‘Fruit bowls are out’: the best ways to store fresh produce, according to experts

<span>Fruit bowls tend to speed up the ripening of produce by trapping ethylene. Better to try a fruit plate, says Thanh Truong. </span><span>Photograph: Nicholas.T Ansell/PA</span>
Fruit bowls tend to speed up the ripening of produce by trapping ethylene. Better to try a fruit plate, says Thanh Truong. Photograph: Nicholas.T Ansell/PA

In the fight to keep food waste out of landfill, where it belches greenhouse gases and contributes to climate change, Melbourne “fruit nerd” Thanh Truong has declared war on an unlikely suspect: the humble fruit bowl.

“Fruit bowls are out. They’re a relic of the past and they’re doing you an injustice,” insists Truong, a produce expert who wrote an entire book on food storage tips.

That’s because deep fruit bowls trap ethylene – a natural gas emitted by ripening produce, which also speeds up ripening in nearby fruits. One juicy peach at the bottom of your fruit bowl could turn its bedfellows in a matter of days, forcing you to eat everything at once or risk ditching it.

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Instead, says Truong, it’s time to embrace multiple flat fruit plates placed at least an arm’s length apart, which allow more airflow.

“Fruit plates can double the amount of time you have to eat the produce,” he says.

While awareness is increasing about climate-positive ways to deal with food past its endpoint (by composting or green-binning, for example), knowing how best to store produce can increase its edible lifespan and help prevent waste in the first place.

Here are some fresh produce storage tips to try at home – which can save you money too.

Know what belongs in the fridge

Fruits known as “climacteric” continue to ripen after harvest and are perfect for storing on a fruit plate atop your kitchen bench – bananas, mangoes, avocados, pears, stone fruit and even tomatoes fit this bill.

Once mature, you can refrigerate to slow down further ripening and get a few extra days out of them.

Other fruits only ripen while attached to the plant and therefore should always be stored in the fridge as they will only deteriorate at room temperature. These “non-climacteric” fruits include cherries, strawberries, grapes, cut watermelon and citrus.

One thing people don’t realise about the fridge is that it dehydrates everything because it’s constantly circulating air

Thanh Truong

Although climacteric, Truong recommends apples be kept in the fridge so they retain their crunch and don’t go floury.

Understanding how temperatures differ across your fridge shelves can also help you make wise decisions about which produce to put where.

And ensure produce arrives to your fridge in the best possible shape by asking for a cardboard box rather than a plastic bag at the store, Truong says. Boxes are usually free and protect your fruit and veg from being squashed and bruised, which shortens their lifespan.

Beware dehydration via refrigeration

Truong recommends covering almost all refrigerated fruit and veg in a plastic bag or reusable plastic container to stop them from drying out, even if using your crisper.

“One thing people don’t realise about the fridge is that it dehydrates everything because it’s constantly circulating air,” Truong says.

But some veggies – including broccoli, kale, leafy greens, snow peas and soft-leaf herbs – benefit from a “breathing hole”, otherwise too much carbon dioxide builds up inside the container and strange flavours may develop. You can cover such veg in a wet tea towel or tie up a plastic bag then poke a finger through the knot to create a small air hole.

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The exception is ginger, which stores best uncovered in the fridge to prevent moisture build-up that can lead to mould.

When freezing produce that’s about to go off, permaculture and zero-waste educator Anna “The Urban Nanna” Matilda suggests writing the number of days left before its use-by date on the pack. “That way you know exactly how much time you have to use it after defrosting,” she says.

Rescue ‘wonky’ produce

“Final sale” or “wonky” fresh produce specials – which can lower your grocery bill while diverting food from landfill – are best purchased on days that stores receive fresh deliveries, Matilda advises.

“That tends to be when they clear out the [existing] produce crates, which means the stuff that ends up in the ‘use it or lose it pile’ is not necessarily that bad,” she says. “Yesterday, you would have paid full price for it.”

But be discerning, she urges. Firm fruit and veggies such as apples, root veggies and onions have a longer shelf life, while ageing leafy greens quickly turn to mush – although limp celery can be brought back to life in a glass of water.

Open up “specials” bags as soon as you get home and compost anything that’s too far gone to prevent it from spoiling the rest, then wash and dry the remainder before refrigerating or freezing to ensure it lasts.

And while cheap summer gluts of stone fruits and berries are a chance to buy up big to preserve and store for later, be realistic about what you’ll actually get to.

“Whether it’s freezing, dehydrating, preserving, jamming, whatever – don’t buy what you know you can’t process in time before it goes off,” Matilda says.

Embrace ‘scraptastic’ cooking

To ensure more edible food ends up in bellies rather than bins, Matilda encourages a “use it all” approach.

“It means shopping at home in your fridge or pantry before you shop at the supermarket, committing to using food that’s about to go bad, and reimagining ingredients into something new,” she says.

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Similarly, “scraptastic” cooking means using every part of the food you grow and buy. With a bit of creativity, you can turn food scraps into stocks, powders, fruit leathers, dried soup mixes and even cleaning products, which store well for months and even years.

“Celery is a great example – most people chop off the bottom fifth and also the top leaves,” Matilda says. “But every part of celery is edible. You can add leaves to a salad mix, into a stew or green smoothie. Dehydrate them into an umami flavour base. The options are almost endless.”

All this is a learning curve, Truong admits, but one that pays dividends.

“Storing things correctly saves you money, is more sustainable, wastes less and – the most important thing for me – means produce eats better and is more delicious.”

Further resources