Are you throwing £s worth of soft veg and wrinkly fruit in the bin needlessly?

From the tougher dark-green part of a leek, to a potato that feels soft, to a plum that has gone wrinkly, do we (well, I) throw away too much fruit and veg?

Every evening you’ll find me in the kitchen. I’m the cook in our house and I think of myself as a pretty adventurous meal maker – I’m happy to experiment with different combinations of ingredients. But I have one major cooking flaw: I’m anxious about using foods that don’t look at their best.

I’m the kind of person who receives eye-rolls from elders when I chuck out ingredients that are past their use-by date. I can sometimes be found in the corner peeling mushrooms ‘just to be sure’ there’s no soil left on them. Find a dodgy looking hole in an apple? I’m not going to ‘eat around it’. And as for the three-second rule? Absolutely not. No way. Not under any circumstances. (Though I’m pretty sure I’m right about that one!)

It can be difficult to know – especially at the moment when we find ourselves washing packets of fruit and veg before we even put them away – just how overly cautious we’re being. ‘Is it normal to do this?’, I ask myself, as I chuck out the layer of onion beneath the brown skin because it’s still brown and green in places. And given the current climate, I’m desperate – like a lot of people – to make each ingredient go as far as possible. So, in a bid to find out which foods should go straight into the brown bin and which I’m unnecessarily throwing away, I spoke to an expert.

Can you eat wrinkly fruit and veg?

I try to not let food reach this point, but sometimes it’s taken out of my hands. For example, some plums I recently bought weren’t ripe, so I left them to soften, but they remained rock hard until they were suddenly very wrinkly – there was nothing in-between. I tried a plum that was perhaps a day behind the wrinkly ones, and it was still hard and bitter. I ended up throwing them all away. But would the wrinkly plums have been fine to eat? The same applies to other stone fruit, such as nectarines and peaches – should I consign them to the food bin?

EXPERT ADVICE: “First things first... most fresh produce, including plums, will last longer in the fridge, which needs to be set to <5°C. This is so important, Love Food Hate Waste (a section of WRAP) has created a tool to help. Some fruits, such as pears and avocados – or indeed plums – sold as not fully ripe, need ripening at room temperature (although I think we’ve all had the experience of missing the 15 minutes when something went from unripe to over-ripe!). If it’s just wrinkly, it should still be fine (to eat). If it’s mouldy, it’s not. Add wrinkly fruits to smoothies or salsas or cook them – I’m thinking plum compote or dipping sauce, red pepper soup or stuffed peppers, even roasted grapes are delicious added to a salad.”

What can you do with fruit and veg that’s gone soft

Sometimes fruit and veg goes soft and starts to taste floury – especially potatoes and apples. I try to use them in alternative ways, for instance in apple sauce or mashed potatoes, where the texture’s less important. Equally, I’ll buy a bag of root veg – say carrots or parsnips – and will have used almost all of them, but there’s always one or two left that go bendy and have hair-like wisps growing off them. Is there a way to get the texture back to how it should be and are they still ok to eat once cooked?

EXPERT ADVICE: “Again, storage is important for keeping your food in good condition. Maincrop potatoes should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place to keep them at their best. Forget the fruit bowl for apples: keep them in the fridge, you will be amazed at how long they stay fresh and crisp in there. If they do go floury, cooking is the best option. Add apples to a smoothie, or even a curry, or a pickle or chutney, or stew them for a pie or crumble filling. If you’re making mashed potato (because you have potatoes that need using up), freeze it in portions, ready to defrost when you need it. For roast potatoes, keep the peel (for crispy potato peeling crisps) and make the most of the texture for a really crispy roasty. For sprouting veg, eat as much as is edible and cut off the sprout/eye. I’ve had decent results planting very sprouty onions and potatoes in the garden.

“You can also try reviving bendy root veg. A cold bath can re-invigorate them in much the same way as a person! Ideally, cut off a bit of the root end (but this is not essential), then either stand the veg in a glass of very cold water or arrange them in a dish of iced water in the fridge to see if they perk up.”

What to peel and what not to peel?

I’m not talking potatoes here – I’m definitely a skin-on mash/fries type. But there are some veg I can’t bring myself to leave unpeeled. Take the humble onion: I remove the brown peel but then sometimes the first layer of onion too, as it’s still brown in places or dark green. Should I bother doing this? And I’m even more fastidious about fungi: I peel mushrooms as a matter of course, to ensure there is no soil on them.

EXPERT ADVICE: “Didn’t someone once say ‘life is too short to stuff a mushroom’? I feel the same about peeling. Mushrooms need a wipe with a tea towel or a piece of kitchen paper to remove the dirt, that’s all. Washing makes them go slimy. As for the onion, in my experience (the browning) is usually just around the top, so I cut any brown off when I take off the top and root. Look, no-one expects you to eat things that aren’t edible (such as teabags, eggshells and onion skin), so don’t punish yourself: eat what’s edible and put the inedible in your food waste bin.”

Where to draw the line with roots, leaves and tops

The knobbly bit at the end of a carrot, the white part near the stem of a pepper, the trimmings from green beans and sugar snap peas. Hand me a veg knife and I will chop, chop away. When there’s colour changes, I’m even ‘worse’. With leeks I use the white and light green section, but the tough dark-green part goes straight in the food bin. And while they’re not tough, I do the same with the dark-green part of a spring onion. Do I need to do this? It seems wasteful to see a quarter of a leek head into the food bin.

“We call the solution to this ‘compleating’! Here are some examples:

You can eat cauliflower and carrot leaves, sprout tops, broccoli stalks, cabbage hearts and herb stalks. With all these it’s about what you do with them. So for herb stalks (because they are a little more robust), chop them into dips and sauces or onto savoury dishes or blitz them into pesto. I (freeze) parsley stalks for flavouring soup and stock.
The green ends of leeks and spring onions are full of goodness and flavour. You can use them in the same way as you use the white bit, just wash them thoroughly.
You don’t need to peel beetroot when roasting it: the skin is great and you can use the leaves as you would chard or spinach.
Roasting young butternut squash with the skin on adds flavour and texture.
“A lot of chopping off of the ends is about personal preference rather than flavour; so if it’s edible, eat it, if it’s not, put it in the food waste bin.”

Root veg and mushrooms that start to feel wet

I’m thinking primarily of things like root veg here – like carrots that seem to emit a watery liquid after a while (especially if left in a bag). And the absolute worst – mushrooms that not only have a wet liquid but get a fishy smell. When you get ‘the smell’, is it time to put them in the food waste bin? How about mushy fruit and veg, such as onion that’s gone soft?

EXPERT ADVICE: “If it’s mouldy, rotten or smelling bad, don’t eat it. The key here is to stop them getting wet to begin with. What you’re seeing with carrots is ‘transpiration’, where they lose moisture in the dry atmosphere of the fridge (yes, the fridge is a dry place). So, again, better storage can help. We advise keeping most fresh produce (except bananas, onions, uncut pineapples and potatoes) in the fridge at <5°C, and in the original packaging, as this can help keep it fresher for longer. For some items, such as salad leaves, we suggest once you’ve opened the bag you add a piece of kitchen paper to it. You could try putting carrots into a lidded container. Mushrooms tend to fare better in a paper bag, but you might not buy them like that, so you could try tucking them into their punnet with a folded tea towel, like a blanket.

“We are living in different times at the moment, but when you return to your more usual shopping habits, one thing to consider might be how much fresh produce you are buying (and how long you expect it to last). ‘Not used in time’ is the main reason given for wasting most fresh produce, so are you buying too much? Choosing loose, or smaller, or frozen veg can help you buy only what you need and reduces the chance of you not being able to get through your fresh produce before it’s past its best.”

Can I eat bruised fruit and veg?

I’m getting much better at cutting out a bad bit of fruit and veg and then cooking the rest or eating it raw. But is this OK? And what if there’s a hole in the produce that looks like it’s been created by an insect, for instance a maggot in an apple?

EXPERT ADVICE: “If, on inspecting a hole, there’s someone still at home, it can be a bit off-putting! But you do right by cutting out the bruise, bad bit or hole and using as much of the rest as you can.”

The changes I’ve made

Following Helen’s advice, I’ve become determined to cut my food waste. The first advice I took was to stop being so wasteful with roots and tips. My leeks are now fully utilised. I’ve gone from removing all the leaves on broccoli and cauliflower to cooking the ones nearest to the florets. I love the tip about straightening up those bendy veg, it feels slightly like a science experiment when bringing them back.

I also feel less guilty about throwing away some bits that genuinely can’t be used. No longer do I worry that I shouldn’t put the brown onion skin in the food waste bin – I know there are some that I can indeed throw away.

I’m also trying my best not to let fruit and veg get old. One way of doing this is to cook meals while they're still at their best, and put them in the freezer. Recipes for versatile vegetable stew and versatile vegetable soup are great for using up any veg. I also sometimes make vegetable stock using veg and even some peelings, and then put it in the freezer.

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