10 Tips to Give Your Vegetables a Long and Happy Shelf Life

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

We all experience it — the anxiety that comes with bringing fresh produce home from the market, a little worry that settles in around day three when you haven’t yet used the new inventory. The first day holds so much promise and excitement for all the potential dishes that will come. There’s a new recipe for cauliflower hummus (wink, wink) you want to try. You expect to cook a beautiful bunch of Swiss chard with garlic and herbs, and wilt it down into a frittata filling. There are zucchini, eggplants, and peppers you plan to stew into ratatouille.

One crazy work day after another and all of a sudden you feel an overwhelming sense of concern (and guilt) that you won’t get to those veggies before they expire. You can almost feel the spinach wilting, the cucumbers shriveling, and the heirloom tomatoes leaking their juice onto your kitchen counter.

Vegetables do inherently warrant some sense of urgency. They are fresh ingredients and only have so much time to live after harvest. However, there are many factors that affect a vegetable’s life, from the time you get it into your kitchen to the time you prepare it. You can extend its shelf life longer than you think. The right storage conditions play a big role, but there are other ways that you can preserve produce longer, and make the most out of your produce purchases.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

10 Ways to Keep Your Vegetables Fresher Longer

1. Buy from a specialty grocery, farmers market, or CSA program.

This way you can be more certain you are procuring produce picked in its prime and delivered to the market or directly to you very soon after harvest. You will reap the benefits of the extra shelf life otherwise wasted on travel time and sitting on a massive grocery store shelf.

2. Prepare produce for storage and store it as soon as you get home.

Don’t leave your produce in a hot car while you run around completing more errands. (I know, this one is tough.)

3. Remove vegetable tops.

Vegetable tops will pull moisture from the roots, and you will have shriveled and dry roots before you know it if you don’t remove them. Roots, like beets, carrots, radishes, turnips, rutabaga, may have leafy, green tops attached that should be removed immediately and stored separately. (Treat these tops like other leafy greens if you plan to use them.)

4. Remove excess moisture.

If vegetables are wet from constant grocery case spraying or from a big rain the night before the farmers market, make sure to pat produce dry before storing it. You can also wrap produce in a lint-free kitchen towel or line the storage bag with a paper towel to absorb any remaining moisture.

5. Don’t just place items in the fridge.

Produce needs some protection from the cold conditions in the refrigerator. Place items in a plastic produce bag or zip-top bags, or wrap produce in a lint-free kitchen towel. You can place produce directly in the produce drawer, but still it is best to place it in a bag first.

6. Think about placement in the fridge.

Don’t place produce in the back of the refrigerator, where it can be too cold and sometimes icy.

7. Store items that you will leave out of the refrigerator, like tomatoes, potatoes, onions, garlic, and fruits in a cool, dry place.

Don’t place them next to the oven, the stove, on top of the refrigerator, or by a window sill. Place them on a counter where they won’t receive direct sun (shade is ideal). A cool basement is an even better storage option.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

8. Roots, greens, lettuces, and herbs can be shocked in ice water and quite literally, revived.

Fill a bowl with ice water and place veggies in the bowl for about 10 minutes. For vegetables that aren’t too far gone, you will be amazed at the results. You can also cut stems and place them upright in water, like flowers. Place them, covered with a plastic bag or kitchen towel, back in the fridge.

9. Check your produce during storage.

If you can’t get to your farmers market finds fast enough, give them a good look mid-week. Change out the bag or towel if too much moisture has accumulated. Trim or remove any wilted parts, or brown, yellow, soft, or moldy spots to get a little more life out of them. Refrigerate the vegetables again. For items that don’t require refrigerating, like tomatoes, pull and toss any that are starting to shrivel.

10. Be willing to change your game plan.

You may have had a specific plan in mind for your kale — something raw and fresh — but if you abandoned a beautiful bunch for a little too long, perhaps you should consider another preparation. Throw the leaves into a soup or stew, braise them and serve them over polenta.

My great-grandmother would just make minestrone (anxiety-free) when she needed to clean out the vegetable drawer — a good reminder that there is usually a way to salvage those vegetables that are no longer in top form.

(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)