20 Produce Mistakes You Didn’t Know You Were Making
Perusing the produce aisle is a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon, but facing spoiled, contaminated, and limp fruits and veggies down the road is a major buzz kill. Here are the biggest mistakes you're making with produce—and the best ways to avoid them.
Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links. Ratings and prices are accurate and items are in stock as of time of publication.
Refrigerating all produce
Though it’s tempting to come home from the market and dump everything in the fridge—here’s the right way to organize it—some produce belongs on the countertop. Refrigeration can compromise the texture and flavor of certain fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes, for instance, don’t get a chance to ripen properly at low temperatures and can get mealy. Melons can lose antioxidants and other nutrients in the fridge, according to the USDA. Onions can get mushy and even develop mold when refrigerated. And that’s just for starters. While you’re at it, check out our BluApple review—it keeps produce fresh for weeks.
Always buying fruit underripe
Despite the common misconception, not all fruits continue to ripen once you get them home. Though it’s true that bananas, figs, and peaches come into their own a few days after harvest, strawberries, raspberries, and pineapples do not. The ones that continue to ripen are called climacteric; they continue to emit ethylene gas which helps the fruit to reach maturity. The non-ripeners are non-climacteric, meaning they just age without maturing. Reference this handy chart to see which produce to pick ripe and which to pick a bit prematurely.
Storing fruit in the same bowl
It may look pretty to arrange your apples, bananas, and grapes together, but a mixed fruit bowl will spoil faster. Some fruits (the climacterics) can actually cause others in close proximity to spoil faster, thanks to their ethylene. The fruits to keep in isolation include apples, bananas, kiwis, mangoes, and peaches.
Ignoring frozen produce
Believe it or not, frozen produce has the same nutritional value as fresh produce. Some frozen vegetables and fruits can actually be more nutritious than their fresh counterparts. “Frozen produce is a means of extending the harvest, as it’s frozen within hours of being picked and therefore will retain its nutritional content,” says Melissa Owens, RDN. “Frozen vegetables can be a great alternative to fresh produce, especially if it’s out of season and traveled a long way to get to your store.”
Always peeling veggies
Push that potato peeler to the back of the drawer, because fruit and vegetable skins and peels are packed with nutrients—often much more than the flesh alone. For instance, zucchini skin is rich in antioxidants; the peel (and seeds) are where a cucumber hides the majority of its nutrients. A potato’s potassium and folate are concentrated in the skin, and cooking potatoes with the skin on seems to retain their vitamin C.
“Vegetables with water-soluble vitamins are susceptible to nutrient losses when boiled,” says Owens, “as the vitamins can leach into cooking water.” That’s especially true for vitamin C, she explains. Owens suggests keeping cooking times as short as possible and trying to reuse the cooking water in a stock or soup or to make pasta or rice. Cooking methods like steaming and baking, which don’t require as much water, are more likely to keep more of the nutrients intact.
Cutting before washing
Considering pesticides and other chemicals that may be on produce—not to mention the dirt it grows from and the grime it accumulates en route to the market—it should be a no-brainer to wash fruits and veggies before cutting them. But this even applies to items with thick outer layers, like melons. Bacteria from a cantaloupe or honeydew rind can easily get picked up by your knife and transferred to the juicy flesh inside.
Storing washed fruit
“A good rule of thumb is to not wash any of your produce until you’re ready to eat it,” says Owens. Yes, fresh fruits and vegetables are probably carrying germs galore, but fruits should be stored in the fridge or on the countertop unwashed because excess moisture can encourage bacteria growth and decay ahead of its time—and this is especially true when it comes to berries. What’s worse than finding mold on those berries you purchased two days ago?
Discarding stems, leaves, and other “scraps”
That head full of leaves on your bunch of carrots is a goldmine of nutrition—so don’t toss or even compost it! Carrot tops have six times more vitamin C than the actual carrot, beet greens are packed with fiber and vitamins, celery leaves are a prime source of magnesium and calcium, and broccoli stems and leaves are just as nutritious as florets. Use these “throwaways” to make soup stock and smoothies—or they can be sauteed and seasoned, then enjoyed on their own.
Freezing raw veggies
Before vegetables make it into the frozen food aisle, they’re actually blanched—meaning they’re scalded in boiling water or steamed for a few minutes, then submerged in ice water to halt the cooking process in its tracks. If you want to prolong the life of your fresh vegetables by freezing them, it’s recommended that you blanch them first.
Storing vegetables in plastic bags
Although plastic bags are ubiquitous in the produce aisle, they’re actually the worst way to store your fruits and veggies. All produce needs room to breathe, so those little plastic bags are tantamount to suffocation. Instead, opt for reusable produce bags; at the very least, free your produce from plastic when you bring it home.
Buying produce out of season—or from out of town
“Produce that is grown out of season in regions not local to your area require longer transportation times that can take up to a week or more to arrive at your local grocery store,” says Owens. She explains that extended travel times can result in greater nutrient losses, not to mention the negative impact the transportation has on the environment and your wallet. Use this guide to find out when your favorite produce is in season.
Skipping a shopping list
Those juicy red peppers, enticing avocadoes, and layers of luscious leafy greens may all be calling your name, but be honest—will you be able to eat them before they spoil? “Food waste is a huge issue, with up to 45 percent of fruits and vegetables going to waste in the U.S.,” says Owens. “A lot of the time people have good intentions to eat the produce they buy, but things come up and food gets thrown out.” So only buy what you need—and if you buy extra, blanch it and freeze it.
Chopping before storing
Cutting up produce too far ahead of time is a no-no, says Owens. ” The longer the chopped produce is exposed to light and air, the more susceptible it is to nutrient losses.” If you’re big on meal prep, though, try storing chopped veggies in plastic containers lined with paper towels to wick away moisture that might make your food spoil faster.
Misusing your crisper drawer
Owens advises against cramming all your produce in the fridge. But when you do put it in there, be sure to use the crisper drawer. This drawer can control humidity and temperature, creating an optimal environment for prolonging the life of certain foods. Close the vents and the humidity goes up, which is ideal for leafy greens, asparagus, berries, broccoli, and beans. Low humidity (open vents) is optimal for ethylene-producing produce like avocados, tree fruits (apples, peaches, plums, etc.), and melons. (You can learn more with this guide.)
Buying all your produce at the grocery store
Many fruits and veggies—but not all—are simply riper and juicier at local farmer’s markets than at local grocery stores and supermarkets. Buying your tomatoes and summer squash in the same place you buy your cereal and meats may sound convenient, but opting for smaller markets is worth the extra effort.
Storing hot veggies in the fridge
If you cooked an abundance of farmer’s market fare and want to store leftovers for lunch tomorrow, wait until the veggies cool before placing them in plastic containers in the refrigerator. Hot food can actually become contaminated in the fridge, so wait for it to drop to room temperature first. That said, don’t let it sit at room temperature for more than two hours or contamination can kick in.
Cutting produce and meat on the same surface
Raw meats can contain harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, which can easily contaminate other, ready-to-eat foods. Chopping up fruits and veggies on the same cutting board as chicken and beef is an excellent way to give yourself food poisoning. Experts recommend using separate cutting boards for meat and produce, washing all cutting boards thoroughly, and tossing a cutting board when it has too many cuts and crevices that could trap live bacteria.
Passing up fruits and veggies with spots
Speckles or spots on produce doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rotten or even bruised. These blemishes are usually just cosmetic, and the fruits and veggies are perfectly safe to eat. Imperfect and “ugly” produce is just as nutritious as cosmetically perfect produce and can often be nabbed at a discount.
Never—or only—buying organic
Recent tests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found a total of 230 different pesticides among 70 percent of conventionally grown (read: non-organic) produce. Each year, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce so customers can figure out where to spend extra for organic and which fruits and veggies are safe to buy conventionally grown. The EWR divides produce into two categories: The Dirty Dozen, 12 foods that are high in pesticides and should be purchased organic, and The Clean Fifteen, 15 foods with relatively minor traces of pesticides.