By CAITLIN KOWNACKI
Food waste is a real problem in the United States. It is estimated that 30-40 percent of the food we grow is never eaten (USDA’s U.S. Food Waste Challenge). For many of us, it can be particularly tricky to use up all our fresh produce before it spoils and is an issue of not knowing how to properly store or prepare it more than anything else. Despite our best intentions of eating more fruits and veggies to improve our health, without the right storage produce spoils too fast and ends up in the trash.
So what can you do to get the recommended 4-5 cups of fruits and veggies without letting your produce go to waste? By knowing a little about where your food comes from and how to store it, you can get the most out of your produce before it goes bad while still enjoying fresh food during the winter months.
If you are buying fruits and veggies out of their normal season, or ones not typically grown in Illinois, pay attention to where the produce was grown. Fresh fruits and vegetables start to lose their nutrients once they are picked. That means the farther away your produce was harvested, the further it had to travel to get to you, the less nutrients it has, and the closer it is to the end of its usable life. Be sure to inspect all fruits and vegetables for signs of mold, bruises or cuts and don’t buy any that you might find. These items will spoil very quickly.
You should also know which fruits and veggies to store in the refrigerator, and which to keep on the counter. Some produce, like peaches, nectarines, avocado, bananas, tomatoes and watermelon are sensitive to cold temperatures and do not tolerate the refrigerator well (EatRight.org Home Food Safety). Fruits such as apples, cantaloupe, kiwi, prunes, honeydew and apricots should be kept in the fridge along with cauliflower, lettuce, cabbages, cucumber, broccoli and brussel sprouts. Potatoes, onions, winter squash and garlic should be stored in a cool, dry, dark place and can keep for up to a month, sometimes even longer.
Some fruits and vegetables give off a gas called Ethylene. This gas causes other fruits and veggies to ripen too fast. If you notice this is happening to your produce, check to make sure you haven’t placed gas-releasing produce near gas-sensitive produce. Produce that gives off high amounts of ethylene gas includes apples, apricots, cantaloupe, figs, honeydew, kiwi, plums, avocado, bananas (unripe), nectarines, peaches and tomatoes. On the other hand, if you need to ripen something quickly place it in paper bag with an already ripened banana. This will speed up the ripening process (EatRight.org Home Food Safety).
While it’s always a good idea to wash your produce before eating, washing it too far in advance can also cause it to spoil too quickly. And finally, make sure to set your fridge at the correct temperature (41 degrees Fahrenheit or below) to keep your food fresh as long as possible.
By following these simple tricks you can get the most out of your food purchases and increase the amount of fresh fruits and veggies you eat. There are many apps available to help you get the most out of your produce purchases. I recommend checking out the “Is My Food Safe?” app for a full list of the shelf life of foods. It’s a quick, easy reference to have on-hand and will help you and your family decrease your food waste. You can also check out EatRight.org for more information.
Caitlin Kownacki is an educator for University of Illinois Extension serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 217-353-0740 or firstname.lastname@example.org.