Simple and Eco-Friendly Solutions to Keeping Produce Fresh

Long live your lettuce.

Are wilted lettuce and slimy mushrooms spoiling your quest to eat healthier? Keeping fruits and vegetables fresh can be simple, inexpensive, and eco-friendly.

January is popular for beginning a healthy eating New Year’s resolution or recommitting to eating healthier. For many people, this means eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are beautiful, colorful, delicious, packed with nutrients, and perishable. It is as if each spinach leaf, potato, or apple contains an invisible hourglass counting down its freshness. If the sand runs out of the hourglass before you make the spinach into a salad, bake the potato, or bite into the apple it will spoil and you will not want to eat it. That previously lovely but now yucky produce item will end up in your trash, garbage disposal, or compost pail—along with your money.

Unlike a jar of marinara sauce that you can take out of your grocery shopping bag, put on a shelf in your pantry, and forget about until you want to make spaghetti, your fresh fruits and vegetables need a little bit of care when you get home from the market. The few minutes you spend preparing your produce for storage will be worth it. After all, you get zero health benefit from Swiss chard unless you eat it.

Composting changed the way I view fresh produce. The act of putting brown lettuce leaves or a moldering orange in the compost pail was somehow different than throwing it in the trash or garbage disposal. I recognized that I was treating fruits and vegetables that cost money and had been edible as if they were expendable and not valuable contributors to my health and my family’s.

This realization was disturbing.

I decided to find out what I could learn about keeping our fresh produce fresh long enough for us to eat it.

Some of the advice I read made sense but did not seem that practical. The suggestion to shop for fresh produce every couple of days makes sense, but if your schedule is jammed packed, you might not have time to do that. Another idea was to buy only the fruits and vegetables that you know you and your family will eat in a certain amount of time. That is good advice if you have a crystal ball that will show you exactly what you and your family will eat this week.

The point is that you have to adopt practices that fit in your life.

During my research, I was pleased to discover that extending the life of fresh fruits and vegetables does not need to be complex, expensive, or require a lot of throwaway material.

If you are tired of fresh fruits and vegetables ending up in your trash instead of your stomach, you might find one or more of the following suggestions useful or perhaps one of them will spark an idea of your own.

Buy Naked Fruits and Vegetables

Buying whole fruits and vegetables without packaging has several benefits. First, your fruits and vegetables will stay fresh longer than their pre-prepped and packaged counterparts will. Second, peeling a carrot and slicing up mushrooms yourself gives you a closer connection to the food you are putting in your body and a sense of accomplishment. Lastly, whole fruits and vegetables come in their own edible or compostable skin, which reduces packaging waste.

Mesh Produce Bags from 3B Bags
Mesh Produce Bags from 3B Bags

An environmentally friendly way to shop for produce is to bring your own reusable produce bags. Several years ago, I spotted mesh grocery bags in the produce section of our grocery market so I bought a set of three (for around $5.00) to try them out.

It was easy to bring them to the store in one of my reusable shopping bags and the cashiers at the checkout counter could easily see what the bags contained so I bought several more sets. These mesh bags are sturdy, inexpensive, and washable.

Although, I have substantially reduced my use of throwaway plastic bags I do still use them. For instance, I will put a wet head of lettuce in a plastic bag to keep the rest of my groceries dry and then I keep reusing the bag (rinsing it out it out and drying it if needed) until it gets a hole or falls apart.

Containers are Not All Created Equal

After conducting research on produce storage containers for the refrigerator, I decided to try the lettuce keeper container made by Progressive International. I was amazed at how well it worked. Almost everything we tried putting in it would stay fresh for well over a week and sometimes two or more including lettuce, spinach, carrots, bell peppers, green beans, zucchini, and herbs.

Refrigerator Produce Storage Container Filled with Peppers and Broccoli - Progressive International
Refrigerator Produce Storage Container Filled with Peppers and Broccoli – Progressive International

Over the course of a couple of months, I bought five more of these containers and we put almost all our refrigerated produce in them. My total financial outlay was less than $75.

The containers are large enough to fit a head of romaine lettuce, slightly trimmed leeks, or several bell peppers. Each container has a removable plastic divider that you can insert for separating items if you choose, like radishes on one side and blueberries on the other. Mushrooms will stay fresh with the bottom lid left off and a paper towel lining the bottom. If you only use part of a cucumber, you can put the other part back in with the whole ones (without any wrapping) and it will stay fresh for days.

This container does not work for cut tomatoes, onions, or avocados so I store them in small glass containers or in plastic wrap (ugh).

I do not recommend putting these containers in the dishwasher. I tried it and the top lid came out a little warped. I contacted the company’s customer service department and they sent me a new lid free.

Now, I just rinse the containers and occasionally wash them with soapy water when I am hand washing something else.

Location, Location, Location

Like in real estate, the location you place your fresh produce contributes to whether you will eat it or not while it is still fresh. In this case, I mean giving your produce visibility. Humans are creatures of habit and sometimes we forget that we can adjust things like our smart television settings, office chair height, or refrigerator shelf arrangement.

Most refrigerators have a “crisper” drawer, which supposedly helps you keep your produce fresh but you usually have to bend over to reach it and you have to open it to find out what it contains. This creates an out of sight out of mind problem.

I rearranged the shelves in our refrigerator so that our produce containers can be stacked in the middle where we can see them and see what is in them. Now, our fresh fruit and vegetables greet us when we open our refrigerator door. We use the crisper drawer for other refrigerated items or an occasional extra long or large vegetable that will not fit in our produce containers.

Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market
Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market

My family enjoys eating most fruits at room temperature so we store them on the kitchen counter corralled on plates to prevent them from rolling around the counter or onto the floor. I think fruits last longer when stored in a single layer rather than artfully arranged in a bowl.

Whenever a family member or I walk into the kitchen, we see our fresh fruit beckoning us to eat it. We do try to focus on eating the most perishable fruits first, like strawberries. Any kind of plate, pan, or tray with an edge will work.

Potatoes, onions, and garlic like to hang out in dark dry places like your pantry or a cupboard. As far as storage containers, open cardboard boxes or plastic tubs that you have on hand will work. Instead of relegating these healthy and perishable items to the bottom of the pantry, consider giving them a prime location at or near eye level and put snacks and cereal on the lower shelves.

Making a relatively small investment in reusable produce containers and rethinking some old storage habits has really paid off. Our fresh fruits and vegetables are staying fresh longer and most of the time we eat them, which saves money. Besides eating healthier, we use less disposable packaging, which is good for the environment.

You can get going on your commitment to eating healthier by grabbing your reusable shopping bags and heading out to the grocery market to select some fresh naked fruits and vegetables, buying a produce storage container to try, and clearing a space on your kitchen counter for a plate of fruit.

Reader Note: When I mention a specific product in a post, it is because I think you and other readers may find the information useful. I do not accept product review solicitations and I do not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning a product in a post.

Featured Image at Top: Homemade Fresh Salad with Spinach, Walnuts, and Apples in a Wooden Bowl – Photo Credit iStock/bhofack2

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Environmentally Friendly Christmas Tree Tradition

It is time for a new Christmas tree tradition for the 21st century.

Regardless of whether you are a real Christmas tree aficionado or an artificial tree enthusiast, you can make your Christmas tree tradition more eco-friendly.

Celebrating the holidays with a decorated Christmas tree in your home is a well-established custom in the United States dating back to the late 19th century. Our family is one of the 95 million American families who will be displaying a Christmas tree in their home this year.

Christmas trees have been a highlight of the holiday season for me ever since I was a little kid, but after living in a Monterey pine forest for a few years I began worrying about the environmental impact of Christmas trees, both real and artificial.

In 2014, I decided to conduct some research to try to determine if a real or artificial tree was a better choice from an environmental perspective. If you are interested you can read about my findings in the post, Which is Greener a Real or Artificial Christmas Tree? Nothing I learned induced me to switch from a real tree to an artificial tree or to give up Christmas trees altogether, but I committed myself to making our Christmas tree tradition more environmentally friendly.

You, too, can green your Christmas tree tradition. Below are some eco-friendly tips for real and artificial trees and a suggestion for a new tradition.

Green Tips for Artificial Christmas Trees

  • If you are serious about greening your Christmas tree tradition, avoid buying a trendy tree that you will be sick of in a few years and will want to replace. Buy a tree that you can see yourself enjoying for at least ten years and hopefully more.
  • It is hard to judge looks or quality online so go to a store with artificial Christmas trees on display.
  • Select a tree that looks well built and resilient enough to survive putting up and taking down year after year.
  • If you are buying a tree with lights already installed, opt for energy-efficient LED Christmas lights. If not, recycle your incandescent lights (even minis) and replace them with LED lights.
  • After the holidays, carefully pack up your tree and put it in a safe storage space. Artificial trees cannot be recycled so your goal should be to keep it out of a landfill as long as possible.

Green Tips for Real Christmas Trees

One non-environmental factor that makes real Christmas trees attractive to me is that they grow on farms in the United States providing jobs for Americans, while most artificial tree manufacturing occurs overseas.

  • Buy a sturdy tree stand built to last for decades and store it in a place where you can find it next year.
  • Organic Christmas trees are still rare in many areas, but if you can find one buy it.
  • Do not have your tree flocked. First, why buy a real tree if you are just going to cover it with synthetic material and second, flocked trees cannot be recycled.
  • If you still have incandescent Christmas tree lights, recycle them and purchase LED lights.
  • After the holidays, make sure you recycle your tree. Many towns offer curbside pick up or places where you can drop off your tree. The trees are chipped to create mulch and you may be able to pick up free mulch for your own yard or garden. Another option is to cut up the tree to fit in your green recycling bin if you have one.

Start a New Christmas Tree Tradition – Buy One, Plant Two

In 2014, after looking into the environmental impact of real and artificial Christmas trees, I decided to begin a new holiday tradition, a tree for a tree and encouraged readers to join me. I proposed that each year we buy a real or artificial Christmas tree or put up an existing artificial tree, we plant a new tree or get someone to plant one on our behalf in our yard, a park, or a forest.

That year, we planted a tiny cypress tree seedling that we had rescued from a street median. Three years later, the cypress tree is about 9 feet tall and flourishing.

Last year, I raised the ante on my tree planting to buy one, plant two. We selected two Big Sur Coast Redwood tree seedlings at the local nursery and planted them in our yard.

The redwood trees are still alive but they only grew about an inch. In hindsight, it seems like perhaps they needed more shade, water, and fog. Nevertheless, the trees have made it to the one-year mark so I am hopeful that they are established enough to live here for a couple hundred years.

This year I decided to obtain some expert advice about what type of trees to plant. At the December meeting of the California Native Plant Society in San Luis Obispo, CA, I cornered two botanists (in a nice way) and asked them for recommendations.

As a non-botanist, I was grateful that they did not start bandying about scientific names and took my question seriously. They both mentioned Toyon as one of their first two suggestions.

Interestingly, to me at least, the Saturday before the meeting, my spouse and I had gone on a native plant walk (it was a grueling uphill hike) and Toyon was the first plant pointed out on the trail.

Decorated Real Christmas Tree December 2017My spouse and I conferred about the botanists’ suggestions and determined that Toyon was the right choice for this year.

Our local nursery in Cambria only had two Toyons in stock. One was short and bushy and the other was several feet tall with a scattering of leaves. We opted to purchase both of them and then selected a Christmas tree, which is now beautifying our living room.

In the interest of giving the Toyons the best possible start on life in our yard, I decided to do a little research before we planted them. I learned that scientific name for Toyon is Heteromeles arbutifolia (I dare you to try saying that aloud) and it is called Christmas Berry and California Holly, which apparently inspired the name for the city of Hollywood. I read that Toyons are shrubs which can grow up to 30 feet tall and are supposedly easy to grow and deer resistant.

After mulling over several locations, we selected a spot that gets a little shade from a nearby Monterey pine tree. We planted the Toyons near each other, spread some mulch, and gave them some water. The deer that visit our yard do not strictly adhere to deer resistant plant guidelines so as a safety precaution we encircled our Toyons with fencing, which we will remove once the Toyons get big enough to hold their own with the deer.

Readers, I hope you will join me and expand your Christmas tree tradition to include planting two trees. If you do not have a yard to plant trees in, then consider making a donation (cash or labor) to a local tree planting program. Type “tree planting program” and the name of your town into your Internet search window to find local and regional opportunities for tree planting at parks, open spaces, nature preserves, schools, and nearby state or national parks.

Imagine if every one of the 95 million families displaying a Christmas tree this year each planted two trees. Soon, 190 million trees would be providing shade, filtering water, generating oxygen, furnishing wildlife habitat, and just being beautiful. Now, that is what I call a green gift.

Merry Christmas!

Featured Image at Top: Red Christmas Ornament with White Snowflakes Hanging on a Christmas Tree Branch – Photo Credit iStock/JurgaR

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