in wet paper towels and store them in an air-tight container or sealed plastic bag to keep the oxygen out.
There's one more tip you need to be a star at getting the most out of your produce dollar: Plan your menus for the week in advance.
“Having a general plan of the meals you plan on cooking for the week will help you know what fruits and veggies to buy at the grocery store and help you use up your produce efficiently,” Al Bochi said. “You’ll reduce food waste and ultimately save money.”