Plastic-Free Fridge & Freezer: How To Store Food Without Plastic
You’ve bought your food without plastic; now how do you store it so it lasts as long as possible and none of it is wasted?
People often ask how to store fruit and vegetables, as well as meat, bread and cheese, when buying it plastic free. We’ve all become so used to buying it in plastic produce bags or plastic packaging and relying on these to keep our food fresh.
It definitely didn’t take us long to become reliant on plastic for storing food! We only need to look back a few generations to find easy, zero-waste ways of keeping food fresh.
While plastic packaging does help keep things like meat and cheese fresher for longer, using plastic produce bags to store fruit and vegetables actually makes them go bad quicker!
Does food last longer or less when wrapped in plastic?
Actually, no, not all food does! Storing fruit and vegetables in plastic bags actually makes them go bad quicker! This is due to the fact that the plastic makes them sweat.
Fresh produce needs to breath and storing them in airtight plastic bags does not allow them to breath. And, it must be stored in a way that reduces condensation, not causes condensation, like plastic bags do.
Storing the right kinds of produce together
Did you know that the fruit you store other fruit next to and storing fruit and vegetables next to one another can cause them to decay quicker? This is because many fruits produce ethylene gas, which acts like a ripening hormone and can speed up spoilage.
This is also why you should not store fruits and vegetables together in a refrigerator drawer or next to each other on the counter or in the pantry. Fruits are usually the ones producing this gas and most vegetables are more sensitive to its detrimental effects.
It is also why you should always move anything that is overripe away from the rest of your produce as overripe fruit emits a lot of ethylene and will make everything around it go rotten too.
Never store other fruit and vegetables next to these (unless you want to them to ripen faster – if you want to ripen an avocado, put it next to a banana):
bananas that are ripe
Also, never store:
squash and pumpkins with apples and pears
apples with oranges
onions with potatoes
If you want to reduce the amount of ethylene gas emitted by your bananas, wrap each banana’s stem. This will slow down the ripening process and the ripening of any fruit or vegetables nearby. Plastic wrap is generally used for this purpose, but you can use a square of scrap fabric and an elastic band or reuse some leftover foil instead.
Don’t wash produce before storing
Only wash your produce before you use it, not before you store it. Washing fruits or vegetables before storing them makes them more likely to spoil because dampness encourages the growth of mould.
What to store in and out of the fridge
Whether you store certain fruit and vegetables in the fridge or outside the fridge also makes a difference.
Apples, non-cherry stone fruit, avocados, mangoes, melons, pears and the like are all happiest out of the fridge, while bell peppers, grapes, citrus fruits, and berries should go in the fridge.
It is often debated whether tomatoes should be kept in the fridge or at room temperature. Most say they should be stored outside the fridge but some say that storing them in the fridge when they are ripe will extend their life and won't ruin their flavour. They do need to ripen out in the open though.
Leafy greens are much happier in some water on the counter than they are in the fridge.
Cucumbers are sensitive to the cold and should only be refrigerated for three days at the most as cold causes them to spoil faster.
Refrigerate bananas when they have reached the perfect amount of ripeness to stop them from ripening any further.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, garlic and onion all need to be stored in a cool, dark spot, but remember to not store your potatoes next to your onions as onions secrete ethylene gas, which will cause your spuds to start sprouting.
How to store leftovers
When storing leftovers in the fridge, they can be simply be stored in a bowl with a plate placed over it or a beeswax wrap wrapped over it. You can also decant leftovers into a glass jar with a lid or glass or steel containers (US/CAN here and AU here) with a lid.
How to store bread
When buying bread in a reusable fabric bread bag (AU here and US/CAN here) or pillowcase, or wrapped in a cloth, simply leave it in the fabric bag, pillowcase or cloth and place it in a wooden bread bin or in a cupboard or drawer.
If you buy it completely loose, wrap it in cloth or place it in a pillowcase when you get home and then place it in a wooden bread bin or in a cupboard or drawer.
You don’t want too much airflow around your bread, but you want it to be able breathe.
You can also freeze bread if you’re not going to eat it fast enough. Onya reusable bread bags (AU) are great for freezing bread as they have a double lining to help prevent freezer burn.
What about freezing meat without it getting freezer burn?
Plastic wrap is often used when freezing meat as it helps prevent freezer burn. So, how do you freeze meat without plastic without it getting freezer burn?
We personally don’t eat meat, but we asked those who do what they use for freezing meat and the answer was either old plastic Tuppaware containers they already owned or ones that they bought from a second-hand shop, glass or metal containers, or silicone pouches like these (AU) or these Stasher reusable storage bags (US/CAN).
Personally, we try to avoid buying new silicone products and try not to recommend it, as like plastic, silicone will be around forever, but these silicone pouches can help people to reduce their waste in certain circumstances so we are sharing them as an option if no other alternative can be found.
Are old plastic containers and second-hand plastic containers safe to use?
The food safety of plastic containers is questionable. There's growing evidence that food can be contaminated by harmful chemicals found in some types of plastic. So, ensure that any plastic container you use is at least BPA free and labelled as food safe.
It may be better to stick to non-plastic alternatives however as some researchers aren’t convinced that BPA free products are any better.
So, for those who want to buy plastic-free fruit and veg at the farmer’s market, bread from the bakery in a reusable bread bag, and meat and cheese in their own container over the weekend but find that it doesn’t last the week, here’s five ways to make it last the week and even longer:
1. In water in glass jars
You can simply place herbs like parsley and other leafy greens in a small jar of water on your kitchen bench like you were placing flowers in a vase! You just need to remember to change the water every few days.
You can also place vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, celery, brussel sprouts on a stem (they last longer on the stem) and spring onions in a jar with some water and place them in the fridge or leave them out on the counter (depending on the conditions of your kitchen!). It can help to cut the bottom inch off the stems.
Carrots last ages if you submerge them in water in a glass jar. This is also a great way to firm up a limp carrot! Put the lid on the jar and trim off any green tops before storing them as these draw out moisture and cause carrots to go limp quickly (you can use them to make pesto!). The water also needs to be changed regularly. Celery sticks can also be stored in this way.
Things that generally do well in water in glass jars are:
2. In glass jars / steel or glass containers / ice cube trays
You can store in the fridge or freeze all sorts of foods and any leftover food in reused glass jars. It is important to leave space for the food to expand when freezing in glass jars, so never fill a glass jar up to the top else it will crack.
You can also store and freeze food in steel and glass containers with lids, as well as ice cube trays.
If you’re not going to use an entire bunch of herbs you’ve bought right away for instance, you can chop it up and freeze it in jars. You can also place them in ice cube trays with oil. This works well for tough hard herbs like rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano, but not as well for soft herbs like mint, basil, lemon verbena, and dill.
You can also place leftover tomato paste in an ice cube tray and freeze it to prevent it from going mouldy in the fridge before you need to use it again.
To prevent frozen fruit and other frozen entire foods from sticking together in a jar or container, freeze them on a tray first and then transfer them into the jar or container once they are frozen.
You can also grate and freeze cheese if you need to.
When it comes to meat, we don’t have any first-hand experience, but others in the zero waste community state that they either use old plastic Tupperware that they already own or get from a second-hand store, glass or steel containers, or silicone pouches (AU here and US/CAN here) to freeze meat without it getting freezer burn.
3. In fabric produce bags
Fruit and vegetables can also be stored in the fabric produce bags (US/CAN here and AU here) you bought them in. See-through mesh produce bags allows fruit and vegetables to breath, which makes them last longer.
Storing in cotton/cloth produce bags also seems to make vegetables stay fresher longer than storing them in plastic produce bags.
You can also wet these produce bags to help them last even longer. More on storing your fruit and vegetables in dampened material below!
4. In a damp tea towel or SWAG bag
Some people find that just putting a dry clean tea towel along the bottom of their crisper before they restock it helps to keep things fresher for longer. This keeps your vegetables off of the bottom of the veggie crisper base where condensation pools. Contact with this liquid can cause them to rot.
But wrapping your vegetables in a wet tea towel can make them last even longer. This technique is great for salad leaves. Some people store their produce in damp PUL nappy wet bags and ham bags instead.
You can also place a wet tea towel inside a container and then place vegetables in the container, keeping the lid closed. This works well for snow peas.
We haven’t personally tried it, but a lot of people have found buying a Swag Bag (AU) worth it. A Swag Bag has three layers, which are all made from natural, unbleached, unseeded cotton. To keep produce fresher for longer, the outer layer preserves the water in the middle layer from drying out too quickly, the absorbent middle layer holds the moisture, drawing it away from the produce but allowing it to hydrate as needed, and the inner layer offers a dryer protection barrier. All three layers are permeable, so the fruit and vegetables inside can breathe, which also helps them stay fresher for longer.
5. In or under wax wraps
Beeswax wraps (US/CAN) or vegan reusable food wraps (AU) are another great zero waste tool for storing food. They can be used in place of cling film and wrapped over the top of bowls to cover food or wrapped around the food itself, for example around half an avocado.
You can also wrap things like herbs, bread and cheese in beeswax wraps. We have bought cheese in them too – just ask the deli to cut some cheese and place it straight into your wrap!
For other ways to reduce food waste, read our Eating (Mostly) Only Food Waste for a Month: 10 Ways I Saved Food article.
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