Coupon Queen: Produce savings on fruits and vegetables
Can you discuss produce savings in your column? I know sometimes there are coupons for fresh produce, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on how we can save money buying something we all need. Is it worth paying more for organics? Are you only eating canned and frozen things because there are coupons? Let's talk produce!
Anne Marie M.
Here are some of my favorite supermarket strategies and secrets for buying produce. They'll benefit couponers and non-couponers alike.
Weigh your produce. Any produce items that come pre-bagged (potatoes, apples, onions) in a 3- or 5-pound bag are usually packed by volume, not weight. Weigh the bags to find the ones with the most fruit and vegetables inside.
If you're buying fresh produce from refrigerated cases that mist the produce with water, shake the produce off thoroughly before you bag it. You'd be surprised how much water can be retained in a head of broccoli or a celery bunch. And if you don't shake it off, you're paying for water.
Buying what's in season is always going to be cheaper, per pound, than buying what isn't. I like to buy what's in season, too, as it tends to be more flavorful and fresh. Some of the long-term "fresh" produce storage methods may surprise you — apples can be stored in a controlled atmospheric setting for well over a year. Author Martin Lindstrom researched this topic in his book, "Brandwashed" (Crown Business, 2011) and noted the average grocery store apple is 14 months old! Think about it — if you're buying apples in March, they're not fresh.
Is it worth the extra cost? Much is often made of the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list, which keeps track of the produce with the highest concentration of pesticides. The EWG advises buying organic for the items on the list — apples, celery, peaches and strawberries among them. However, buying non-organic fruits with skins that you remove before eating, such as oranges, grapefruit, pineapples, kiwis and bananas will save you money. These fruits are on the "Clean Fifteen" list, where there's little difference between organics and non-organics.
Fresh, frozen or canned?
When I advocate buying frozen produce, I sometimes take a little flack from people who insist that fresh is better. But there's a lot of evidence that frozen produce may be healthier because it's picked when ripe and flash-frozen. In contrast, a lot of fresh produce is picked before it is ripe so that it can ripen in transport. I've also read that canned tomatoes pack more nutrients than most fresh tomatoes, because again, they were picked when they were ripe. Store-bought fresh tomatoes are picked when they're green — it's easier to transport them without bruising before they are ripe. Later, they're ripened quickly with ethylene gas. The more time vegetables spend on the vine, the more nutrients they pack. (Plus, there are a lot of coupons for frozen and canned produce.)
For green, leafy vegetables like bagged salads and spinach, you're better off picking bags that are from the front of the case, not the back. We are sometimes inclined to dig to the back of the shelf and find the freshest bag, but the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that the bags at the front had higher levels of nutrients, folate and Vitamin C because the plants' photosynthesis was continuing in-store under the lights.
I try not to waste food, and I've read a lot of statistics on how much food Americans throw away each year — anywhere from 30 to 40 percent, which I find kind of shocking. Just over the past few weeks I've been experimenting with produce storage containers that breathe and prolong the life of tomatoes, onions and other vegetables that you might only use a portion of at a time. Sadly, my previous routine was to wrap the cut vegetable in plastic wrap or a plastic bag, which usually leads to soggy, less-than-fresh produce — which eventually gets thrown away. I've learned that storing things properly makes a big difference.
Jill Cataldo, a coupon workshop instructor, writer and mother of three, never passes up a good deal. Learn more about couponing at her website. Email your couponing victories and questions to email@example.com.