It’s cliché, but it’s true. It’s a rare occasion when I find veggies or fruit rotting in the depths of the produce drawer. But when I do…the forgotten zucchini, the lonely lemon, the too bitter to salvage kale, the ravaged romaine…I feel like I’ve failed: the sad veggies, the planet, my pocketbook. My only redemption is that we compost, so the animals that graze in the heap get lucky(ish).
There are a few reasons why I’m good about using what I buy before it goes off. I hate grocery shopping, but I feel like I’ve entered the Garden of Eden when I walk into the produce section. Have I mentioned how much I love, love, love veggies?!?
First, I always make a grocery list. On better weeks, it’s actually based on a menu for the week. If I don’t have time to even make a menu, I stick with the standards that always make the list, like cauliflower, zucchini, and spaghetti squash. Cauliflower is super quick to prepare and pretty forgiving if it ends up in the fridge for a week. Zucchini holds much longer with the towel trick and is very versatile, so it rarely goes unused. I make spaghetti squash about twice a month, and it lasts a few meals, so I always keep one on hand. It’s great because it does fine for at least a week without being refrigerated.
Second, when I’m tempted by the piles of fresh produce, I literally have to ask myself what I feasibly have time to make that week. I’m always a sucker for fresh collard greens, but they’re labor intensive. I have to decide whether I’ll honestly get to them or just end up feel guilty when I pull out a bunch that is more yellow than green and wilted around the tips.
Third, I used to get totally irked when I found dried-out limes or moldy lemons in the bottom produce drawer, where we have heaps of avocados. (The rarely go off because even the brownest avocado is still useful.) There is just no substitute for fresh lemon or lime juice, so I like to have some on hand.
I keep limes on hand because they go well with so much stuff- jicama, Mexican stir-fry veggies, various dressings and marinades. One of my favorite drinks is lime juice mixed with water, ice cubes, stevia, and ginger juice. It takes like 5 minutes to make and is a really nice treat. If I’m not in the mood for the lime drink and end up not needing limes that week, I squeeze the juice and freeze it. It’s really handy to have some pre-squeezed and ready to go. If I have extras another time and haven’t used what’s in the freezer, I just add it to the frozen batch.
I love fresh lemonade, so when I want some, I buy a bag of lemons and juice them with a handy, inexpensive electronic citrus reamer. I divide up the juice into 8 oz. portions, make 1 pitcher, and freeze 3 containers for later. If I’m really ambitious, I zest some of the peel and freeze it.
One time, when life intervened and I didn’t get around to juicing the lemons, I threw the whole bag in the freezer. Amazingly, it worked! Now I just buy a bag so I always have some in the freezer to thaw them as I need them. (They quick thaw with one or two 30-second zaps in the microwave.) The juice tastes just as fresh and it’s still possible to zest the rind.
Fourth, if we’re going away and I didn’t do a good job of using up stuff before we left, I do one of two things. Some food ends up going on the trip with us. For the stuff I’m not taking, I freeze it. Produce does well in baked goods or smoothies. The veggies end up in soups and stews. Plus, it’s convenient to have some chopped mushrooms or diced zucchini ready to go.
Fifth, sometimes it’s just more convenient to buy frozen produce, like with broccoli florets, haricots verts (thin green beans), and artichoke hearts. I don’t have to worry about whether I’ll make the haricots verts within three days or have time to roast the broccoli. (The best part is the stems, but they have to be peeled and are better roasted separately.) While the fresh versions are always best, these are great when I’m pressed for time. I especially like frozen artichoke hearts because I eat them at least once a week. The prep work is done and I can roast them (unlike the citric acidy, limp jarred ones).
In the end, it’s all about simplicity. As humans, we tend to focus much more on how we spend our money, but often disregard how we spend our time, which is actually much more valuable because we can’t get more or replace it. I adopted these strategies over the years to save both.