Just as much as us humans are what we eat, recipes are the ingredients they’re made of. Sad ingredients make for sad food. No award winning recipe in the world can resuscitate lifeless fruits and vegetables.

So how do we make sure we’re using the best produce we can? By educating ourselves and embracing flexibility.

Notice I didn’t say anything about spending more money. Yes it’s undeniable that sometimes better quality costs more but money isn’t everything when it comes to food. And not all of us have extra dollars to add to the grocery budget. (Or the money and space to grow our own vegetables.)

Firstly, there are plenty of wonderful inexpensive fruits and vegetables.

Secondly, if you don’t know peppers aren’t supposed to be wrinkly then odds are you’re going to buy poor quality peppers no matter how much money you have to spend. You get the point. Produce quality is not solely limited by the size of your grocery budget.

So how do we make sure we’re using the best produce we can? By educating ourselves and embracing flexibility.

The following five steps are free and will immediately improve the quality of the fruits and vegetables you’re cooking with. They require a little self-learning and flexibility on your part but I promise it’s worth it. Whether you have $10 to spend or $100, you should be doing these things every time you buy fresh produce.

Ready to boost the taste and nutritional content of your food?

Excellent, let’s get to it.

Number 1 – Buy produce that’s in season in your area

Thanks to the modern marvel that is the grocery store, you can have any fruit or vegetable anytime you want it. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Unless you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with a climate conducive to year-round gardening (looking at you in Florida Mom and Dad), out of season fruits and vegetables come from somewhere far far away. Making the journey from a Southern Hemisphere farm to a Northern Hemisphere grocery store takes time.

And time off the vine is the enemy when it comes to produce flavor and nutrition.

We all know fruits and vegetables are growing, living things. What many people don’t realize is that fruits and vegetables remain alive even after they’re picked. They continue to “breathe” in a process called respiration that breaks down their stores of carbohydrates, proteins, and nutrients. The more time they have to “breathe,” the more their nutritional content dwindles.

A research study by Penn State found that spinach lost nearly half of its folate content after 8 days of refrigeration and other studies from the University of California have found that many vegetables lose between 15% and 77% of their Vitamin C content within just one week of being picked. The farther away your strawberries come from, the less nutrients they have when you finally get around to eating them.

To help prevent fruits and vegetables from spoiling in transit to the store, many farmers harvest produce before it’s actually ripe. Sure the fruit in question turns the correct color along the way but it never actually achieves its maximum nutrient potential.

Fresh produce is at its best when it’s fresh. Guaranteed that root vegetable in the middle of winter will be better than those travel weary raspberries. Take time to get familiar with what’s in season in your area. This seasonal food guide is a great place to start for those of you in the United States.

Number 2 – Buy what’s fresh, not what the recipe calls for

Planning out a week’s worth of meals (based on seasonal produce, of course) then writing up a shopping list makes for a streamlined approach to food prep I highly recommend when you work and have kids.

What I don’t recommend is blindly buying what a recipe calls for. If you’ve penciled in sweet potato soup for Wednesday but you get to the store and the sweet potatoes look blah, DON’T BUY THEM!

As a fellow type A personality I understand how failing to purchase everything on your shopping list creates an insatiable itch at the back of your brain. I get it, really I do. Just cross the sweet potatoes off the list anyway and move on.

Embrace flexibility.

Pick a better looking vegetable to substitute in or change to a different meal entirely. The more you cook, the longer your backup list of ingredients and recipes will become. If you’re not comfortable enough yet to make substitutions on the fly then Google it.

But whatever you do, DON’T BUY THE BLAH SWEET POTATOES.

Number 3 – Store your fruits and veggies the right way when you get home

Tomatoes don’t go in the refrigerator. Did you know that? I didn’t know that for a long time. Apparently cold temperatures affect tomatoes’ genes which then affect their flavor. You’d think it’d be obvious not to put them in the fridge when they’re not refrigerated at the grocery store but old habits die hard. (My tomatoes now happily reside next to the fruit bowl on the counter and my guacamole’s never tasted better.)

What about cucumbers, did you know they last longer and taste better when stored at room temperature too? I was skeptical when I read that one on this list of recommended vegetable storage from Self.com but sure enough there’s a research study from UC Davis backing it up.

Please excuse me while I go take the bag of mini cucumbers out of my fridge…

Another fun tip is to store herbs in a glass of water in your refrigerator. Seems silly but it does extend their shelf life. Not to mention there’s something incredibly cheerful about opening up your fridge to find a vibrant bunch of herbs on display in a make shift vase.

How many of us are guilty of unceremoniously throwing herbs into the vegetable drawer and forgetting about them until they turn to dark mush? Yes, I didn’t think that was just me. I like to think of myself as a reformed herb butcher now that I’ve learned better and usually treat herbs with the respect they deserve.

It’s amazing what big impacts such little actions such as putting something in the refrigerator or leaving it on the counter can have on the flavor of our cooking. Take care of the things that take care of you and pay attention to how you treat your food when you get it home.

Number 4 – Know what quality produce looks like

Shape, size, color, weight, smell. There are lots of clues to determine the

quality of fruits and vegetables. The tricky part is knowing what to look for
for each individual fruit or vegetable.

And remember, there’s quality and then there’s ripeness. Sometimes they’re
synonymous and sometimes they’re not.

Would you rather buy green bananas or yellow bananas with lots of dark
bruises? The yellow ones are ripe but the green ones won’t be all mushy when it’s time to eat them. But maybe the green ones aren’t as nutritious because they didn’t ripen on the tree.

Or maybe you’re my Aunt Carol who refuses to eat bananas without any green on them at all.

Learning all the ways to judge the quality and ripeness of every fruit and
vegetable can be overwhelming. A simple task multiplied many times becomes complex to carry out. And judgment is often subjective to the eater anyway.

Start small and practice.

Half the battle in judging produce quality is having a foundation of food
experiences to draw on and knowing what you like. Learn all there is to know about the types of produce you already buy and go from there.

Number 5 – Learn how to prepare a wide variety of fruits and vegetables

The more fruits and veggies you know how to prepare, the more options you’ll have to choose from when shopping for your produce. If you’re familiar with parsnips and butternut squash then you’ll have some easy substitutes when the sweet potatoes look blah.

The next time you’re at the grocery store and you see a strange fruit that catches your eye, buy it. You may have no idea how to eat it or whether it’s ripe but you can figure those things out at home with the help of the internet (or family if you have some foodie relatives).

Be adventurous! Accumulating food experiences helps your cooking and produce shopping. There are plenty of books and online resources to teach you all about how to prepare different fruits and vegetables. Beyond that, pay attention the next time you’re invited to someone else’s home for a meal. Offering to help prepare the food is a great way to show appreciation to your host and learn something new.

In Conclusion

Quality produce means better taste and better nutrition. I promise these five steps are well worth the time and effort they require. Yes there’s lots to learn when it comes to selecting and preparing produce but you have a lifetime of eating ahead of you. Wouldn’t you rather spend it eating delicious, healthful fruits and vegetables?

Skip the blah sweet potatoes and pick the best produce you can. Life is a lot more fun when you enjoy the food you eat.

Happy picking!