Friday, August 10, 2012

Tricks for not Wasting Fresh Produce

Soooo, I was saying in my last post on food waste that I very seldom end up tossing fresh produce. Isn't pride one of the seven deadly sins? Yup, you guessed it, as soon as I opened my big boastful mouth, the universe sent me a cosmic smack down, and I ended up letting half a package of asparagus go bad! 


Oh the shame! But here's the rap. I broke the first rule of fresh produce which is:

Don't buy more than you can use in a week!

This goes against my nature, but it is an absolute truth - you simply cannot "stock up" on fresh produce.


If you're gonna go buy fresh produce, you should have a plan to use it within a few days to a week depending on what it is. I bought the asparagus on Thursday hoping that it would be OK until Monday when I had a nice dinner planned for CatMan (asparagus being the only vegetable that he actually likes.) I was wrong. Sigh.

Trick number two is quite similar, but plays more to the psychology of the deal:

Don't save it as a "special treat"

I'm not sure if this issue is unique to me and/or my upbringing, but when I was a kid vegetables came from a can and fresh fruit was mealy red "delicious" apples (which really aren't terribly delicious except for when they're fresh and in season) or dry oranges. Salads were iceberg lettuce with a few wedges of flavorless store bought tomatoes, and if you were really lucky you got a few slices of cucumbers on top. Fresh veggies were reserved for Christmas & Thanksgiving, and fruit like peaches, cherries and grapes were a very rare treat.


So when I became an adult and was suddenly allowed to buy as much fresh produce as I wanted, I really had to re-train myself. My instinct was to treat it as something very special, which, to me meant that it should be saved and not squandered all at once. Unfortunately this strategy completely backfires when it comes to fresh produce. So this is one area in life where I've decided that it's OK to be as greedy as I want. Dive in and enjoy folks, because otherwise it just ends up going to waste!



OK... so these next tricks also have a bit of a psychological twist. I don't know about y'all, but for me there is a massive psychological difference between "food" and "ingredients." When I look in the fridge and see something ready to eat, my reaction is something like: "Yes! I've got food!"

If, on the other hand, I look in there and see a bunch of veggies in their whole state, I tend to think: " Oh no... Work."


Soooo... these next two tricks involve getting the produce from the "ingredient" stage to the "food" stage as quickly and efficiently as possible.


Use things in whole units. 

I used to have a veggie drawer full of half used cucumbers & peppers etc. I'd pull them out when making a salad, chop off what I needed, wrap the rest in a plastic bag and often it would turn into mush before I got around to using up the rest of it. I actually stumbled upon a better way not out of a desire to waste less, but because I was trying to stop using plastic bags in my kitchen.


I discovered that if you just chop up the whole cucumber, or pepper, or whatever, you can store it in an airtight container for 3-4 days. Mine generally don't last that long because when I look in the fridge and see veggies that are already chopped and ready to use, it's really easy to just toss together a salad, or eat them as snacks, and I generally gobble them up in a day or two. I seriously don't think I've wasted any salad veggies since I started using this method. The only thing it doesn't work well with is tomatoes, so I generally just eat up the whole thing once I cut into it.

This method also works well with fruit, especially stuff like melons that are hard to eat all at once.



Make something from it quickly.

I used to buy a lot of produce with good intentions, and then it would go bad because I never got around to using it. But I find that if I just go ahead and prepare something from it... even if I don't have a specific meal in mind - it generally gets used up pretty quickly.

So, I'll often buy broccoli, cauliflower, or whatever and just steam it or roast it and stick it back in the fridge.  I find that I am MUCH more likely to eat it up if it's already prepared and all I have to do is warm it up and toss some onto my plate. It's sort of like having half of the meal already prepared, and all I have to do is add some source of protein to the plate and I've got dinner.


This also works with salads. Instead of letting a head of cabbage linger, I'll chop it up and make a big bowl of coleslaw. Even leafy things like spinach will get eaten quickly if I've already tossed them in a big salad. Day-old salad might not seem terribly appetizing, but it's great when piled on a sandwich or stuffed in a wrap. If I have a ton of peppers, I chop them up, add some corn & beans and make a southwestern salad. You can get creative with this sort of thing, and it works with fruit too. A big bowl if fruit salad will get eaten in no time around here! I find that if I get creative with my definition of "salad" it really helps.



And the final two tricks are meant to deal with the inevitable, when all else fails:

If it's getting near it's end, make soup or compote. 

Sometimes even with all of my other strategies, fruit and veggies will get past their prime in my fridge. When this happens, I generally try to make them into something cooked where you won't notice that it's gone a bit soft. Soup is a great option for veggies. I'll often just chop them up, cook them in some chicken stock and blend it all together with my handy dandy immersion blender and viola, cream of whatever soup!


And for fruits, I usually chop them up & toss them in the microwave for a minute or two with a bit of cinnamon or nutmeg to make a nice fruit compote. You can add some brandy if you want to get fancy, and top it off with a dollop of yogurt or whipped cream for a nice dessert.

And finally:

If you don't have time to deal with it, freeze it.


Sometimes, even with all of the above mentioned strategies, I end up just having too much stuff to eat. When this is the case, I just chop it up and stick it in the freezer. This works with just about everything except for salad veggies. It's sometimes not exactly ideal because you lose the "freshness" of it, but it's a much better option than letting it go bad.



So that's it! Those are my strategies, and the vast majority of the time (last week's asparagus notwithstanding) I'm able to avoid wasting fresh produce!

So how about you? What are your strategies when it comes to fresh produce?

22 comments :

  1. OMG! Someone who sees the same thing when opening the fridge. I often have people ask me how I can be a vegetarian when I rarely eat veggies. And it's because of that whole "food" v. "ingredient" thing. I've definitely found cutting all of something up works great. Mainly, I just resort to frozen veggies because I tend to waste WAY less and eat more veggies that way lol!

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    1. Ha! Perhaps this entire post could have been written this way: How to avoid wasting fresh produce... buy frozen!

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  2. Lots of good tips. The main key here is the cut it up and have it ready. No one else in this family likes veggies or fruits well enough to cut them up on their own, but will eat them if they are ready.

    Also, a friend gave me some of those veggie saving bags, and they work well. Stuff seems to last a long longer and I just wash the bags and use them again. I've had the same set for a couple of years now.

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    1. Hmmm... I'm curious about your vaggie bags. I had some veggie bags once. They were basically like ziplock bags but with tiny little holes in them. They didn't seem to help me much, but I think my problem may be psychological. If it's in a bag in the veggie drawer it sorta gets lost in the land of out of sight out of mind!

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  3. We juice a lot of veggies, so our problem is keeping produce around. Looking wilty? Throw it in the juice! What is this? Throw it in the juice! Do you remember buying this? Throw it in the juice!

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    1. Ha! Now there's something I hadn't thought of. Somehow the idea of broccoli juice sorta turns my stomach. Not sure why, since I find broccoli itself to be delicious.

      It could get kinda dangerous though... Animal, vegetable or mineral? Throw it in the juice? :-)

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  4. Exactly! After 21 years of preparing meals for my family, I am tired of preparing meals. I want something I can just grab and eat. No prep work, no clean up.

    My home growing up was similar to yours. My grandparents bought most veggies frozen, and I still enjoy frozen veggies, they never really bought much in cans so I can't stand the taste of canned vegetables. Our fruits were normally red delicious apples (which I can't stand), bananas and oranges. Summer we did have raspberries and rhubarb in the garden and stopped at local stands to pick up peaches and strawberries. But that was pretty much it. Our salads were even blander than yours, iceberg lettuce with dressing. I don't even eat iceberg now and fill my salads with anything imaginable from nuts and seeds to fruits along with a variety of veggies.

    Raising two boys and feeding their friends/girlfriends on a regular basis I bought plenty of produce. We never had any rotting fruit or veggies at the end of the week, the problem was trying to get it to last the entire week. I went so far as to divide up all the produce and assign separate shelves in the fridge for each person just to stop hearing that one boy ate more of the peaches, or the other one ate all the bananas. I even got a little for myself this way. You would be surprised by how many teens are excited to see a fridge full of fruits and veggies instead of takeout and junk foods that were too frequent in their homes.

    Then I ended up on my own, and had the hardest time trying to figure out how to shop for produce. I kept buying too much so I would hurry and freeze or dehydrate what was wilting and buy more fresh only to do it again the next week.

    The hardest part was wanting some variety, yet trying to figure out how much I would eat of all the different foods.
    The farmer's market has helped me, I can select one or two of something that is normally prepackaged in the stores.

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    1. Wow... those salads do sound remarkable bland! I fear at the moment I may have broken rule number one again. Shopping for produce at Costco can be downright dangerous! But I just couldn't help myself since my garden has been so pitiful this year. I actually had green beans and tomatoes with my eggs at breakfast today, then an enormous salad for lunch, then pasta primavera with broccoli, squash, peppers, onions and mushrooms with a side of more green beans for dinner. And I'm kinda afraid to mention the enormous 4 pound bin of cherries. But, they're cherries! I sorta doubt I'll have any trouble downing them!

      Repeat after me... DON'T go to Costco when you are craving produce!!

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  5. I too find making a coleslaw really conveniant. It keeps for a couple of days and I can put all sorts in if I have to while the basics (cabbage & Carrot with maybe some onion) are all pretty frugal. Freezing is something I too fall back on. Even my home grown produce usually has to be frozen as leaving it unharvested means it will get eaten by something or other. Any ideas of other ways to preserve broccoli (other than freezing which uses power and if there is a dreaded outage.....) much appreciated?

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    1. Hmmmm... I dunno. Broccoli isn't usually a problem for me since I've had terrible luck growing it. But I think it's one of those things that keeps pretty well. Anybody else out there have ideas for preserving broccoli? Kim chi maybe? Although to be honest, fermented vegetables sorta frighten me.

      I fear I've gotten pretty attached to my big chest freezer in a very short order. This is not necessarily a good thing. That sucker is FULL! Usually if we get a power outage it's in the winter during a big blizzard when there's no shortage of ice. So hopefully I won't end up paying for this in the long run...

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    2. Take some comfort in the fact that the fuller the freezer is the longer it will stay cold.

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  6. Great suggestions! I don't think of produce as a treat (hey, I'm Asian! I grew up on mounds of leafy greens!), but I do suffer from laziness when it comes to cutting it up and cooking with it. I also do better when I make big batches of stuff using all of the veg instead of, say, half a crown of cauliflower. If I have leftovers, they're more likely to get eaten than I am to find a different recipe using cauliflower and make it within the time it stays fresh.

    That reminds me...big bag of pre-cut kale in my fridge. I think I'll try making Ethiopian greens with it again. I'm going to teach myself to like kale, or else.

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    1. I am impressed with your kale perseverance!

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  7. I only buy a 3 or 4 day supply of the highly perishable produce, and plan for using it up. Any other produce is of the longer keeping varieties.

    I do buy a fair amount of frozen veggies. They're easy and keep in the freezer for many months.

    Plus we have a garden for seasonal fresh produce. Something about going out to the garden to check on things, that will make my mind begin to plan a meal with the garden produce that will be ready soon.

    And, like you, if I cut into a green pepper with the intention of only using half, I go ahead and chop the other half. Having the prep work already done for that pepper will make cooking with it seem that much easier. And if I do have to toss it in the freezer, the prep has been done for that too.

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    1. I think that's a great strategy... buy enough fresh produce for a few days and keep frozen on hand for the rest of the time!

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  8. I don't have any produce strategies, I'm stealing yours! Thanks for the great advice.

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  9. I don't have any produce strategies, I'm stealing yours! Thanks for the great advice.

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    1. Just remember.... my advice is free, and you generally get what you pay for!

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  10. I buy more frozen than fresh veggies. Fresh fruit we eat no problem, love the stuff. When (green) salad fixings go bad I feed them to the wild rabbits outside. This is very illogical on my part because I hate the rabbits for eating my plants, so I should not be encouraging them to stick around.

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    1. Ha! I do the same thing with the squirrels... well, I don't generally give them fresh produce, but I'll give them bread heels that CatMan won't eat, or anything that's gone stale. Part of me thinks if I keep them well fed they'll leave my garden alone, but I fear this may be folly!

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  11. I didn't realize until I read your post that I also buy and save certain kinds of produce for a special treat. Like you, if I planned a deluxe omelet with asparagus, and for some reason it didn't get made that day, I would be mentally saving the asparagus for some other "special" use.

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    1. It goes so contrary to all of our other frugal mindsets, doesn't it? And I've gotta say, I get REALLY grumpy when I end up letting something as yummy as asparagus go to waste! It's sort of taken me a while to pound the notion into my head that where fresh produce is concerned, gluttony is good!

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