Shopping for good produce can be surprisingly difficult. Despite cooking at home multiple times a day, I’ve thrown a lot of produce away in my adult years. And every time, it makes me ill. I hate to waste food and money. I’m sure you do too. But I’ve learned a couple things about buying good produce in my adult years too. I’m partnering with Sub-Zero on the Fresh Food Matters initiative again this year. Today we’re zooming out from a recipe to focus on this very topic: How to Buy Good Produce. I’d love for you to add your tips in the comments too!
Where you shop for produce can make a difference.
We’ve shopped at Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Co-ops, Target, and, more infrequently, at traditional grocery stores. Our decision on where to shop has always been dictated by our budget at the time. Here’s what I’ve learned—you get what you pay for.
Before I break that down, I should unpack why we rarely go to traditional grocery stores. It’s for the same reason I don’t like to shop at department stores. There are too many options, and I have major decision paralysis. Five brands of broccoli? Ay yi yi. So I skip traditional grocery stores, even if they have great produce.
Though we love Trader Joe’s for their shelf-stable items, I only buy produce if we plan to use it within a day or two. Even though their prices are significantly cheaper than most stores, we were ending up with too much waste when shopping for a week of produce at a time.
For that reason (and because it’s a couple blocks away from our house), we now shop at the Seward Co-op, a community/shopper owned and governed cooperative grocery store. It’s like a smaller Whole Foods with a ton of organic options. The prices can be a bit more expensive, but the produce is incredibly good and thoughtfully sourced. In a lot of ways, they do the vetting for me. I’m not left in a aisle with 10 choices. As experts, they stock what they consider to be the best choice. I always tell this story, but I had almost given up on eating tasteless carrots in general until buying them at the co-op. They were good. Sweet. Even flavorful. That alone confirmed my decision to shop there.
Buy in-season when you can.
In-season produce tends to be cheaper than out-of-season produce. Buying out-of-season strawberries, for example, can cost double the amount as in-season strawberries, and they just never taste as good. Typically out-of-season produce has traveled a long way, sometimes across the ocean, to get to your store. (Side note: we live in Minnesota, which is frozen half the year. Most of our winter and early spring produce comes from out of state. It’s just a fact of life up here. Some is grown locally in hydroponic tanks during the cold months.) Transitioning to buying and cooking seasonally has been a huge learning curve for me. Just by shopping at our co-op, I’ve started to learn the produce calendar based on what they stock seasonally. When you need out-of-season produce, consider buying frozen. We keep peas, corn, wild blueberries, and tart cherries year round in the freezer. Frozen produce is picked and frozen during harvest season.
My go-to resources for knowing what’s in season are Cookie and Kate and the Fresh Food Matters site. In addition to featuring stories about notable food producers and the impact of fresh food on our world, Fresh Food Matters is a great resource for learning which produce is in-season and how best to store it to decrease waste (watch the “Naked Fridge” video—are you guilty of using aluminum foil for leftovers?). I’m considering buying a seasonal poster like this one to help myself out too.
The signs make you smarter.
Food is having a moment right now. I hope it’s more than a moment. I think we’re all feeling the need to be smarter about what we’re feeding ourselves and our kids, which starts with what we buy. Our co-op is a tiny encyclopedia. They have signs throughout the store teaching you everything from how to store your fresh herbs, to the origin of the produce and how it was grown, to fun facts like—the deep dark outer leaves of the cabbage are the most nutrient dense. I guess I won’t toss those out next time.
Buying on a budget.
As mentioned, shopping at a co-op or Whole Foods (or buying organic in general) can be more expensive. Shop the weekly sale and base your meals off of that. We don’t eat much meat, which also frees up some dollars for buying better produce.
Ask the staff.
Buying in-season and trying new produce is intimidating. Ask the staff if you have a question, says this timid shopper (me). After buying a bad yucca, I went back and asked for help buying a good one. “It should be firm throughout,” he said. “Any soft spots are indicators of decay.” I also got help buying my first ever daikon radish last year. (I’m sure I mispronounced it when asking.) The staff at our co-op are incredibly knowledgeable, which makes me smarter.
Use the produce bags.
In an effort to be more green, I stopped using the produce bags for a couple weeks. I was so very proud of myself. Meanwhile, my produce was going bad at lightning speed in my fridge. I have the same problem with my farmer’s market and Trader Joe’s produce. Those bags are preservers. Don’t skip them. I store my fresh herbs in the green bags as well. Sometimes with a paper towel to absorb any moisture that collects. Do you use reusable produce bags? I’m thinking of trying these out (for produce and for Hallie’s toys). Here’s what I use for my shopping bag that doubles as my purse.
Woof, that’s a whole lot of information. I’m not an expert produce buyer or even an expert seasonal cook. I’m learning a lot as I go and leaning on the real experts as much as I can (my co-op and Sub-Zero). I’d love to hear what works for you. Where do you buy your produce? How do you store it? Does it give you anxiety? Tell me. I hope this can be an ongoing conversation during the Fresh Food Matters initiative. Comment here and/or tag your food posts using #FreshFoodMatters on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.