Shop Smarter – Fruits and Vegetables

We live in a very small and remote town in northeastern British Columbia, Canada. We have long, cold winters and live a long way away from anywhere remotely warm enough to grow food year-round. “Fresh” foods that you see on the grocery store shelves here can be of poor quality and overpriced. Even though I understand why that is and as much as I want to support local businesses, it’s just not feasible to feed my family that way. Most people here will drive the 200km round-trip to the neighbouring town, about once a week, for most of their shopping as it’s better quality and more affordable. But it can be a lot of work dedicating that kind of time to travel for your groceries. It can still be expensive and most of the fresh produce available still had to travel a long way to get there because its not in season.

Over the last few years I’ve really changed how I grocery shop and how I feed my family. I started to care more about how much time I was spending travelling and shopping. Started really caring about what we ate, where it came from, how much it cost, etc.. I really wanted to prepare more real food, more nutritious food. I wanted to learn more on how to be as self sufficient as we could. And last but certainly not least, I wanted to save some money. Not only on the initial cost of buying food, but wanted to stop wasting food to spoilage and wasting money.

Here are a three topics and a few tips for success that I’ve learned along the way to help save time and money by getting the most of your produce:

1) Shopping in Season

Ever notice that asparagus can drop to only $3/lb in May or how you can buy an abundance of apples for half the price in October? They’re in season! Which means there’s an abundance of it being grown and harvested close (or closer) to where you live. I’m sure that’s not big news to a lot of you but I remember how surprised I was when I actually starting keeping track of price changes throughout the year and paying closer attention to what’s in season and when. Not only are things less expensive when in season, but their quality drastically improves.

Everyone’s become so accustomed to being able to buy and eat whatever we want, whenever we want and a huge variety of fresh produce HAS to be available year-round to please everybody. So, where we live, instead of it coming from somewhere closer like the Okanagan in August, it’s coming from Central or South America in February. Fruits and vegetables with shorter natural shelf lives that are stored for a long time due to transportation, can rapidly lose some of their nutritional content. Sometimes these are harvested before peak maturity so they can ripen while being shipped great distances and still look appealing on a shelf for a week at the grocery store when it gets here… and then for another few days after you bring it home. No wonder some fresh food spoils so fast!

All that being said though, I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy fresh produce year-round. Just maybe choose a different variety at different times of the year. Pay attention to what’s in season, buy produce that has a naturally longer storage life in the colder months. Welcome the arrival of strawberries, asparagus and salad greens in the spring. Celebrate the abundance of stone fruits, tomatoes, melons and peppers in the summer. Enjoy the bounty of broccoli, squash and pears in the fall. Savour the heartiness of things like apples, carrots, potatoes and cabbages in the winter. Citrus fruit season peaks in winter, so it’s a good time to enjoy them. Making adjustments like these can make a big difference. Use this fantastic chart to see whats in season and when in the western provinces.

2) Storing Produce Properly

So, you’ve bought all these wonderful fresh fruits and veggies and want to enjoy them for as long as you can, right? Make sure you’re storing them correctly! This was another game changer for me once I learned how and where to keep my produce. Most things keep longer when refrigerated, but its important to keep most fruits separate from vegetables. They produce a lot more ethylene gas which can cause over-ripening and spoilage. Things like potatoes and squash store best in a cooler, dark place whereas tomatoes are best kept at room temperature. Here is a great in-depth guide on how to properly store your fruits and veggies.

When it comes to refrigerating fresh produce, one of the best investments I’ve ever made was in the Tupperware Fridgesmart system. Those fantastic containers drastically extend the life of fresh produce by controlling airflow and moisture. I use them for things like salad greens and spinach, berries, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, even citrus and apples to extend their already long shelf life. They have adjustable vents on the lids and easy to read charts on the containers, so you know how to store what type of produce really easily. I know they can seem a little pricey at first, but for us they easily paid for themselves within the first two or three months. Talk to your Tupperware lady about them (seriously!).

3) Fresh vs Frozen and Canned

Frozen and canned produce can make a big difference in your diet because its usually a lot more accessible, and accessibility is crucial. If you prefer using fresh produce but it can be too challenging to keep on hand or too expensive, frozen and canned versions are a more than suitable alternative. A lot of food doesn’t have to be fresh to be nutritious or delicious. Everyone always relates fresh with healthy and how canned/frozen isn’t as good or good for you because it’s been processed. That is certainly not the case a lot of the time. And at the end of it all, the most important thing is that a fruit or vegetable consumed is better than not consumed at all! And if eating more frozen and canned produce than fresh is more manageable and affordable for you and your family, then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

So how do you start? Take a good look at what kind of fresh produce you eat regularly, make note of what you find yourself wasting frequently and maybe ask yourself some of these questions when you are meal planning, grocery shopping and preparing your food:

  • What can I buy now that’s in season, or what’s on sale that I can stock up on?
  • Do I have room to store or preserve what I want to stock up on?
  • Will I use it before it spoils?
  • Could I easily substitute that for something else that’s currently in season or a frozen or canned version?
  • What kind of healthy meals can I prepare that accommodate using frozen or canned alternatives?

It took some adjusting at first but it’s been wonderfully rewarding. It forces me to spend a lot more time cooking from scratch, but that’s all time I normally would’ve wasted having to take a half or full day every week or so to make that 200km round trip to grocery shop. In the summer we enjoy a lot of fresh produce but in the winter, I prepare almost all of my family’s meals from the pantry, root cellar and freezer. Each of them has a mix of things we grew ourselves, things we bought locally like at a farmers’ market or things we bought from the grocery store. It took some adjusting at first but it’s been wonderfully rewarding. It forces me to spend a lot more time cooking from scratch, but that’s all time I normally would’ve wasted having to take a half or full day every week or so to make that 200km round trip to grocery shop. Sure, it can be a lot more work sometimes preparing meals from scratch, but I think it’s really rewarding work. I would rather invest my time cooking at home from scratch, learning new skills and teaching them to my son. Plus, we save a lot more money shopping and cooking this way AND we don’t waste food like we used to anymore. So, it’s a win-win-win situation.

That all being said though, there’s no “right” or perfect way to do it. You can do as much or as little as you can and it is important to do what works for you and your family. My hope is to only ever help you with our common goals: to feed ourselves and our families good, healthy food without it being too complicated or too much work, and to try and save some money doing it.

To your success, my friends ❤

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