Whole foods need to be eaten fresh for the best flavour and nutrition. Natural foods contain no chemical preservatives, so their shelf life is shorter than for refined products.
Almost half of all food is wasted in North America so it is also important to develop good shopping and storage habits to help reduce this needless waste.
Where to shop
Natural food stores, bulk stores, buying clubs and some supermarkets are the best places to find fresh whole foods. Choose a store that has a commitment to freshness. If items on the shelves are dusty, this is a sign of slow turnover and perhaps a signal to shop elsewhere. Also check for expiry dates.
Many supermarkets are expanding their vegetarian and natural food selection, but their business model relies on a long shelf life. To achieve this, natural food products are often overly sweet, refined, and packaged. Or products may go off before being purchased. I once bought whole wheat flour from a supermarket that must have been sitting too long on the shelf. The muffins I made from it had a rancid taste.
For fresh fruits and vegetables, the best places to shop are farmers markets, produce stores, and the larger natural food stores that carry organic produce. Look for locally-grown produce. Not only does it tend to be fresher, it is also best for the environment as it does not require long distance shipping. Fresh produce also retains more nutrients. For example, spinach losses half of its nutrient content eight days after being harvested (see study).
Where to buy local & organic
- Toronto Area – complete listing of Organic delivery services, stores, and farmers markets.
- United States – Localharvest.org has a great zoomable, searchable map of local markets.
Shop at a place that emphasizes freshness, only buy as much as you need, and store your foods properly.
These containers have a built in hand pump for creating a vacuum seal that helps to preserve the flavour, colour, and nutrients in food. I have seen these at a kitchen store. They are also available online.
Storing whole foods
- Keep all unrefined oils in the refrigerator with the exception of olive oil. Unrefined oils turn rancid quickly at warm temperatures.
- Whole grains in unbroken kernels (such as whole grains of wheat, rye, millet, corn, and oats), may be kept in tightly covered jars in the cupboard. Whole grains that have been cracked, rolled, or ground into flour, meal, or flakes should be refrigerated or frozen because the oils that they contain gradually go rancid when exposed to oxygen. Brown rice should also be kept cool because its oils are in the bran layer, near the surface of the grain.
- Dried beans and legumes can be stored in a cool, dry place for many months without loss of nutritional value. But they will become more dried out the longer they sit around and take longer to cook.
- Cooked beans and grains will keep in the refrigerator for about one week if they are seasoned with salt. Salt is a natural preservative and helps prolong the life of leftovers. Cooked beans and grains can also be frozen.
- Bulk tofu should be immersed in water in a covered container and kept in the refrigerator. If you change the water every day or so, tofu will last up to a week or longer. Tofu sold in plastic packages should be refrigerated and then placed in a bowl of water after the package has been opened. Silken tofu that is sold in tetrapak packages may be kept in the cupboard until opened. Tofu will last for up to a week when stored refrigerated in a marinade (see recipe below).
- Tempeh is usually sold frozen because it is very perishable. Once thawed, it will keep in the refrigerator for three or four days.
- Nuts, seeds, and their butters also contain oils and should be kept refrigerated unless you using them daily.
- If you buy bulk herbs and spices in small bags, transfer them to glass jars with tight-fitting lids when you get home and keep them from light and heat. Otherwise, they’ll quickly lose their flavour. They also lose flavour over time so only buy as much as you need.
- Whole grain breads and baked goods that do not contain preservatives also need to be refrigerated, or better yet, frozen, if you are not using them right away.
Storing and ripening fruits
Most fruit (including avocados and tomatoes) should be stored at room temperature until ripe. Exceptions to this are berries, grapes, fresh figs, melons, pineapple, coconut and tangerines. Apples can be refrigerated or stored in a cool dark place.
To speed ripening, place fruit in a loosely closed paper bag. Leave at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. The paper bag holds in ethylene, a gas produced naturally by the fruit, which helps speed up the ripening process. Don’t use a plastic container as it traps moisture and air which causes spoilage.
Once ripe, eat fruits right away. You can also refrigerate ripe fruits for a few days, but keep them separate from other veggies, as the ethylene gas they emit can speed decay.
ExtraLife helps preserve fresh fruits and vegetables by neutralizing excess ethylene gas that builds up in the refrigerator crisper bin as produce ripens. This device will add several days of life to your produce, reducing waste and saving you money. There is also another brand available called: E.G.G.
These Tupperware containers have a ‘variable ventilation’ system that lets air circulate freely through the container so that fruit and vegetables can” ‘breathe’. And a “built-in base grid means they’re kept away from moisture – so no more soggy surprises.”
Most vegetables should be stored in the refrigerator. A cold temperature slows respiration, but you don’t want to stop the breathing completely. Place items loosely in the crisper or in open bags to allow breathing. Don’t overcrowd. “The worst thing you can do is seal fruits and vegetables in air tight bags” says Barry Swanson, professor of food science and human nutrition at Washington State University.
Mushrooms should be stored refrigerated in paper bags.
Don’t wash fresh fruits and vegetables before storing. Fresh produce has a natural protective coating that keeps in moisture and freshness. Washing and scrubbing will damage the coating and speed up spoilage.
Produce will last longer when it is whole. When shopping, look for greens that have some of the stem intact. Don’t buy prepared salad greens or veggies unless you plan on using them that day. At home, don’t chop veggies and store the pieces for later use.
Root veggies such as beets, carrots and radishes can be purchased with their greens. For these items, cut off the greens once you get home to prevent the roots from going soft. Radish and beet greens are good in soup.
For greens, cut off elastic bands and damaged leaves before refrigerating.
Inspect your greens daily and remove any wilting leaves. Check your other produce and remove any rotting items immediately. One bad apple can spoil the bunch.
Don’t refrigerate garlic, cooking onions, winter squash, and potatoes. These items can be stored uncovered in a dark cool place, but try to use them up within a week or two.
Fresh ginger will keep for up to a couple of weeks in the fridge in a paper bag. Ginger also freezes well, either whole or grated. One of the best way to store ginger is to bury it in a small clay pot filled with sand.
Some vegetables can be stored for several months in a root cellar if certain criteria are met. The ideal cold storage room must be dry, dark and cool (7°C to 10°C). Basements, garages and cupboards in today’s homes are often not equipped to meet these three conditions.
For more information:
Vegetables listed alphabetically along with instructions for storing.
Vegetables: How to select, store and serve these healthy foods
Vegetarian Times tests out several storage methods and devices (including the ones mentioned above), and have a list of which foods last longest, and which should be eaten first.
Makes 1/4 cup
Here is a simple marinade for tofu, tempeh, seitan, or your favourite vegetables
2 Tbsp tamari soy sauce
1 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2″ piece ginger root, grated
1 tsp maple syrup
2 Tbsp water
Combine all ingredients in a container with a lid. Add items to marinate, close lid and shake. Let sit anywhere from five minutes to overnight in the fridge. Tofu can also be stored this way for several days.