You want to challenge your family to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and try new things, but you’re not even sure how to choose many of them as you walk through the produce section. We want to help you get smarter about selecting and storing fresh fruits and veggies so you can help your family eat healthier — all while reducing waste and saving money (and the planet, too). Here are some tricks of the trade that will help demystify your next shopping trip.
Look Like an Expert
Use all your senses to determine an item’s ripeness. Then analyze how that suits your current needs.
In most stores, you don’t have the opportunity to taste a product before you buy it. If they have a sample out, it likely means it is super delicious and it costs a lot so they want you to taste it, fall in love and buy it. Remember, just because an item isn’t super sweet doesn’t mean you can’t use it. Get creative.
Many items need to be squeezed a bit to determine if they are overripe or under ripe. Good examples of this are items like mangoes, eggplants, avocados, summer squash and cucumbers. In most cases, you don’t want an item to be rock hard or super soft. Usually somewhere right in the middle means the perfect ripeness.
If you smell a fruit or vegetable and it has little or no scent, the item is most likely not at its ideal stage of ripeness, which is not necessarily good or bad. It just depends on when you plan to use it. An unappealing or sour smell means the item has gone bad. You’ll know the difference pretty quickly.
If you hear a fruit or vegetable making any noises… definitely put it back!
Inspect its color and condition. Look for any soft spots or areas of decay.
Picky Produce Picks: Make the Right Choice
Check for any moldy patches or open cracks. While bruising or scarring on the skin is no big deal, the presence of soft spots into which you can put your fingers is not good. Generally speaking, when buying a melon, those with a dull appearance are usually the most flavorful and sweet, and those that are heavy for their size are usually the juiciest. You’ve probably heard of knocking on a melon to test its freshness. When you tap the melon with the palm of your hand and you hear a hollow sound, that means it is the most fresh. One last melon test is to push on the round section where the vine was attached. It should be slightly soft and should smell fresh and fragrant. Watermelons can be stored on your counter. Cantaloupes and honeydews also can be left on your counter to ripen a couple of days and should then be moved to your refrigerator until used.
Choose an avocado based on your individual needs. If you plan to use it today, you’ll want it to be soft and ripe. If you don’t plan to use it for a few days, you’ll want to choose one that is more firm. Give it a little squeeze. If it is hard (like a tennis ball) and relatively green, it likely will not be ready to eat for four or five days. If it gives more (like a stress ball), it will be ready to eat that day or the following day. An overripe avocado has dark (nearly black) skin that almost bubbles up and will squish, but will not bounce back.
An avocado’s ripeness is also indicated by the color under the removed stem and the ease with which it was removed. If the stem is impossible to remove, it’s not ready to eat yet. Take it home, but give it some time to ripen. If the stem comes off easily, it’s ready to eat.
Avocados should always be left on the counter to ripen. If you want them to ripen quickly, place them in a paper bag. You should never refrigerate an uncut avocado, with the exception of times when you have a very ripe avocado that you aren’t ready to use yet. Placing it in a cold place will slow the ripening process.
This is one fruit for which you cannot always judge ripeness or freshness by its color. A mango that is more red in color was simply located in a place on the tree that received more sunlight. Instead, use your sense of touch to judge ripeness here. Give it a bit of a squeeze. Similar to an avocado, if it is rock hard, it will need several days before it is ready to eat. A little give is what you’re looking for. It should spring back a bit. If you can push your finger into the mango and it doesn’t spring back, then it is overripe. You can likely still cut it and eat it, but it may be stringy. This is perfect to freeze for a smoothie. Mangoes should be stored on the counter.
Squash like butternut and acorn are actually harvested in the fall, but their hard shells allow them to be stored for extended periods. The ideal squash will feel hard to the touch and have corky stems and deep, vibrant color. Butternut squash that have longer cylindrical sections with smaller rounder sections at the bottom will offer more edible flesh rather than seeds. Uncut winter squash should be stored on the counter.
You aren’t perfect; your food shouldn’t be either. In recent generations, we’ve been conditioned to always choose the most perfect-looking produce items. But it’s OK to select the ones that might be larger or smaller than the ideal, a little off in color, or slightly scraped or scarred on the outside. This sends a message to suppliers that there is demand for “imperfect” produce. Also, consider choosing the items that are very ripe and come up with creative ways to use them at home.
Ashley Weingart is the founder of Perfectly Imperfect Produce & From Seed to Spoon, LLC. PIP is a fruit and vegetable delivery service created to help reduce food waste and improve access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables. She served as the director of communications & community outreach for Forest City Weingart Produce. In her spare time, Ashley runs marathons and enjoys cooking for her three children.