Storing food, especially produce, seems really challenging without single-use plastic to keep it fresh. In fact, sometimes it feels nearly impossible! However, plastic was only invented in the 1900s and the most common uses didn’t really catch on until the 1950s… So what did people do before that?? I have gathered a bunch of “eco hacks” (catchy, eh?) that will allow you to store food without plastic and keep it fresh!
Disclosure: some of the links below (noted with an asterisk*) are affiliate links. This means, at no additional cost to you, I will make a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. For more info regarding how I decide when to use affiliate links, see full disclosure here.
Wait, But Why Should I Avoid Plastic For Food Storage?
Great question! Here’s the thing, I still use some plastic when I store my food. I reuse tupperware and other plastic containers we already have because I don’t want to waste what we own. However, I am not buying more and try to stick with glass, metal, and other alternatives as often as possible. When I say “without plastic” throughout this post, I’m referring to “single-use plastic.” Plastic wrap, plastic baggies, and so on.
Here are the two main reasons for this:
- Single-use plastic never makes sense. When it comes to the environmental impact or your money, using something once or twice and then throwing it away (where is “away”, by the way?) creates so much unnecessary waste.
- Plastic in general leaches toxic chemicals. There are a growing number of studies that link these toxins to cancer, infertility, brain development, heart disease, and other health problems. I don’t want to risk any of that for the sake of convenience. (you can read more about that here)
Gross. Ok, So What Are The Alternatives To Store Food Without Plastic?
Yes, let’s dive in! The tips below will help you reduce food waste (= money) and can even help with meal prepping. The trick is that, no matter how you store your food, you only want to buy what you’ll actually eat. If you’re stocking up on items with a longer shelf-life or you’re going to freeze them (tips below), that’s great. But if you buy too much without planning ahead, you’ll often forget what you have or won’t be able to use the food before it spoils. Especially produce.
The USDA estimates that $161.6 billion is lost on food waste, or about $500 per person, every year. (source) This number may seem staggering, but I’m sure you can think of more than a few times when your greens wilted or something molded / spoiled / smelled funny / looked gross and was tossed… I’m definitely guilty, even recently.
So my biggest tip before even getting into how to store food without plastic is to plan your meals!
Even if you just begin by: 1. Listing what you want to eat for dinner Monday-Friday. 2. Look at what you already have and write down what ingredients you need to buy. That’s taking a big step toward reducing food waste! If you commit to that list, you’re one step closer to ensuring you will eat whatever you buy that week.
I’m about to share 4 ways you can store food without plastic (single-use) and keep it fresh – especially produce. As always, if I reference using a certain item for storage, it’s best if you already own one or can find it secondhand. If not, then take a glance at these items* below that I absolutely love and highly recommend through personal and indirect experience!
Products I Would Recommend
- Bee’s Wrap: if you’re looking for an alternative to plastic-wrap, these work great! Note from site: “DURABLE AND EASY TO USE: Foods stay fresh without the use of single use plastic. It will hold its shape when it cools, creating a seal. Keep away from heat. Wash with cool water and gentle soap, then reuse again and again.”
- ENEY Vegan Wrap: similar to the plastic-wrap alternative above, these wax wraps are plant-based! Note from site: “100% VEGAN – Our plant-based reusable food wraps are made using soy wax instead of beeswax making them 100% vegan. MADE FROM SUSTAINABLE MATERIALS – ENEY plant-based reusable food wraps are made from GOTS organic cotton and hand-dipped in a mixture of soy wax, jojoba oil and tree resin.”
- Reusable Sandwich/Snack Bags: these are perfect for on-the-go snacking, lunches, and replace plastic baggies for keeping your food fresh! The inner lining is safe and easy to clean. Note from site: “NON-TOXIC AND KID-FRIENDLY – Our reusable cloth bags are non-toxic, phthalate-free, lead-free and BPA-free. They also feature sturdy, double-stitched handles and easy-open zippers, so kids can open them no problem. Perfect for toddler snacks, meal prep and more!”
- Glass Food Storage Containers with Bamboo Lids: these glass containers are perfect for storing food, and the best part is they come with bamboo lids rather than plastic! The lids can also double as cutting boards and look beautiful while keeping your food safe from plastic toxins.
- Glass Set of Airtight Jars with Bamboo Lids: similar to the product above, these jars come in handy when storing your bulk food items!
- Large Vejibag: perfect for storing greens and veggies that are tough to keep crisp and last longer! Note from site: “Works great for lettuce, kale, carrots, celery, peppers and all sorts of humidity-loving vegetables.”
Alright, now into the top 4 ways to store food without plastic!
1. Counter vs. Fridge
Some of us are picky about our food… but our food is actually picky, too! Certain foods do better when stored on the counter or in cupboards, while others do best in the fridge. When in doubt, there’s always Google. But here are a few pro-tips to help you:
Avocados can be kept on the counter until they’re ripe. You can tell they’re ripe if they yield when pressing them gently. Or when you can peel back the small stem/cap on top easily. Once they’re ripe, put them in the fridge to slow the ripening process and make them last longer!
POTATOES, ONIONS, AND GARLIC
Onions and potatoes should both be kept outside of the fridge in a cool place away from direct sunlight. But the key is to keep them separate from each other! They both produce moisture and onions also produce ethylene gas. Keeping them together causes quicker spoiling.
CITRUS AND APPLES
Citrus fruits and apples are better kept in the fridge so they don’t dry out or soften quickly.
Tomatoes have given people much to debate about when it comes to storage. What I’ve gathered is that they should be kept on the counter if you’re going to eat them fairly quickly (within a week) so they maintain the most flavor. If you’re worried about them spoiling, you can put them in the fridge to slow the ripening process. The worst that may happen is they may lose some of their most potent flavor.
Mushrooms get slimy if stored improperly. The best trick is to put them into a paper bag, fold the top down, and store them in your fridge. The bag is porous and allows the mushrooms to breathe while also absorbing excess moisture!
Nuts, rice, seeds and grains can be stored in the fridge if you want to lengthen their shelf-life. Keep them in air-tight containers. Nuts, for example, can last up to 3 months at room temperature, or over 6 months when stored in the fridge. (I buy all these items and the almonds you may have noticed above from bulk bins. At home I then transfer them into my own containers.)
A final thing to note about your fridge is the settings. If possible, you should keep your fruits and veggies in separate drawers due to the fruit’s release of ethylene. If you can adjust the humidity settings, fruit should be kept at low-humidity and veggies do best at high-humidity.
2. Use A Towel
Towels work wonders when it comes to absorbing excess moisture and keeping certain produce fresh longer! Rolling up specific produce (as shown below) in a towel tends to work best. You can always line your refrigerator drawers with towels, too. This locks in moisture and makes for easy clean up after a while.
You may often come across articles that recommend using paper towels. Just swap that idea for cloth towels for zero waste. I would recommend using cloth towels that are fairly thin or don’t leave a bunch of lint. Some people have even used old t-shirts! If you’d rather try one of the products I recommended toward the top, this is where the Vejibag* comes in really handy!
Now, on to the specific produce you can wrap in a towel and store inside your refrigerator:
Leafy greens and herbs should be washed first to keep them clean and crisp. Then, either pat dry or let them air dry for a bit to get rid of excess moisture. Finally, lay them out on a cloth towel and roll them gently up inside. This video is helpful, but I would seal the ends of the rolled up towels with rubber bands rather than sticking them into a plastic bag.
- If you’re using the Vejibag, all you need to do is dampen the bag itself. Then stick your greens (or any produce!) inside.
Berries have been the bane of my existence many, many times. They seem to mold so quickly and I can hardly ever find them without plastic packaging. The key to keeping them fresh is to give them a quick “vinegar bath” first (no longer than 2 minutes). Then place them in a towel-lined container (I would just use the same plastic carton if they came in one)! The vinegar naturally kills bacteria and preserves their lifespan. The towel lining absorbs excess moisture and the berries won’t mold as quickly. They should stay fresh for at least a week!
Cucumbers tend to get soft and rotten quickly, but when wrapped in a towel they are protected from the humidity. They’re also sensitive to that ethylene gas fruit produces, so the towel is an extra layer of protection.
3. Use Water
Fruits and veggies are living things that need both air and water. Some produce even does better when submerged in water! Here are a few tips below:
- Herbs (cilantro, parsley, basil, etc) should be stored in water to keep them fresh the longest. This guide is helpful to know which herbs do best in the fridge or on the counter – an important distinction. For example, basil does not thrive in the fridge away from sunlight. The writer recommends covering tops of containers with plastic, but I would just use lids that fit your jars.
- Carrots and celery stay crisp and crunchy when fully submerged in containers/cups of water!
- Asparagus, green onions, and stem veggies (like a stalk of brussel sprouts) can also be kept standing in a glass/jar of water to last longer.
Always remember to change the water after a few days or if you start to see discoloration.
4. Freeze Your Food
Freezing leftovers, prepped meals, and other food you don’t want to go bad is an excellent tactic. But you may be wondering how to store food without plastic in the freezer, as we’ve become so accustomed to throwing things into a large ziploc bag. I always use glass jars/containers in my freezer. Just be sure to leave enough space at the top in case of expansion within the freezing process.
You can also stick baking pans right into the freezer, covered with a lid, or reusable bags. I’ve also found creative uses for ice cube trays! For example, I currently have cubes of lemon zest stored in the freezer. You could also freeze cubes of olive oil with cut herbs inside to easily drop into a pan for cooking.
This article has some great tips for freezing food without plastic, and explains the simple method of “flash freezing”. This is where you basically freeze individual foods (like berries) and then transfer them into a container to keep in the freezer. It prevents frozen blobs from sticking together, like what happens if you just put mushy things in the freezer all at once.
A couple of tips with picky frozen foods:
- Bananas can be put into the freezer just as is and the peel will turn black. That’s not a bad thing! I love to do this with bananas that are starting to over-ripen. Then I’ll use them for smoothies or banana bread later. When you’re ready to use them, take them out of the freezer and let them thaw for about 10 minutes. Then you’ll be able to remove the black peel easily and see the perfect banana inside! You can also cut bananas into pieces and flash freeze them just like berries, following the directions above.
- Greens typically need to be blanched before they’re frozen. This is because greens can lose their flavor, color, and overall nutritional value if stuck straight into the freezer. Blanching halts the enzyme actions within the greens and preserves the vitamins while they’re frozen. Here is an article with a super easy explanation of the blanching process. She recommends using plastic bags for storage at the end, but I would just use containers or reusable bags.
Save Food, Save Money, and Enjoy Fresh Eats!
To recap, you can store food without plastic (single-use) in a number of ways! Using materials you already own is at the heart of zero-waste. Glass containers, cups, jars, and more are perfect. You can even save pickle jars or marinara jars to wash and reuse for storage! Investing in some reusable wraps, snack bags, and other similar items can be valuable replacements for the plastic-wrap/baggies that you’ll never have to buy again! And simple household items like towels, baking pans, vinegar and water can do wonders.
You can check out this site for even more resources! Don’t forget to shop the bulk bins if you have access and buy lots of fruits and veggies. Healthy eating with minimal waste — Bon appetit!
Got anything I didn’t cover? Feel free to share in the comments below!