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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Bottled Water – Social Implications

Water taps across the U.S. stand ready to deliver clean safe drinking water instantly and inexpensively, yet millions of people choose to buy bottled water. This worries me.

Hand Holding Open Bottle of Bottled Water

Water is the essential substance on earth, a necessity of life. Read that sentence again; now pause to consider your life without water.

Hijacking water for profit is wrong. I believe bottled water is a wasteful and even dangerous product. I admit this was not always the case, I used to buy and drink bottled water so I claim no moral high ground.

In this post, we will explore the reasons people give for buying bottled water and its social implications. The previous post, Bottled Water – Cost and Sustainability, provided a real-life cost comparison of bottled water versus tap water and covered the environmental impact of bottled water.

Why Do People Buy Bottled Water?

What does it say about our society that millions of people are choosing to pay an enormous premium to buy water packaged in throwaway containers instead of turning on the tap and filling up a glass or reusable water bottle?

People buy bottled water for a variety of reasons. We will tackle the top four in this post (not in any particular order).

  • Convenience
  • Taste
  • Concern about Tap Water Safety
  • Healthy Alternative to Other Packaged Beverages
Convenience

Two of Author's Reusable Water BottlesGrabbing a bottle of bottled water from the fridge is convenient; so is grabbing a reusable water bottle pre-filled with tap water and there is no lugging of cases of single-serve bottles or gallon jugs from the store to the car to the house.

Away from home, it can be challenging to find a place to refill a water bottle, but a store or vending machine selling bottled water is not always nearby either. Rather than adding more locations selling bottled water, let’s advocate for more public drinking fountains and water refilling stations so everyone can get a drink of water when they are out and about.

Buying bottled water for the sake of convenience does not add up, cost or time wise.

Taste

Until bottled water companies brought it to our attention, most people probably did not think about the taste of tap water. Now we do. Fortunately, tap water filtering devices are available to fit just about any budget, making buying bottled water for taste unnecessary.

Concern about Tap Water Safety

Green Coffee Mug Containing Black CoffeeThe bottled water industry has waged a decades-long campaign trying to convince us that our tap water is not safe to drink and encouraging us to buy bottled water.

Keep in mind, we do more than just drink tap water; we make our coffee, brush our teeth, and wash our hands and bodies with it too. If tap water were unsafe, drinking bottled water would not protect us.

Today most Americans can turn on their tap and receive clean safe drinking quality water for around a penny a gallon. However, this was not always so.

During the 1970s, water and air pollution had gotten so bad, Americans took to the streets and airways demanding the U.S. Congress take action to stop companies from dumping toxins into the air and water. In response, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency and enacted far-reaching environmental legislation including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act.

Sadly, some American’s tap water falls below EPA drinking quality standards or in rare cases is actually unsafe to drink. The culprits responsible for poor quality or unsafe drinking water are companies, corporations, and individuals who dump and spill toxins into our waterways and water bodies either accidentally or on purpose.

Let’s focus on stopping pollution, not stocking up on bottled water.

Healthy Alternative to Other Packaged Beverages

The bottled water industry is cashing in on Americans’ concerns about obesity by promoting bottled water as a healthier alternative to other packaged beverages. Many bottled water companies also sell those other beverages so whether we switch to bottled water or not they still make money.

Happily, we can say yes to drinking more water and no to bottled water by filling up our glasses and reusable water bottles with tap water.

Ethical Bottled Water

A scary trend in the bottled water industry is the emergence of so-called ethical bottled water brands. These companies and corporate divisions claim they will contribute a portion of each sale or a percentage of their profits towards providing disadvantaged people with access to clean drinking water, usually in developing countries.

Rows of Green Dollar Signs

Ethical bottled water brands target our wallets and our heartstrings. Convincing bottled water drinkers that buying ethical bottled water helps people in need enables customers to justify buying bottled water and feel good about it. Moreover, new customers may be enticed into buying bottled water because “It’s for a good cause.”

Helping communities gain access to clean drinking water is critical and important work, but selling more bottled water is not the way to do it.

Drinking Fountains and Water Refilling Stations

While preparing for this post, I was heartened to read about cities, counties, schools, colleges, and state and national parks that are discontinuing selling bottled water and making drinking water more accessible by deploying portable water refilling stations at events and installing hydration stations where thirsty people can get a drink of water or refill a reusable water bottle.

Evanston, IL Portable Water Refilling Station - Photo: Hannah Ellsbury, Ban the Bottle

Putting Bottled Water into Perspective

Every one of us living in the United States relies on one or more of the 73,400 municipal water systems to deliver clean safe drinking quality water to our homes, schools, and businesses and to whisk away everything we flush down our drains, disposals, and toilets, regardless of whether we drink bottled water or not.

In a 2013 report to Congress, the EPA stated our nation’s water infrastructure needs an investment of $348.2 billion over a 20-year period (2011-2030) to upgrade, replace, or install thousands of miles of pipes, water intake structures, treatment plants, storage tanks, and security measures. 1

U.S. bottled water drinkers spent $13 billion on bottled water in 2014 and they are expected to spend even more in 2015. 2 If sales remained at $13 billion a year, after 20 years, Americans would have spent $260 billion on bottled water, enough to cover 68% of the cost to upgrade and modernize the entire water infrastructure of the United States.

Little Girl Drinking a Glass of WaterClearly, the money exists in the overall money pool to ensure that every person in the United States has access to clean safe drinking water; it is just that some of it appears to have been misplaced in the bottled water industry’s bank accounts.

Let’s say yes to clean safe tap water for everyone and no to bottled water.

I am looking forward to the day when carrying around a reusable water bottle is the norm and filling it up is fast and free at millions of public water refilling stations across the country.

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References

  1. U.S. EPA – Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment: Fifth Report to Congress, April 2013
  2. International Bottled Water Association – Bottled Water Sales and Consumption Projected to Increase in 2014, Expected to be the Number One Packaged Drink by 2016, 2014/12/04

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