How to Properly Wash and Store Fresh Produce
Wondering how to properly wash and store fresh produce? Here are best practices for fruit and vegetable prep and storage, so they’re ready to eat and reach their optimal shelf-life.
Have you ever been guilty of haphazardly throwing fresh produce on the counter or in the fridge when you get home? I have! By following a few recommended best practices for fresh produce, you can increase their shelf-life, reduce waste, and get the most out of your purchases.
Why produce prep matters
Fresh fruits and veggies are among the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet. They’re chock full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Whole plant foods offer nothing but benefits for your family’s health, so they’re certainly not something you want to waste.
By following a few best practices for preparing, washing, and storing produce according to their unique needs, you can keep them fresh as long as possible.
How to choose fresh produce
The first step in optimizing the freshness of your produce is to know how to make the best choices when you’re at the store.
Here are some tips for choosing fresh produce:
- Give hand-held produce (e.g., avocados, tomatoes, apples, peaches) a light squeeze to check for any bruising or softness beneath the surface that could be a sign of rotting or quickly diminishing shelf-life.
- Check leafy greens for wilting or sliminess.
- Check celery, asparagus, leeks, and other stalky vegetables for firmness.
- Look at containers of berries or grapes from different angles for signs of visible mold, as this can quickly spread to others.
Of course, the grocery store isn’t the only place to find fresh produce. You can also practice your fruit and veggie assessments at farmer’s markets, CSAs, co-ops, or community gardens. And one of the nice things about these local options is that the produce didn’t travel nearly as far as much of the options found at the grocery store, lengthening their shelf-life from the start.
I’d also like to mention that high-quality produce can be found via delivery services. For instance, some companies have set out to save “unwanted” fruits and veggies that would otherwise be discarded by grocery stores for not meeting standards for size, shape, or coloring, but are still perfectly nutritious. Examples include Mifits Market and Imperfect Foods.
Now let’s talk about how to properly wash and store fresh produce.
Should I wash fruits and vegetables?
While it’s tempting to wash, cut, and store everything you buy right away, this can actually shorten the lifespan of certain produce. Plus, washing items too early can create a moist environment perfect for mold and bacterial growth.
The exception to this rule is leafy greens, which can last longer if you wash and dry them right away, and store them in the fridge. These can either be kept in air-tight bags with a paper towel or chopped and kept in a salad spinner, ready to pull out and eat.
And when you’re ready to wash, you don’t need to buy an expensive produce solution. In fact, some research shows that substances like commercial produce wash, vinegar, and lemon juice aren’t more effective than plain water and can actually leave debris on your produce. Using plain cold water and a little friction will do the trick in most cases.
That being said, if you’re concerned about removing chemical residues like pesticides, one study found that soaking and washing for 20 minutes in a 10% saltwater solution was most effective for cabbage. A weak solution of 1-ounce baking soda with 100 ounces of water (or 1-2 teaspoons in a large bowl of water), soaked for 12-15 minutes, has also shown to be effective for this purpose.
Tips for washing fruits and veggies:
- For firm produce (e.g. apples, potatoes, pears, squash), use a produce brush to help remove any unwanted substances from the outside.
- Wash produce, such as avocados, even if you don’t plan to eat the skin or peel. This is because germs on the exterior can be transferred to the edible portion when you slice them open or peel them with your fingers.
- For delicate produce (e.g., berries, mushrooms), rinse these under a gentle stream of cool water and use your fingers to remove grit. These may also be soaked in cold water for a few minutes to help remove dirt from crevasses, before draining and rinsing with clean water.
- After you’re done washing produce, dry them gently using a cloth or paper towel. For delicate produce, these can be rolled on a towel to help remove moisture.
How long can I store fresh produce?
Once your produce has been washed (or more likely, not!), it’s important to store it properly to prevent spoilage and maintain freshness.
Here are the general use-by timelines for various produce:
- 2-5 days: Cucumbers, tomatoes, berries, peaches, plums, mangos, ripe bananas, leafy greens that are often cooked (e.g., bok choy, spinach, kale, Swiss chard), and fresh herbs.
- 5-7 days: Cruciferous veggies, green beans, ears of corn, mushrooms, lettuce, cherries, oranges, grapes, pears, bell peppers, eggplant, summer squash, and small potatoes.
- 1-2 weeks: Butternut squash, apples, lemons, limes, large potatoes and other root vegetables.
There are also best practices for where exactly to store produce to enhance shelf-life.
- On the counter: Whole and un-cut citrus fruits, bananas, melons, pineapple, winter squash, potatoes, onions, and garlic.
- In the fridge: Basically all other produce, including cut-up versions of those listed above.
There is an exception to this rule – tomatoes. You may have heard that tomatoes shouldn’t be refrigerated but it actually depends on their ripeness. Over-ripe tomatoes will go bad quickly and should be refrigerated. Under-ripe tomatoes should be left on the counter to ripen, then refrigerated. Either way, they should be ideally served at room temperature. Darn fussy tomatoes :)
Some produce should also be stored separately from others. This is because some fruits and veggies produce a compound called ethylene, which can speed up the ripening of ethylene-sensitive plants.
- Ethylene-producing fruits and veggies: Bananas, peaches, pears, tomatoes, avocados, melons, mangos
- Produce sensitive to ethylene: Broccoli, carrots, leafy greens, potatoes, summer squash, apples, asparagus, green beans
Now for a few other storage tips.
If you’re noticing your leafy greens starting to get wilty, you can cut off the stem and store them upright in a jar of water in the fridge like a vase of flowers. This can sometimes bring back some life until you’re ready to eat them.
I love avocados, but they are a finicky beast. These guys can be left on the counter for 1-3 days to ripen, and then stored in the fridge. If they’re already soft when you buy them, it’s best to put them in the fridge right away to slow the process.
If you bought fruit with the intention of freezing it for things like smoothies, you can go ahead and wash, peel, chop, and store in sealed bags or airtight containers in the freezer. You can do this with ginger root as well.
So there you have it – best practices for how to properly wash and store fresh produce. By putting some of these into place as part of your grocery shopping routine, you can reduce waste, maintain freshness, and reap all of the nutritious benefits of what you purchased.
For more on the nutrition truths, benefits, and best uses for fresh produce, check out these posts:
- 5 Foods for a Plant-Based Pregnancy
- 3 Ways to Instantly Increase the Nutrient Density of Your Meals
- Is Fruit Fattening? The Truth About Sugar in Fruit
- Plant-Based Grocery Haul: 5 Ways to Restock Your Refrigerator
Weigh in: Do you follow any of these best practices for your own fruit and veggie prep? What are some ways you improve the shelf-life of fresh produce in your home?