How to Shop for Fresh Produce

How to Shop for Fresh Produce

Fresh, ripe natural foods nourish the body and delight the senses. If you shop smart, they also offer excellent mileage for your food dollar. Choosing the best the market has to offer isn't rocket science, but it takes some knowhow and a little common sense.

1 There are no stupid questions. Don't know the difference between a mutsu and a winesap? Ask the seller. Whether it's the produce manager at your grocery store or the stall-keeper at the farmers' market, they should know the answer or can at least find out for you.

2 Inspect for "yuck" factors. You know what you don't like to eat: bugs, rotten spots, bruised flesh, weird bumps. If it's not appetizing, pick another one off the pile.

3 Use your five senses. If a peach doesn't smell like a peach, don't buy it. If it's green when it's supposed to be red, keep searching. If there are samples, taste them. If you shake a melon or squash and it sounds like a baby's rattle, it's dried out—and shouldn't go in your cart.

4 Look for average sizes and shapes. Comically large produce (like strawberries) often means it's either old or has been bred for something other than flavor.

5 Buy local, when possible. Generally, the less it has traveled, the fresher, riper, and least chemically treated it is.

6 Buy what you'll realistically eat. Don't buy spinach if you hate it, and buy only as much produce as you will eat in a few days, or up to a week. More than that, and it loses precious nutrients or, worse, goes bad.

7 Try to buy what's in season. If you don't know, ask. Usually, in-season produce is at its peak of flavor and (bonus!) at its cheapest because it's abundant.

Is Organic Really Better?

Ideally, organic produce would be defined as produce grown without pesticides or chemicals, from seeds that weren't genetically engineered, in a way that doesn't harm the soil or the water table. In truth, the standards vary.

Even though the USDA has a certification for organic foods, the edges are fuzzy. For example, organic soup need contain only 95 percent organic ingredients, and the standards don't apply at all to growers who sell less than $5,000 worth of goods yearly.

The USDA and the government set allowable pesticide residue limits deemed safe for humans to eat, and groceries must meet those standards.

Doctors, nutritionists, and even pro-organic activist groups say that the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables outweigh the known risks of consuming pesticide residue. Your body and brain thrive on the vitamins, minerals, and fiber from fresh foods. Make the best choices you can, given your budget and options.

Note that conventional (nonorganic) produce such as bananas, grapefruits, onions, cantaloupe, and avocados are fine choices because we don't eat the peels; other items are best bought organic because they are pesticide-heavy and we eat the peels or the whole food. Go organic if you can for apples, bell peppers, blueberries, celery, grapes, kale, lettuce, peaches, spinach, and strawberries.

Organic or not, all produce should be carefully washed before eating, with special attention given to produce with edible peels. Using warm water, either place your produce in a colander and rinse, or for sandy or extra-dirty vegetables like spinach or potatoes, soak in a stoppered sink. If using a brush, make sure the bristles aren't too stiff, or you'll tear delicate skins and peels.

The FDA doesn't recommend using soap; however, some health food stores sell food-grade sprays and washes to remove oil-based residues that are not entirely water-soluble, such as pesticides, waxy preservatives, and oils from the hands of shoppers and handlers.

Rethink Salad

You shopped for a mountain of vegetables, determined to increase your intake. And then, guiltily, you found yourself tossing away soft cucumbers and unhappy-looking lettuce, deflated radishes, and eggplant that's withered and brown. It's disheartening, when your intentions were so good! But when you open the vegetable drawer and it all seems like too much trouble, think again. What would make those vegetables be tempting to you?

Roasting is always good: You can toss practically anything with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast it on a baking sheet at 375°F until it's brown and crisp-edged, tender and delicious: cauliflower florets, broccoli stems, onion half-moons, green beans, asparagus, eggplant matchsticks, even wedges of cabbage or whole sections of romaine. Don't be stingy with the oil, shake the pan (or flip the veggies with a big spoon) now and then, and do consider lining your baking sheet with foil, baking paper, or a nonstick mat. It makes cleanup so much easier.

But there is something else you can do: Rethink your definition of "salad." Salad doesn't have to be just a pile of lettuce. Any cooked vegetable, dressed with vinegar and olive oil, becomes "salad," as does any raw vegetable cut thin or small enough to eat with ease. Think thinly sliced fennel with hazelnuts and vinaigrette. Shredded carrots with Greek yogurt, raisins, cumin, and a dash of honey. It doesn't even have to be a vegetable: Diced plums and apricots with almonds, red wine vinegar, olive oil, chopped parsley, and a sprinkle of smoked paprika is a fantastic side dish for roast chicken. Or, dice up melon and cucumbers, toss with soy sauce, sesame oil, cilantro, and mint, and top with roasted peanuts.

A new approach to salad (along with a little help from the Internet when you're feeling stuck) can help transform your vegetable drawer from a place where good intentions go to die into a place where a hearty, healthful dinner can be harvested any night of the week.