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Thursday, May 9, 2013

Produce triage: preventing produce waste

Triage is a rather important sounding word for what I do with our produce. But it fits.

I first heard of the word triage when watching M*A*S*H in the 70s. The word triage comes from the verb (Fr) trier, which means to separate or select. It's been mostly used in medical settings, as in the TV show M*A*S*H.  But I am hearing it used more and more outside of the medical field, such as "to triage an issue".

Basically triage means to give priority to what needs and could most benefit from urgent attention.

If you are on a tight budget, buying produce by the bag can save you a substantial percentage of your grocery budget. But buying bagged produce sounds like a recipe for waste disaster for many of us. Have you ever bought a bag of fruit or vegetables, and had half the bag rot, unbeknownst to you? This has happened in my kitchen.

It's not like I am carelessly picking up the first bag of oranges I see at the market. I actually search the bag, through the plastic, to see if the produce is good all through. But still, there can be that lone orange or onion that has gone soft, and will soon rot, contaminating the entire bag. (And it's the one usually hiding behind the label, hmmm.)

Several years ago, tired of this happening, I decided to make a change in my at-home treatment of produce. I now "triage" all my bagged produce as I bring it into the house.

I go through each bag, and pull out any pieces of produce that look like they could "go" at any moment. I place these in a spot in my kitchen fridge that means, "use this first". The good pieces either get loaded into drawers in the garage fridge (like onions, apples and oranges), or tucked into a paper grocery sack (like potatoes) to store in the pantry.

Just this week, I bought a large sack of onions, and found this one, near the bottom. It was usable. I just had to cut off about a 1-inch by 2-inch chunk. If I had not triaged this bag of onions, this onion would have rotted and caused the rot of several more onions.

I also bought a bag of oranges. In this bag I found several squishy ones. They are still edible, but will be the first to "go" in about a week. So, these have been designated to be used up within a few days.

Here's 10 lbs. of potatoes. They were in a plastic bag. Sometimes the potatoes have sat in a damp warehouse in storage. Moisture covers the potatoes inside the bag and mold forms on the skins. The plastic bags do have some ventilation holes, but even so, my potatoes feel slightly damp on the skins. By transferring to a paper sack, not only does the moisture dissipate, but I can keep these potatoes in darkness better (and longer) in the paper, preventing some of the green that develops on and just below the skin. And yes, not only were these potatoes a bit damp, but I found one potato with a large bruise. I cut off that bruise and cooked the potato the next day.

It may sound like a lot of work, to go through the bags once I'm home, but it's really not. It only takes a few minutes per bag. And I usually only buy a couple of bags of produce at a time. I view it as just another part of putting the groceries away.

I also triage containers of berries right away. I search the sides of the berry clamshell in the store, and think all is well, only to find several moldy berries at the bottom in a few days. So, I gently empty the plastic clamshell onto a dish towel, sort through, set aside those that should be consumed that day, or frozen for smoothies or cobblers later. I add a paper towel or napkin to the bottom of the container, then refill with the berries. A container of berries will keep several days longer, with this extra bit of attention, than when I don't triage them.

I do occasionally buy bagged leafy greens, and I have a way to deal with them, as well. Before I put them in the fridge, I open the bag and dump them into the salad spinner. I pull out any leaves that look like they could get yucky right away, and use or freeze that day. The rest I leave in the spinner, and I add about a spoonful of water to the bottom of the spinner (beneath the basket), and keep in the fridge. I had a bag of spinach keep for 8 days this way once (then we'd eaten it all, no telling just how long it could have kept). As I needed spinach I would pick through the leaves in the spinner and find those which should be used first. The aging leaves were pulled out earliest, plus nothing sat up against the inside of a plastic bag, and I think that's what kept the spinach so fresh, for so long.

I don't seem to have a problem with bagged carrots or celery, so I don't do anything out of the ordinary with either of them.

How about you? What's your best tip for preventing produce waste?


Pamela said...

Those are very good ideas. I don't normally buy onions by the bag as I'm a single woman (I'll buy the chopped frozen onion though). When I buy bags of fruit, I'll do what you do; however, since it's just me I'll make a dessert or preserves if there are enough that are about to go. Or I'll make a meal (butternut squash and apple soup, orange chicken or salmon, etc.).

Lili said...

Hi Pamela,
Very good uses for produce about to "go". Not only do you save some money by not wasting the produce a few days later, but you get a dish or preserves that maybe you hadn't planned on!

Thanks for stopping by!

Economies of Kale said...

It's so nice to see what you look like Lili - for some reason I always pictured you with short hair, I have no idea why!

I really like the idea of storing potatoes in a paper bag. I used to store mine in the plastic, but they would go mouldy, then I switched to a plastic basket and they still don't last a long time. I bet they would last longer in the dark.

I try to do triage on my produce when I buy it because, like Pamela, I'm a single person household. However, after my most recent shopping trip I just threw everything into the fridge without even looking at it. I was dreading what I would find today when I was taking stock of everything I had in the fridge, but they seem to have lasted okay. I was lucky!

Kris said...

Good ideas! For some reason, I've been having problems with onions going bad on me lately. It's so frustrating to pull out an onion only to discover it has become mush. I also have found I need to deal with berries quickly. I think perhaps they don't have a very long shelf life? And I must confess that our celery doesn't get eaten quickly so sometimes, unlike you, I've had celery "issues" as well. Carrots, however, seem to last forever.

Interesting about the origin of the word "triage". I've only heard it applied in medical settings--maybe I should use it in everyday conversation to sound trendy? ;)

Jayne said...

Hi Lili,

good reminder to all of us to take the extra few minutes to check perishables when you get home from grocery shopping. It's so frustrating to see items spoiled, especially when a couple of extra minutes would have saved them or put them to good use.

Anonymous said...

Smart moves. I do try to always make sure I serve the quicker perishing items first. Sometimes an orange chopped and added to a bit of fruit salad seems like a treat and I've never told my family I just wanted to use up the

On the onion front, since I have one child who won't eat them I buy my own in bulk, dice them and then freeze. I always keep out a few for fresh, but not many. This way I always have some on hand that I can saute for hubby and me.

EcoCatLady said...

Oh those "bad apples" I've been bitten by that one more than once! Some great ideas on onions here. They're the real "problem child" for me since they often rot from the inside out, it's sometimes hard to tell if you've got a bad one until you cut into it. I generally empty them into a colander for storage, but I've still had them turn into slime on occasion. Sigh.

EcoCatLady said...

That's a great idea about dicing and freezing them. I may have to try that one!

Live and Learn said...

I thought she had short hair also.

Live and Learn said...

So, you freeze your lettuce? Is that for use in stock?

Lili said...

Hi Kris,
I've had to be careful with onions in the last couple of months, too. I've been thinking it's cause they were harvested in late summer/early fall and have been in storage too long.

Berries really don't keep long, even the ones I pick from our yard, just a few days for raspberries and strawberries. Blueberries keep longer for me, up to a week. And in case you don't know, don't ever wash berries until the day that you use them. More chance for mold, once they're washed.

Celery -- I haven't tried this, but have heard it works, may be worth a try. If you wrap celery in foil it's supposed to stay fresh longer. Worth a try.

Lili said...

Hi Jayne,
what frustrates me, if I leave something like potatoes in the plastic bag, I'll be near the bottom of the bag and be planning that night's dinner. I'll think to myself, "I'll do potatoes tonight, I've got about 5 in the bag". Then I go to get the potatoes an hour before dinner, only to discover a couple of them are worthless due to spoilage!
So frustrating!

Lili said...

Hi Shara,
That's funny! About your family thinking they're getting a treat, when you were just trying to save an orange.

Good idea on chopping onions and keeping in the freezer. When I'm chopping garlic, I do a few cloves at a time and keep in a container in the freezer. It makes for quick work when I'm too busy to even chop garlic.

I'm glad you're up and around, but please take it easy!

Lili said...

Hi Economies,
If your potatoes are going soft, because it's so warm where you live, you could try storing them in the fridge. I've done that and been able to prolong the life of the potatoes. Purists will tell you that the starches change to sugar when you refrigerate potatoes, but in my mind that's better than rotten potatoes.

It's funny the mental pictures we have of other people.

Lili said...

Live and learn, maybe it's because I seem rather no-nonsense and practical at times. Short hair would be a practical choice. I've got rather thick and curly hair. Keeping it longer actually makes it more manageable (and less time-consuming) day to day.

Lili said...

Hi Cat,
Yeah, I've had that with onions, as well. It's more likely to happen to me if the onions are old, either I've had them in my house for too long, or they were just picked too long ago. I rarely have that problem with new season onions. Do you keep your onions in the pantry or basement? I know you're supposed to keep them in a cool and dry location. But for me, my best spot is actually the fridge.

Lili said...

Hi live and learn,
Mostly, when I buy leafy greens, it's baby spinach, so if I freeze a few leaves, they just get cooked in a casserole or soup. But I have frozen leaf lettuce and Romaine, to cook with later. (Not good with iceberg lettuce).

I have two things that I do with frozen leafy lettuce. 1) I chop the lettuce and add to a pot of spinach, kale or Swiss chard, in small amounts, and serve as part of the cooked greens. No one in the family has ever known that there was lettuce in their greens and bacon. Cooked lettuce does have a distinct (although not unpleasant) flavor, so I just do this in small amounts.

2) I puree the lettuce along with avocado, cilantro and mayo, for guacamole. I stir in a liberal amount of salsa, and the lettuce just disappears in the guac. I've also added pureed cooked peas to guacamole, for a reduced fat version of guac. I'd have to say, though, that the pea version is more obviously a deviation from traditional guacamole, in flavor and texture.

Lettuce leaves could also be used in stock.

anexactinglife said...

I have also questioned the traditional wisdom that you should keep onions and potatoes in a cool dark place. Nowhere in my house is cool. The fridge is fine!

EcoCatLady said...

Hmmm... I thought you weren't supposed to put them in the fridge. I've always just kept them on the kitchen counter. Perhaps this is part of the problem!

Lili said...

Hi anexacting,
Yeah, modern houses are just too warm, with central heating and all. Homes just aren't built with root cellars anymore. My pantry is as warm as the rest of the house. I'm glad to hear that I'm not the only one breaking the "rules" and storing potatoes and onions in the fridge!

Lili said...

You know, when I think about it, I picture a really welcoming kitchen with a giant bowl of fruit on the counter. But really, keeping lots of produce on the counter would make it all go bad quickly. I learned this from my step-mom. She would only put a few pieces of fruit in the fruit bowl at a time, and keep the rest in the fridge (exception being bananas). So, I keep bananas is the coolest, driest corner of the pantry and the rest of the fruit in the fridge.

I think a lot of our ideas about how and where to store fruit and vegetables come from a time when houses and kitchens were rather cool most of the time, plus many homes had unheated cellars.

Lili said...

Two other things about keeping onions in the fridge.

Chilled onions are less likely to irritate your eyes when chopping them than room temp onions. "The volatile gases need to be warm before they can be released into the air in quantities sufficient to make you cry" (source -- Wikianswers). This has been my experience. I take the onion out of the fridge just before I need to chop it. My eyes may be a bit irritated towards the end, especially if I'm chopping a whole lot of onions at once. But it's not nearly as bad as when I take an onion straight from the pantry.

Second, there's a myth going around that once you cut into an onion that it attracts bacteria at a high rate and becomes toxic if you store it in the fridge overnight. This is just a myth. From what I read, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support this. And actually, onions contain sulfenic acids in their juice which inhibits the growth of bacteria. Treat a cut into onion like any other vegetable, wrap and store it in the fridge and use within a few days. Any cut piece of produce will deteriorate faster than an uncut piece of the same variety.

What possibly started this myth is someone probably did not take common sense precautions when cutting raw meat, then cutting into an onion with the same knife on the same cutting board. They probably cross-contaminated their onion with bacteria from the meat. They may have used this contaminated onion, raw, several days later, after bacteria from the meat had colonized on the cut surface of the onion. And then they got sick and blamed it on the onion having been in the fridge. Anyways, this myth has been debunked numerous times, but still it circulates in emails.

Jemma@athomewithjemma said...

Your post certainly has spun some great conversations-don't you just love it when this happens!
Your methods of weeding out the unusable or most likely to perish is so smart. Maybe a little extra time is involved on the front end, but makes preparing the meal so much simpler because so much of the work has already been done!

Have a lovely weekend!

Lili said...

Hi Jemma,
Completely agree -- it's fun to see where a topic will lead us, and I learn something new all the time!

Hope you have a wonderful weekend, as well!

Housewife59 said...

Thank you for this wise advice. I have never thought of triage for produce. Like you, I have in the past tried to use a whole bag quickly, but not gone through the bag to set aside the items needing to be used first. I will definitely be doing this in the future

Lesley x

Lili said...

Hi Lesley,
Your welcome! It's one of those things that's just common sense, but I don't know why I didn't begin this sooner.

Thanks for stopping by!

Gillian Roe said...

This is such a good idea! I don't store potatoes or onions in the fridge, but that's just because our fridge isn't big enough! I keep mine in a cupboard where it's cool-ish and dark, but I do make sure I check them regularly.

Thanks for your advice on kid's parties and thank you cards, by the way! x

Lili said...

Hi Gillian,
And I hope that Angus has a spectacular birthday!

Cheapchick said...

Reducing waste is one of the major ways we have reduced our grocery budget. There are some great ideas here - thanks!

Lili said...

Hi Cheapchick,
Great work! It takes a bit of time and effort to reduce waste, but it is so worth it in the end (*extra $$$*)!

All these little things, to save some money, allows folks like you and your hubby to have your dream life now.

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