You try to load up on fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet, but you routinely open the refrigerator only to find that your spinach has gone slimy, your berries moldy and your broccoli limp. What's going on?
If your produce often goes bad before you have a chance to enjoy it, here are some tips for how to store vegetables and fruits properly so that they stay fresh longer, and insight into why spoilage occurs in the first place.
The Key to Keeping Your Produce Fresh
The best way to preserve the quality of your fruits and veggies is to keep them cold and prevent water loss.
Crisper drawers provide a slightly humid environment that's sealed from drying, circulating air, which is why many fruits and vegetables — including broccoli, leafy greens, herbs, carrots, strawberries and peppers — tend to do well in there. The USDA also confirms that sealed crisper drawers provide an optimal storage environment for most produce.
One thing to keep in mind about crisper drawers, however: Many fruits such as apples, pears, melons and stone fruits contain ethylene, a chemical which helps them ripen but can promote over-ripening in other produce. Be sure to separate these ethylene-emitting fruits in a separate crisper drawer to prevent spoilage.
Both Marisa Moore, RDN, an Atlanta-based culinary dietitian and Nour Zibdeh, RDN, CLT, an integrative dietitian and digestive health nutritionist from Virginia, recommend storing produce in glass containers with a good seal, Mason jars or reusable silicone bags. Zibdeh also suggests lining containers with a piece of paper towel to absorb moisture.
Here are some additional storage tips for extending the lifespan of specific fresh fruits and vegetables that tend to spoil the fastest.
How to Store Berries
"Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries tend to go bad faster than most fruit because their moisture causes bacteria and mold to develop quickly," Zibdeh tells LIVESTRONG.com. That's why some people prefer not to wash berries until right before eating them. In fact, there's a natural waxy covering on their skin called "bloom" that keeps them fresh for longer.
If you do opt to wash them ahead of time, Zibdeh recommends rinsing the berries with a mixture of a half-cup of white vinegar and one-and-a-half cups of water, and letting them dry completely before storing them in a container lined with a paper towel.
How to Keep Lettuce Fresh
With leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach and other salad bases, the most important thing is to avoid or reduce moisture, Moore says. "If you rinse or soak your greens when you bring them home, run them through a salad spinner or otherwise thoroughly dry them to prolong storage life." Then, store them in the refrigerator's crisper.
How to Store Fresh Herbs
Moore recommends storing herbs wrapped in a cloth or paper towel, to wick moisture away and stay fresh longer. "I also like to put them in water (like flowers) to help keep them fresh."
How to Store Fresh Green Beans
"Store them in a resealable bag in the fridge, wrapped with a piece of paper towel," Zibdeh says, "or just throw a piece of paper towel in the bag you brought them in from the store."
And, of course, she recommends using all produce within two to four days of buying it for maximum taste, texture and to prevent mold or other bacteria from growing on it.
How to Store Potatoes, Onions, Garlic and Tomatoes
For the best quality, don't store these in your refrigerator. Choose a cool, dry spot to store them and eat them as soon as you can for optimal flavor.
Why Fruits and Vegetables Go Bad
"Like all plant matter, fruits and vegetables will degrade over time," Moore says. "In most cases, the process starts as soon as it's picked or pulled from the ground."
Here's why: Fruits and vegetables are made up mostly of water, and harvesting them removes them from their primary water source — meaning that they begin to lose moisture as part of their natural aging process. The more water they lose, the more dry, limp and mushy they become. And the one thing that causes our produce to lose moisture at an even more rapid rate? The dry, circulating air of a refrigerator. Suddenly, your limp broccoli is less of a mystery.
Inversely, too much moisture can cause microorganisms such as bacteria and mold to develop. As these microorganisms grow, they release enzymes that speed up the deterioration process. Lightbulb moment: That's why your berries get moldy!
Read more: 10 Vegetable Recipes That Taste Like Treats
How to Select the Freshest Fruits and Vegetables
Extending the life of your produce starts with selecting fruits and vegetables that are as fresh as possible. Moore recommends shopping at a farmers' market or accessing a community garden, if possible. "Getting produce straight from the source skips the time in transit and buys a few extra days of freshness for your fridge or table," she says.
If you're shopping at a supermarket, buying items that are locally grown — and, most importantly, using your senses — can be the best ways to choose produce with a long lifespan, according to Moore.
Look for produce that's plump and fresh-looking; avoid anything that's wilted, dry, wrinkled or showing other signs of aging, as well as anything with moisture or mold. "I'm also a big fan of buying fresh produce that's in season," Moore explains. "It's more abundant and may not need to travel as far."
Still Can't Use All Your Fruits and Veggies?
If you simply can't use up all your fresh produce before it goes bad, then consider using canned or frozen produce, which has a much longer lifespan and is equally nutritious.
"Frozen and canned produce is picked at the peak of ripeness and frozen or canned shortly thereafter," Moore says. "This helps minimize nutrient losses, allowing the produce to be stored and transported for miles and months to come." According to the USDA, you can freeze almost any food — and produce is an excellent candidate for this method of preservation.
Canned tomatoes and beans can be great for quick soups, stews and other meals straight from the pantry. Frozen berries are particularly handy when fresh ones are out of season. And frozen spinach or broccoli are perfect quick additions to pasta dishes and stir-fries.
Just be sure that any frozen or canned produce you buy doesn't have any added salt, sugar or sauce. It's easy to add your own seasonings during preparation — and then you can be sure you know exactly what you are eating.
After all, if you're going through all this trouble of preparing and eating nutritious fruits and vegetables, you owe it to yourself to make sure they are as healthy — and as fresh-tasting — as possible.