A zucchini in the refrigerator is on the verge of the slime stage, and I am wishing for it to disappear. Despite more than 20 years as a professional cook, I am guilty of wasting food.

Can you relate?

The scenario goes something like this: You arrive home with several bags of groceries (or maybe during the pandemic, you signed up for a delivery service). You take the time to unpack and restock the cabinets with cans, boxes and jars, and maybe you tuck away spray cleaners or paper towels under the sink. You rush to stash the meat and ice cream into the freezer. But when it comes to fresh fruits and vegetables from the produce section or farm stand, that sense of purpose and organization goes out the kitchen window.

We all have been there, unceremoniously jamming bags of produce into the refrigerated abyss, also known as the vegetable crisper drawer, only for them never to be seen again. Because the next time you open that drawer, those cucumbers and peppers and lettuces will have morphed into science projects — and your money literally has gone down the garbage disposal.

Like many of you, I am swept up by the bounty of summer, the most glorious time of year to eat locally. It is so easy to buy with our senses, loading up in a rush of excitement over the perfume of basil or the rosy blush of peaches. These are undeniably precious fleeting moments. But with these impulse purchases, can we be honest and ask ourselves: Do we eat up what we bring home before it goes bad?

Food waste is both terribly unfortunate and inevitable, and life is too short for hand-wringing. A way exists to reduce our impact, especially when it comes to fresh produce: Think like a chef.

Instead of recipes or techniques, I’m referring to one of the first lessons I learned as a budding line cook: food storage. Keeping food costs down is top of mind for professional cooks and learning to handle and store raw ingredients is mission critical.

The approach is simple, parts of which may ring familiar to home cooks.

Know what you have on hand and use the old stuff before the new. But the remaining element — preparing produce for storage — is where things get murky. In the business, chefs refer to this pre-storage step as “breaking down,” whether it’s a whole pig or a pile of greens.

In taking a few minutes to break down your produce before it gets put away, you are minimizing opportunities for decay (including the dreaded slime) and maybe even extending its shelf life. If nothing else, you will become more aware of your produce inventory, just like a chef.

What follows is a cheat sheet for giving your favorite fruits and vegetables a fighting chance to stay fresh.

Leafy Greens

For lettuce, spinach, chard, collards and other leafy greens:

Pre-storage:

  • Remove any twist ties and rubber bands, which essentially choke produce, plus any yellowing leaves or signs of decay.
  • Wrap unwashed greens in a kitchen towel or paper towel.
  • Exception: if greens are visibly sandy or muddy, thoroughly rinse and dry before wrapping.
  • Feel free to place wrapped greens in a plastic produce bag. (No bag? Lightly mist the towel; greens appreciate a small amount of moisture.)

Storage:

Refrigerate. No exceptions.

Leafy Herbs

For basil, parsley, cilantro and mint:

Pre-storage:

  • Whole bunches: Remove any twist ties, rubber bands, yellowing leaves, signs of decay and leaves close to the bottom of stems (they tend to get skunky). Unless super muddy, keep unwashed until ready to use.
  • Place upright in a pint or quart jar and add water so stems are halfway submerged. For parsley, cilantro and mint: Cover leaves loosely with a plastic bag. Plan B: Wrap in paper towels, then in plastic.

Storage:

  • Basil prefers room temperature. The others need refrigeration.
  • Clam shell packages in grocery stores:
  • Buy only in a pinch. Remove from package, wrap in paper towels and store in the refrigerator.

Tomatoes

Pre-storage:

  • Keep unwashed until ready to use.
  • Cherry tomatoes are fine to keep in cardboard or plastic containers. Arrange larger slicing or sauce tomatoes in a single layer on a platter or sheet pan, as they are susceptible to bruising and developing mold.

Storage:

  • Room temperature. Exception: Wrap any remaining tomato halves with plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Corn

Pre-storage:

  • Keep husks on until ready to cook. Wrap in damp towel or roll in a plastic bag.

Storage:

  • Refrigerate. Corn will dry out at room temperature.

Peppers

This storage method works for both sweet and hot peppers.

Pre-storage:

  • Keep unwashed until ready to use. Place in a paper bag (first choice) or a perforated plastic bag, which minimizes moisture.

Storage:

  • Refrigerate. Peppers easily mold.

Berries

Pre-storage:

  • Remove any fruit that appears shriveled or moldy.
  • Keep unwashed until ready to use.
  • Remove from plastic bags (a plastic container is OK). Cover directly with a paper towel or kitchen towel, even if you are using a container with a lid.
  • I like to keep highly perishable varieties such as blackberries and raspberries in cardboard containers.

Storage:

  • Refrigerate. No exceptions.

Stone Fruit

Pre-storage:

  • Keep unwashed until ready to use.
  • For larger stone fruit such as apricots, peaches and nectarines, remove from plastic bags or bushel baskets and arrange in a single layer on a platter or shallow bowl.
  • Cherries can be piled in bowls or containers as long as they are covered. (It’s a moisture thing.)

Storage:

  • Start larger stone fruit at room temperature to ripen; transition to the refrigerator on as-need basis.
  • Cherries need to be refrigerated.

Melons, Cucumbers, Zucchini

Pre-storage:

  • Inspect for soft spots or bruising.
  • Keep unwashed until ready to use.

Storage:

  • Whole melons should ripen at room temperature.
  • Be sure to thoroughly wash before cutting.
  • Wrap cut melon with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
  • Cucumbers and zucchini will shrink if left at room temperature. Store whole in the refrigerator and keep a close eye; they have a tendency to go slimy quickly.

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