Best Ways to Store Your Vegetables and Waste Less

How to store vegetables to keep them fresh longer

We’ve been talking a lot about food waste lately, which costs Canadian households an average of $1,500 each year.   We’ve also discussed ways to reduce food waste, particularly from produce.

Do you know that one thing that can significantly impact the shelf life of vegetables is how you store them?   Keeping your vegetables fresh for longer can save you money, as you will be throwing less of them away.

Follow these tips when putting your vegetables away and you may be pleasantly surprised by how long they will last, so that you can eat them, instead of feeding them to the compost or garbage.

 

Get to Know Your Refrigerator

Cold air is heavier than warmer air, and sinks. This means the bottom of the fridge is the coldest area.  The bottom shelf is a great place for things that really need to stay cold, like meat and dairy.  It’s not a good spot for delicate items like berries and lettuce.

The warmest part of the fridge is the door area, as it is quickly exposed to room temperature air every time someone opens the fridge. Given that, although many fridges have a compartment for eggs in the door, that is not a good place to store them.  They should be kept on a shelf in the main part of the fridge.

An important thing to understand is the humidity settings on your crisper drawers. Crisper drawers usually have a small lever that regulates the openings of the vents at the top of the drawer.

  • High humidity: A more humid environment is great for vegetables that wilt like lettuce, spinach, and celery. Use the lever to close the vents. In many fridges, there will be an image of vegetables, or “more humid” symbols for that setting.
  • Low humidity: Some fruit, such as apples and bananas, give off ethylene gas, which speeds up the ripening process. If those are left in a drawer with closed vents, the contents will ripen so quickly that the contents of the drawer may rot. It is desirable to have open vents for fruits and vegetables that rot rather than wilt. The drawer will often have a fruit or “less humid” symbol for that setting.

 

How to Store Vegetables

Anything that has an elastic or tie wrap

Fresh vegetables

Many herbs and vegetables, from green onions to cilantro to carrots, have some type of tie wrap or elastic around them. When you get these items home, remove the wraps and elastics.  While convenient for keeping bunches together, those wraps place extra pressure on delicate parts and cause bruising to leaves and stems.  This bruised spot is often the first place a vegetable or herb will start to turn slimy or rot.  Getting rid of wraps and elastics takes only a few moments, but can add days to the life of the item.

 

Mixed salad greens

Mixed salad greens from the farmer’s market or in a CSA box often come in zip closure bags. There is often a lot of moisture in the bag, especially if the greens are washed. Remove the greens from the plastic bag and use a clean tea towel to pat dry as much as possible.  The excess water is your enemy here, as it will cause the greens to wilt and rot quickly.

I get the best results by placing the greens in a clamshell container (the kind mixed greens come in at the grocery store). I line the bottom of the clamshell with paper towel, add some greens, place another paper towel layer in the middle and add the rest of the greens.  One more paper towel goes on the top.  The paper towel will absorb some of the excess water.  The closed container can be placed in the open shelf section of the fridge.  Replace the paper towels after a few days if you still have greens.

If you don’t have clamshells, the method I have found with the second best result is to use a large size zip top bag with short slits cut into the bottom and sides of the bag. The slits let excess moisture escape.  Place a paper towel layer between the greens and the bag, again, to absorb water, and place the bag paper towel side down in the fridge.

 

Head lettuce and cooking greens

Swiss Chard

Head lettuces and cooking greens such as kale, chard and beet greens should also be protected from excess moisture. Choose a plastic bag that is large enough to cover the greens, all the way to the tip. I like to use thin plastic produce bags.  If the ends of the bunch of greens are exposed directly to the cold air in the fridge, they tend to wilt, so cover them well.   Place a layer of paper towel between the greens and the bag to absorb excess moisture.  Place the paper towel side down.  Replace with fresh paper towel after a few days.

If you can fit the head lettuce in the crisper drawer, do so. The cooking greens are usually too long to fit my crisper drawers, so they go in the main part of the fridge.  Try to avoid the bottom shelf if you can, as the bottom is the coldest part of the fridge.

 

Spinach

How to store spinach

The best way to store your spinach depends on the form of spinach you have.

If your spinach comes in a bunch, treat it like a bouquet of flowers. Wash and pat dry your spinach.  If it has roots, keep them.  Add about an inch of water to a jar.  Place the spinach in the jar, with the roots or bottom of the stems in the water, and the leaves above the jar.  Place a bag loosely over the top of the spinach, and place on shelf in fridge.  This will create an environment with enough moisture to keep the spinach fresh, while also keeping the leaves dry enough to not turn slimy.

If your spinach is loose spinach, store in the same way you would mixed salad greens, with a paper towel in a plastic clamshell container or in a vented plastic bag.

 

Vegetables with greens still attached

Radishes with greens still attached

Root vegetables from the farmer’s market, and sometimes those from the grocery store, often have the greens still attached. Consider these to be a bonus, as most vegetable greens are edible, so you have a 2-in-1 deal here.

To keep your vegetables as great tasting as possible, remove the greens when you first bring them home, before they even go in the fridge. The green tops continue to draw moisture and sugars from the root vegetable, so if left on, you won’t get maximum flavour.

Break the greens off, remove any tie wrap, and store the greens in a plastic bag, like other cooking greens. Better yet, prepare the greens on the same day.  The greens from radishes, carrots, and beets are all edible, but they are highly perishable.  They should be eaten within two days.

 

Cilantro and other delicate herbs

How to store cilantro to keep it fresh for weeks

Cilantro takes a bit of extra effort up front, but once done, you will have fresh, clean cilantro that should last several weeks in your fridge.

When you first get home, thoroughly wash and pat dry your cilantro. If the roots are still present, keep them.  They will help keep your cilantro fresh even longer.  Find a container that is tall enough to accommodate the cilantro if it is upright and that has a lid.  Add about 1” of water to container, place cilantro in container keeping the leaves above the water, and put lid on container.  Place the container in the fridge. Change the water every couple of days, and pick out any pieces of cilantro that are starting to yellow.  The cilantro should stay fresh for about three to four weeks.  The bonus?  It’s already washed, so when you need cilantro, take it out of the container and you are ready to go.

 

Asparagus

How to keep asparagus fresh

Use a tall container to keep asparagus upright. It does not need a lid.  Add about one inch of water to container.  Change water every day or two.  Your asparagus can remain fresh for almost a week this way, but you will probably want to eat it within the first few days.

 

Potatoes, onions and garlic

Best storage for each of these is similar, but they should not be stored together. Place them in a dark, cool, dry cupboard or a dark, cool spot in the basement if you have one.  They should not go in the fridge.  Do not store them in plastic bags.  Potatoes can be placed in a paper bag that has some ventilation, but avoid exposing them to light.  Light will cause potatoes to sprout and turn soft.  Onions and garlic can be loose in a cupboard that has reasonable air flow.  Keep them away for sources of heat like the oven or the dishwasher.  If they are in the same cupboard, store the onions and garlic on different shelves.

Avoid using closed plastic onion or garlic keepers. The lack of air flow and moisture that is created will cause the onions and garlic to sprout.

 

Tomatoes

tomatoes

Keep tomatoes in a bowl on the counter or the kitchen table unless your home is very hot. Note that storing them at room temperature means they will continue to ripen, so use them soon after buying.  Storing tomatoes in the cool refrigerator will cause them to become mealy.

 

Do you use any of these methods when storing your produce? Do you have other storage methods that work well?  Please share with us in the comments.

 

Get the Most Out of Your CSA Share: How to Waste Less Food and Save Money

Reducing Food Waste Means Saving Money Find Out How To Waste Less Food

Have you signed up for a vegetable community supported agriculture (CSA) share this year? Are you a bit worried about how you will eat through your share without wasting a lot of it?  As CSA season is just getting started, I thought it would be a great time to share some of the tips and tricks that help me keep produce waste to a minimum, which means saving money.

As I shared with you last week, food waste is significant in North American households. Several years ago, I realized my family was wasting a lot of food.  I decided we had to do better.  Then, three years ago, I signed up for a vegetable CSA share.  The CSA share meant that I would no longer be the one selecting our vegetables, or even the quantity of vegetables.  I was getting what was in season.  The farmer, and Mother Nature, was deciding for me.   At that point, I knew I really had to implement a strong strategy to minimize our food waste.

Reducing food waste is good for the planet, and good for the wallet.

Produce waste can be a problem, regardless of where you buy it (a CSA share, the grocery store or the farmer’s market). Having a CSA share can pose some particular challenges, as you don’t have control over what or how much you buy.  This strategy can help.

Make the most of your CSA vegetable share. Learn how to waste less food.

My first vegetable CSA box of the 2016 season.

When you pick up your vegetable share:

  • Ask about any unfamiliar items – The person giving you your share should be able to identify any new to you vegetables, and let you know the best way to prepare them.

 

  • Note what you can’t / won’t eat – There may be some items that your family doesn’t like or can’t eat. In this case, if you can’t leave it at your pickup location, make arrangements to donate the unwanted items to family, friends, or neighbours. They will likely be happy to receive these farm fresh offerings.

 

When you first get home with your vegetables:

  • Inventory what you have – Knowing what you have will help you meal plan for the week.

 

  • Post list on the fridge—You’ve taken inventory of what you have, now place the list in a prominent place where you will see it. I keep a whiteboard on my fridge. I list my vegetables on it as well as the meat in my freezer, and erase items as I use them up. This way, I can easily see what I have at all times. It has eliminated that moment of discovering an item that made its way to the back of the fridge only to be found weeks later. It also helps me decide what to make for dinner and I don’t even have to open the fridge or freezer door to hunt to see if I have a particular item.

 

  • Clean and put away – A bit of extra time spend at this stage can greatly extend the shelf life of your produce. Clean the excess dirt from root vegetables before putting them away. Dirt can harbour bacteria that will accelerate decomposition. Select the best storage method for each item. I shared some of these with you here.

 

Over the week/2 weeks between vegetable pickups:

  • Make a meal plan – A meal plan helps you map out how you will use all the fresh produce you have on hand that week. Try planning your meals around the vegetables. Yes, I said the vegetables. I know this may seem radical for North American meat centered meals, but this way, you actively think about using your vegetables, as opposed to having them be an afterthought. I find that by looking at my inventory of vegetables I see patterns of what I want to use together, and it helps to me plan my meals. For example, if I have broccoli, carrots and peppers, I might plan for a stir fry, while tomatoes, hot peppers and onions might mean some pasta sauce.

 

  • Eat the most perishable first – Some vegetables have a short shelf life. Eat those first. Making a meal plan can help you with this. I often use the most perishable item on the day I bring my vegetables home. On vegetable pickup day, I’m usually prepared for the possibility that I might need to grill highly perishable items like eggplant and summer squash, or I might make a salad with the various fresh greens.
    • Highly perishable, eat within a few days: eggplant, berries, corn as it turns starchy, tomatoes if very ripe, radish greens, summer squash, mixed salad greens, spinach, asparagus, peas, and surprisingly, broccoli
    • Moderately sturdy, eat within 5 to 6 days: cauliflower, head lettuce, cooking greens like kale and chard, peppers, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes if firm, rhubarb
    • Store well, eat at your leisure: onions, carrots, potatoes, beets, cabbage, radishes, leeks, kohlrabi, Brussel sprouts, winter squash

 

  • Eat the whole vegetable – This is one many of us can improve as we tend to discard many parts of the vegetable. In reality, many of those parts make good eating. Most green tops, for example, are edible. You can eat beet greens, radish tops and even carrot tops. But these are very perishable, so you want to do that within the first couple of days. Also, the skin on many veggies is edible. Think carrots, potatoes and even baby beets. When you get your vegetables fresh from a local farm, the skin on them in quite nice and delicate. No need to peel them. Just scrub well before preparing.

 

  • Freeze the extra – There may be items you are unable to eat that week. Before they spoil, freeze them. Many vegetables can be frozen, not just the obvious like beans, peas and corn.
    • Tomatoes: Yes, you can freeze tomatoes. Wash and dry the tomatoes, then place them whole in freezer bags. The texture will change due to freezing, but they are great to use in any way you would canned tomatoes – chili, tomato soup, pasta sauce. Think of how much you will enjoy using locally grown, vine-ripened tomatoes in the winter.
    • Onions: Onions are often much larger than what is needed for a recipe. Dice the entire onion, use what you need in the recipe, and freeze the rest in one cup portions. Like tomatoes, due to high water content, freezing will change the texture, so use them in dishes where they are cooked, like soups and sauces.

 

  • Google is your friend – Have a vegetable that you aren’t sure how to prepare? Don’t know what to do with that overabundance of cucumbers because you can only eat so many salads? Google. You will find something new.

 

Love Food Hate Waste

This strategy has helped my family to significantly reduce food waste. It has helped us win in many ways:

  • I feel better about wasting fewer resources;
  • My family is eating more vegetables on a daily basis;
  • We save money by planning our meals and eliminating the need to replace vegetables that have gone bad; and
  • I can happily say, my days of finding gross things in the fridge are over.

 

Do you have any tips for getting the most out of your CSA share? Please share in the comments.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)

Community Supported Agriculture

Are you familiar with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)?  Until recently, I was not.  I discovered it in early May by reading about it on blogs.  I kept seeing bloggers referring to their CSA box, which seemed to be a box of vegetables, but didn’t know what it meant. Now I do.

In a community supported agriculture program, a farmer will sell shares to interested individuals.  The share provides the individual with a box of fresh farm produce on a weekly basis, for a pre-determined period of time.  The individual purchases the share before the start of the production season.  This gives the farmer some cash flow to allow him to purchase what is needed to have a productive season.

The CSA model is quite interesting.  The farms that participate usually are mixed vegetable farms, although some also have fruit and some may have meat or eggs.  These farms are typically relatively small operations that may not have very large reserves of cash.

The individuals that purchase a share get a box of vegetables each week.  The individual doesn’t select her vegetables; she gets whatever is in the box.  The vegetables are fresh, as they are usually picked that day.  They are the vegetables that are in season.  In addition to having lots of fresh vegetables each week, participants don’t have to worry about going to the store to try to find good veggies.  There is a determined day and time to pick up one’s CSA box.  Like the farmer though, participants are subject to the whims of the weather.  Crops are never guaranteed.  Depending on the weather, some crops may be more successful than others.

Here in Ottawa, there are several farms that offer a CSA program.  As they are mixed vegetable farms, they are small farms in and around the city limits.  Some of them sell at farmers markets, some of them sell at their roadside stands.  Some are very small and run just by family members; others are a little larger and also have employees.  They are members of the local community.

I was very excited when I discovered that we have CSA programs here in Ottawa.  I was even more excited when I discovered that there was still time to sign up for one.

Why did I buy into a CSA program?

  1. Guaranteed access to fresh veggies. We eat a lot of vegetables, and this is one way to ensure that we have a steady supply of fresh vegetables that are in season.
  2. To get out of my comfort zone with vegetables. We eat a lot of veggies, but it tends to be the same handful of vegetables, over and over again. The CSA box will bring more diversity to our diet.
  3. To support a local farm. I believe that farms are essential to the health of a city. We need access to fresh farm produce. There needs to be land for farms. If farmers are supported and able to earn a living, maybe less agricultural land will be sold off and converted to residential properties.
  4. It supports the local economy. If the farm is supported, the farmer is not the only one who benefits. So does everyone the farmer employs.

There were several farms to choose from when trying to select my CSA program.  In the end, three factors helped choose which one I wanted.

  1. Pick-up location. Some farms offered pick-up locations that were convenient for me; some only had locations at the other end of town.
  2. Familiarity with the farm I chose. I have often purchased fruits and vegetables from the farm I chose at one of my local farmers markets. I was familiar with what they grow and have been happy with their produce.
  3. Option for bi-weekly box. This factor was the clincher I think. My farm offers a bi-weekly option, which means that I get a box every second week instead of each week. As there are only two of us here now, I was worried about being overwhelmed with produce if I went with a weekly option. I certainly don’t want food to be wasted.

I am excited about receiving CSA boxes, because it fits very well with my goals of (mostly) eating real foods that are prepared at home, not in a factory.  I want us to eat healthy foods so that we can feel and be healthy.  Fruits and vegetables play a large part in that.

There are some aspects of the CSA boxes that are a little intimidating to me.

  • Not being able to choose my vegetables is exciting and scary all at the same time. I am a picky eater. I don’t like all vegetables. Not by a long shot. I have promised myself that I will try them all.
  • I won’t know what’s in the box until I get it. Then I need to figure out what I will do with those vegetables. I need to do that while finding a way to not waste my veggies. This means I will challenge me to be creative in the kitchen. This one is a little scary and exciting too.

Okay, okay, enough with the background.  Now time to talk about my first CSA box.

I picked up my first CSA box a week and a half ago.  Here’s what was in it.

Communitye Supported Agriculture Box 1 Contents

I was surprised at the diversity in this first box (the second week of the program with my farm).  It is still very early in the growing season here in Canada.  I just planted my herb and vegetable garden two days before picking up the box.  I had forgotten that my farm uses greenhouses for parts of its crops.

So, what are all those things in the picture? Starting at the back left:

  • cooler bag – this is what I transfer my veggies into, as they are transported to the pickup location in plastic crates. I am to bring this bag with me each time I go pick up my box. Very practical.
  • 1 bag of spring mix (lettuces and herbs) – was expecting this one and quite happy, as I usually buy it from this farm
  • Spinach
  • Rhubarb (yay, I had bought some at farmers market the week before and I wanted more)
  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1 bunch dill (for this I had the choice of dill, sorel or arugula)
  • Cucumbers
  • Radishes (not excited about those – I don’t like radishes, and I discovered that Greg doesn’t either)
  • Beet greens
  • Tomatoes (I knew there would be tomatoes eventually, but was really not expecting them this soon. I can’t stand raw tomatoes. I’ve known from the beginning that tomatoes were going to be a challenge.)
  • asparagus

Getting the box is the easy part.  After that, I needed to do something with all those veggies.  When I buy vegetables my strategy is to use the most perishable ones first.  I applied that strategy with the contents of my CSA box.

Here are some of the results.

Roasted asparagus with parmesan

vegetables roasted garlic with parmesan

I used some dill in vinaigrettes.  Greg wanted me to make more of this orange maple vinaigrette, which was perfect as we had so many salad greens.  I still have some dill left, so need to come up with more uses for it.

Radish green soup. Did you know radish greens are edible?  When I saw those beautiful green tops, I wondered if they were, and Google provided the answer.  Yes, radish greens are edible.  So are carrot tops.  Who knew?  The soup was really good.

Radishes with their green tops

Radish Green Solup

Salad. Salad.  And more salad.  We (I) love salad, so it is a staple here.  The spring mix, spinach and cucumbers were very tasty.

Green salad made with ingredients from CSA box

Two different rhubarb crisps: strawberry rhubarb crisp and apple rhubarb crisp.  I’ve shared the recipes already here.

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp

 

Apple Rhubarb Crisp

Sautéed beet greens with pine nuts.  Based on what I have read, I was afraid the beet greens would be bitter.  They were not and this was a very side dish.

Sauteed beet greens with pine nuts

Roasted radishes with parmesan.  Meh, we didn’t really like these.  Greg and I both tried some of the smaller radishes raw, sliced in salad.  They were not as bad as we remember them.  We dislike radishes because they have such a strong, peppery flavour.  The raw ones in thin slices were okay in salad, but we did not enjoy the roasted ones.  I was surprised because usually roasting vegetables makes them better.

Vegetables roasted radishes with parmesan

Tomato pasta sauce.  While most people probably would have used the tomatoes in the many salads I made with the other ingredients, not I.  No way.  I knew I would have to cook them in some way.  I didn’t make my usual pasta sauce, but tried a new recipe that was supposed to be quick and easy.  I did live up to that, but I didn’t love the sauce.

tomato pastas sauceOverall, I think we did pretty well with this first CSA box. I definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone.  We haven’t had any waste so far. I did have to supplement it with some additional veggies from the grocery store.  Greg and I really do eat a lot of vegetables.