Healthy Choices with Liza Baker: Here comes summer produce

As I write this on June 1, we’ve dipped back into the 40s overnight: is this Spring’s last hurrah (again)? can we get on with summer already?

Summer has already appeared in the grocery stores: peaches, watermelons, berries—but it still has a way to go in Michigan, although local asparagus is showing up in some stores and markets that sell local produce, so there’s hope!

If you’ve been following my column for a while, you know that I’m a big fan of fresh produce. I encourage my clients to make at least 50% (if not 75%) of their plates vegetables at every meal (yes, including breakfast)!

The pandemic may have made fresh food more expensive and even—in some areas—inaccessible, and I’m hopeful that this is a temporary state of affairs.

Remember: if you’re having trouble getting fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen varieties are fine. In the worst-case scenario, canned fruits and veggies are still a good choice: just be sure to look for low- or no-sodium veggies and fruits packed in light syrup, and rinse both well before eating.

Eating minimally-processed (frozen) or more highly-processed (canned) produce is still better than switching to the highly-processed foods such as frozen prepared meals and what can be found in the center aisles of the grocery store.

Support local as much as possible!

Here in the Ann Arbor area, we are privileged to have small and medium-sized local farmers and businesses who are getting very creative with their business models, which include:

  1. Selling through year-round farm stops such as Argus, which has 2 locations in Ann Arbor, and Agricole in Chelsea: both businesses offer online ordering and curbside pickup if you’re hesitant to shop inside.
  2. White Lotus Farms, west of Ann Arbor, sells products from a variety of farmers either in an open-air, socially-distanced setting or through online ordering and curbside pickup.
  3. Arbor Farms: this local, independently-owned grocery store manages the payment side of things and hosts the pickup twice a week for an organic Amish farm in Homer. The deadline has passed for this year’s share, but keep it in mind for next year! I love being able to pick up my box, see what’s in it, and finish my shopping all in the same trip.

Storing your purchases

It’s a sad fact that a lot of the food we buy in America goes to waste (and much of the rest goes to waist?)

We often have very good intentions, buy a lot of produce … then throw it out because we just didn’t get to cooking it in time.

Have a system for storing and cooking fresh foods is vital—and unlike the advice in this article, it can look different for each household. Of course, the basic principles of storing fresh produce are pretty standard, but you may not have the time to obsessively label or process it all immediately in the way the author stipulates.

The good news? If you are buying local produce, it tends to last much longer than store-bought when properly stored!

What does proper produce storage look like? Here’s a peek into my kitchen along with some tips for yours—take what works for you, and leave the rest!

Some general principles

  • Most importantly, put the produce where you can see it—you’ll be much more likely to eat it that way!
    • Fruits stored in a bin in the fridge are less likely to get eaten than those displayed in a pretty bowl on the countertop.
    • Veggies stored toward the front of the fridge in clear bags or containers will remind you to eat them.
  • Make sure that you have a system for using up the oldest ingredients/foods first, whether you write a date on the container or just make a habit of putting newer items behind older ones in the pantry, the fridge, or the freezer. I had a restaurant management teacher who taught us there are 3 inventory systems: FIFO (first in, first out), LIFO (last in, first out), and FISH (first in … still here!) Obviously, FIFO is the way to go in the case of produce.
  • Plastic bags and containers are not my first choice for storage, partly because of the questionable safety of the plastic and partly because they contribute to the plastic overload in our landfills. Alternatives are pricy—and they last a long time.
    • Try to use glass containers whenever possible for storage.
    • Replace plastic wrap with beeswax coated cloth—Bee’s Wrap has great products, and I hear there are now vegan options for this as well.
    • Look into cloth, net, and silicone storage bags—Net Zero Company has a great variety of options. If you buy local and eat produce quickly, the cloth bags are a great option, even for leafy veggies—their downside is that you can’t see what’s in them. I’ve also sewn my own bags to save money, so if you’re handy that way, consider this option.

Countertop/Room temperature up to 80°F

  • Most fruit (including tomatoes)
  • Some summer vegetables if you buy locally and will eat them within 24 hours: eggplant, summer squash, peppers….
  • Try not to refrigerate tomatoes—ever. Either eat them, cook them down into sauce, or freeze them for cooking later.
  • All winter squashes (up to a week, otherwise store in cool, dark place—a pantry or basement room is ideal)
  • Garlic (up to 2 weeks, otherwise store in cool, dark place)
  • Unripe avocados, pears, and stone fruits (peaches, nectarines, cherries,…)
    • You can leave these loose if it’s relatively warm out and refrigerate as soon as they’re ripe (see below).
    • If it’s cool in the house, you can speed up ripening by placing them in a paper bag and closing it loosely—check the bag daily and refrigerate as soon as they’re ripe (see below).

In the fridge

  • Purchase a fridge thermometer and keep the temperature between 32°–40°
    • If you move your thermometer around inside the fridge, you’ll notice that the temperature can vary significantly from shelf to shelf.
    • In most refrigerators, the cool air comes from the top in back, often pumped up from the bottom, so the back of the shelves will be much colder—it’s important not to put the more fragile produce, such as leafy greens, in a place where they could freeze.
    • Don’t pack the fridge so much that air can’t circulate—it won’t properly cool your food if it can’t move around.
  • Berries
    • Store unwashed toward the front of the fridge on a middle shelf. Wash just before eating.
    • For raspberries and blackberries, turn the plastic container over so the berries are not sitting on that absorbent pad—this will keep them from growing mold so quickly.
    • Strawberries do best in a loosely covered paper bag or in a container with a dry paper towel tucked into the top.
    • Eat within 3 days if possible.
  • Ripened avocados, pears, and stone fruit
    • Store loose and unwashed toward the front of the fridge on a middle shelf. Wash just before eating.
  • Vegetables
    • If you have separate bins with different humidity levels, take advantage of this!
      • Higher humidity setting is for leafy greens, lettuces, fresh herbs.
      • Lower humidity setting is for non-leafy “sturdy” vegetables—carrots, celery, cucumber, peppers, onions, mushrooms.
    • Sturdy vegetables
      • Don’t wash until you’re ready to eat, cook, or cut them up.
      • Most of these veggies can be washed, peeled, and chopped up for use within a few days. Once chopped, store them in a tightly-sealed container with a damp paper towel between the veggies and the lid.
    • Leafy vegetables
      • These veggies can be left unwashed in a plastic bag until you’re ready to eat, cook, or cut them up.
      • Alternatively (and especially if you find them too troublesome to prepare regularly), you can separate the leaves, wash them well, and spin them very dry with a salad spinner.
      • Store washed greens in a tightly-sealed container with a dry paper towel inserted—if you don’t eat the greens within 3 days, you’ll need to replace the paper towel if it gets damp.

In the basement

  • If you have a cool, dark room in your basement, you can keep some vegetables there to free up space in the kitchen—just don’t forget about them!
  • Onions and garlic
    • Keep in a covered cardboard box that lets in air but not too much light.
    • Don’t store in the same box as potatoes.
    • Use within a week or two and before any shoots come out.
  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
    • Keep in a covered cardboard box that lets in air but not too much light.
    • Don’t store in the same box as onions.
    • Use within a week and before any sprouts or soft spots form.
  • Winter squash (butternut, kabocha, acorn, fiesta….) will keep in a cool, dark room for a long time—up to a month or more.

How is your produce storage looking now? I hope it helps you aim for that 50%–75% target….

Don’t worry too much about an “all or nothing” conversion right now. Take a few baby steps in the direction of buying a little more produce and a little less processed food than usual, and you’re on your way.

All in good time.

WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.