Not-so-genius hacks for keeping food fresh

I will admit to being an enthusiastic, nutrition-minded cook with a penchant for making twice as much as my household can eat and often neglecting many purchased fresh edibles until they appear fit only for compost. Just this week, my countertop fruit bowl with tomatoes, avocados, apples, oranges and limes, transformed from beautiful and welcoming to "oh, no, I've done it again," with a couple overripe avocados and a seriously deteriorating, bruised apple.

Even though none of us likes to throw food away, research shows that the average U.S. household wastes three and a half pounds of food per person each week and between 30% and 40% total of their food purchases. The average value of food loss per four-person household in 2022 was $1,500. When I read those statistics, I can easily picture my nutritious fruits and vegetables, cheese, yogurt, bread, homemade desserts and voluminous leftovers that end up in the trash periodically.

Common cause

If the benefits to your own nutrition status and bank account don't motivate you, one other thought may give you a reason to put "wasting less food" in your 2023 resolutions list. A significant portion of discarded food may be edible and provide enough calories and nutrients to feed millions of food-insecure individuals. We know it isn't a straight line from our homes to feeding others, and households are responsible for only about 35% of the overall system food waste (grocery stores account for much of the rest). Nonetheless, the adage of "waste not, want not" may be thought of as much for the common good as for our own.

Appliances and planning

There are easy "not-so-genius hacks" for keeping food fresh and decreasing food waste. The art and science hacks of keeping food fresh focus on preventing dehydration, cool temperatures, controlling microorganisms and ethylene gas sensitivity (this gas is part of normal plant ripening). Industrial-controlled food storage has advantages that we don't have at home with the ability to maintain high humidity and low temperatures appropriate for each different food item. We can only approximate this at home, but modern refrigerators and freezers can do a pretty good job for short term storage if we use them properly.

Even before you consider the refrigerator, plan your weekly menu based on your budget, nutritional needs and preferences and stick to your plan. Make a shopping list after checking your refrigerator and pantry so that you don't end up with duplicates in your cart. Don't shop with the thought, "I'll get a little extra, just in case"- that unplanned extra bunch of scallions or pepper or zucchini may spoil before you are able to use it. If your plans change during the week, immediately consider how you will handle perishables that may deteriorate before you can eat them.

Hack number one: Most fresh foods can easily be frozen in freezer-grade plastic bags or storage containers and used later in soups, casseroles, smoothies or stews.

Bring home food that is in peak condition – buy local if you can. If you get home and find moldy or rotting items, take them all out of the packaging, get rid of the deteriorated produce and place the remaining in clean packaging.

Use your refrigerator to your best advantage. Keeping your refrigerator clean will limit bacteria and mold by physically removing the microorganisms and eliminating liquids/spills that could give microbes a place to grow.

Don't overfill your fruit and vegetable keeper compartments. Allowing air to circulate will help prevent moisture from accumulating on produce surfaces. It will also help you see what you have so that food is not forgotten.

Produce that does not fit in the compartments should be kept in containers or bags to prevent produce from drying out. Even in a crisper drawer, produce will likely keep best in a clean, ventilated (put some holes in it) plastic bag. Bags made specifically for this purpose get mixed reviews from researchers but may be helpful.

Moisture and storage

Most produce should not be washed before putting it in refrigeration, but one hack for leaf lettuce is to gently rinse and dry the leaves. Then wrap them loosely with a paper towel and put them in a plastic bag with holes or a salad spinner in a cold spot of the refrigerator.

If you are able, place produce and other perishables in a temperature zone most appropriate for the specific item. Some newer refrigerators have multiple zones but recommended temperatures for home refrigerators will keep most fruits and vegetables between 32 °F and 41 °F. Cabbages, carrots, parsnips, apples, lettuce, can be kept in the coldest area. Citrus fruits, ripened avocados, herbs should be kept at higher temperatures.

Ethylene and produce

When deciding where and how to put different fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator, keep ethylene-releasing produce on a different shelf from ethylene-sensitive. Ethylene may cause bitterness, browning, yellowing, rusting, wilting, mushy spots, and even toughness or woodiness.

Some ethylene-releasers are apples, bananas, kiwi, peaches, mangoes and tomatoes. Some ethylene-sensitive produce include carrots, green beans, cabbage-family vegetables, celery, lettuce, cucumbers, spinach, watermelon and peppers.

One hack suggested by a Penn State researcher is to put ethylene sensitive produce in paper bags, roll the top shut and place them in your vegetable crisper. Celery is both sensitive to and a producer of ethylene. Another hack is to wrap celery in foil (instead of tighter plastic wrap/bag) with the idea that this will allow ethylene to escape while keeping moisture in. I'll test this one out and let you know if it works.

Freezing citrus

Freezing extra citrus fruit is a final not-so-genius hack to consider. Citrus can be frozen whole and used for juicing later or cut into slices that can be frozen and used in a fruit salad or like an ice-cube to make flavored water. Citrus peel can also be frozen. Before freezing, wash the fruit. Then freeze whatever portion you like in airtight freezer bags or plastic freezer containers.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Extension.