Buying in bulk at the grocery store? Here’s how to keep food fresh for longer

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How to make fresh food last longer
WATCH: As people continue to stay at home during the COVID-19 outbreak, more are opting to buy their food in bulk. However, keeping it fresh for longer can be a challenge – May 16, 2020

While grocery sales have skyrocketed since the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in March, buying behaviour has also changed.

The panic-buying that saw items like toilet paper and pasta sauce fly off the shelves may have subsided, but the shopping process has been impacted, according to a recent report from Statistics Canada.

Buying in bulk in order to minimize shopping trips and avoid long lines and navigating social distancing while stocking up on food have become familiar strategies for Canadians.

But bulk-buying can have its pitfalls if you purchase items that are difficult to preserve at home. Having food go bad and needing to clear out your fridge leads to waste, said Shahzadi Devje, a Toronto-based registered dietitian.

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“Nothing is worse than loading up on fresh produce during your grocery trip, only to find it limp and rotting away in your fridge or pantry,” Devje said.

How to plan for buying produce in bulk

Only buy perishable food in bulk if you are truly prepared to use all of it, Devje said. The first step is to create a cooking plan in advance and know what recipes you’ll be using your bulk buys for, she explained.

That way, you can also determine how to keep those items fresh.

Devje recommends you begin your bulk-buy shop by choosing potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables like beets, squash, turnips and radishes.

These tend to last longer than most fresh vegetables, like leafy greens, and can be used for filling, hearty meals, she said.

Store potatoes and squash in a cool, dry pantry so their shelf life can be extended, she added.

“While most root vegetables stay fresh for a few weeks, winter squash has a longer life — up to three months,” she said.

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When does your food really go bad?

While root vegetables may be easier to keep and store, that doesn’t mean you should avoid purchasing leafy greens. Learning how to prepare greens like spinach for long-term storage in the freezer will allow you to buy them in bulk and have them last for months, she said.

“One trick is to store a bunch in the fridge for immediate use and store the rest in the freezer,” she said.

“It’s best to prepare them for storage as soon as you get home from your grocery trip. Rinse kale, spinach, chard and beet greens in cold water to remove any soil and grit. Store them wrapped in a damp tea towel in an airtight container in the fridge.”

If you’re freezing these greens, blanch them first and then place them in a cooling in an ice water bath and then drain them before storing them in the freezer, she said. That process will make the items last up to six months.

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Moving on to fruits, bananas are a great option and have already been popular during the pandemic for recipes like banana bread, said Devje.

To prepare bananas for the freezer, peel and slice them, then place on a sheet of parchment paper in a single layer and freeze for a few hours.

Once frozen, place them in an airtight container back into the freezer, she said.

Storage strategies to keep food fresh

Understanding the science behind some of your food items will help you to determine how and where to store them, said Novella Lui, a Toronto-based dietitian and health writer.

Fruits and vegetables like apples, onions, bananas and melons contain ethylene, a plant hormone that’s emitted in the form of gas and can speed up the ripening process of other foods nearby, said Lui.

That process can make fruits become softer and sweeter or cause the seeds to break down, bud or sprout.

“To extend the shelf life of your produce, it’s best to keep the higher-emitting ethylene produce separately from those that are sensitive to it. For example, onions, which release ethylene, should be stored away from potatoes,” she said.

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Vegetables and fruits should be stored away from each other for this reason, she said. When opting to freeze vegetables, remember that some can’t be frozen, including eggplant, lettuce and artichokes, she said.

Along with storing these products, you can also consider doing a batch cook, which involves making chillis, soups or stews and freezing the portions, said Lui.

As well, fermentation is another way to preserve vegetables that doesn’t involve using a freezer or fridge, Devje said.

The process isn’t difficult, and our current at-home situation provides a good opportunity to learn how to preserve and prepare foods that many did not have time for before the pandemic, she said.

“With more time on our hands, it’s a wonderful opportunity to try new foods and experiment in the kitchen with family. So I’d encourage you to add something new to your grocery basket,” she said.

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