Personal Finance

How to Pick Produce to Help You Save Money on Groceries

It’s a familiar scenario: You’re standing in the produce section at the grocery store, assessing a plethora of produce, trying to remember how the heck you’re supposed to tell if it’s ripe.

You glance around and see someone who looks like they know what they’re doing — knocking on a few melons, trying and ditching a few before decisively placing one in their cart.

But what are you supposed to hear? Why is that one kind of yellow-ish and that other one more green?

Why did you even go grocery shopping in the first place?

Don’t worry — we’re here to help you pick the freshest vegetables and fruits to ensure you get the best produce for your buck.

How to Pick Produce: Your Buying Guide

When it comes to good produce, some culprits are obviously more ripe than others.

But buying food that’s ripe enough (or still needs some time, depending on your plans) can have a major effect on how much food — and money — you waste.

Pro Tip

Knowing how quickly certain foods will go bad and how to store them will help you make a plan for your produce purchases, and, best of all, save you money. Let this produce guide help.

If your spinach goes brown and gooey overnight, you won’t get the chance to eat it. And if your peaches are underripe, you may forget them in your fruit bowl while you’re waiting, only to discover a mushy mess days later.

So to keep you from a sticky situation — and maximize your grocery budget — we created this list of what to look for in 12 fruits and vegetables to ensure peak ripeness (or a little bit of time to wait) so you’ll actually save money on groceries.

Apples

Apples are on display at the grocery store.

Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Although it’s pretty obvious when an apple’s bad, some of the key markers of ripeness (and overripeness) apply across a variety of fruits, so keep that in mind when you’re at the grocery store.

You’re looking for a firm apple that fully displays the color appropriate for its variety and feels heavy for its size — the heavier, the juicier and riper the flesh.

It’s also helpful to look for an intact stem end: It helps a fruit stay healthy and keeps it from drying out.

On the other hand, you’ll want to avoid obvious bruises, soft spots and blemishes, which can quickly turn a good piece of fruit to rot.

The best thing about apples? Once you do find a ripe one, just stick it in the fridge — it’ll last way longer than you think. It could be up to six months before it starts to turn rubbery, and even then, you could probably use it in applesauce or pie filling.

Avocados

There’s nothing worse than looking forward to a delicious, creamy avocado — only to be greeted by a mess of brown mush once you cut into it.

Fortunately, there’s a super-easy way to figure out if avocados are ripe or not: Flick off the little stem bud. If the circle underneath is bright green, your avocado is ripe or close to it. If it’s brown, steer clear — that one’s already turned.

Another secret: If you buy rock-hard, unripe avocados, they’ll ripen in a few days if you leave them on the counter, and even quicker if you put them in a brown paper bag.

Once they’re right where you want them — tender but not too soft to the touch and just turning from dark green to brown — stick ‘em in the fridge to keep them from ripening any further.

And if you miss your window, try one of these yummy recipes for overripe avocados.

Bananas

A stack of bananas at the grocery store.

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So, again, maybe this one’s obvious.

Bananas have something like a stoplight system, except green means “Stop (I’m not ready yet)!”

Yellow is green in this analogy, since it means go…

Which means maybe this is not an appropriate metaphor for bananas.

Anyway.

You probably know yellow bananas are awesome, green ones are firm and less sweet and brown ones fall somewhere on the mush spectrum from “edible, but kind of like baby food” to “totally rotten.”

But if you purchase your bananas early, you can let them develop to exactly where you like ‘em. And at the first sign of brown spots, just throw them in the freezer — they make a perfect base for smoothies.

You can even make healthy one-ingredient ice cream!

Berries

A stack of strawberries on the shelves of a grocery store.

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How many times have you taken home a package of fresh berries just to have it turn into a petri dish of mold in a day or two?

Unfortunately, berries naturally don’t last long — although it’s not hard to scarf them down by the handful, especially during these summer months.

But if you want to select the best contenders, make sure the berries and their packaging are dry. Moisture speeds the growth of mold.

Psst — do yourself one better by running those babies through a vinegar bath!

I know it sounds nuts, but if you rinse them well, they won’t taste like vinegar. This tactic will kill the spores that grow so quickly into mold, giving you more time to enjoy your natural candy.

Broccoli

Fresh broccoli is green. As it matures, it turns yellow… but not always because it’s rotting.

The green clusters on the crown of the broccoli we eat are actually flowers, and when they open they’re — you guessed it — yellow!

So if you want to eat your broccoli rather than decorate with it, the buds on the blossom end (or head) should be tight, closed and green. Check the cut stem end as well — it should be firm and green, not slimy or turning funny colors.

Citrus Fruits

A woman picks up oranges to buy at a grocery store.

Carmen Mandato/The Penny Hoarder

As a Florida girl, I know all citrus starts out green — I’ve seen enough of it on the tree.

The best indicator for a ripe piece of citrus fruit is that it’s fully developed its color. If your orange still has green spots, you’re in trouble: Unlike other fruits, citrus doesn’t continue to ripen once it’s been plucked from the tree, so you’ve got to get it right the first time.

You’ll also want to make sure the skin is as smooth as can be expected of these dimpled fruits — if it’s withered or wrinkled, the fruit is past its prime.

Hardness usually means underripe citrus, although I’ve seen fruits get small and rock-hard (instead of soft and oozing mold) after sitting out too long. Eat them at the top of the bell curve, when they’re plump and slightly pliable, but still firm to the touch.

Corn

If you buy pre-packaged corn cobs that have already been shucked, you’ll have a pretty good picture of how good it is: Just make sure it’s got as many of its kernels as possible, is firm but not rock-solid and that nothing looks rotten.

Husked corn is fresher and yummier — but also more difficult to check.

Luckily, there are ways around this without standing in the produce aisle shucking a bunch of corn. Not only would it not be fun, but you might get funny looks… and you’d be sure to bum out whoever’s on the other end of that “Cleanup on aisle five!” announcement.

In the U.S., we throw away an estimated 30% to 40% of our food, according to USDA research.

If your corn is still in the husk, check out the husk itself. It should be green, and wrapped tightly to kernels that still feel firm and plump beneath. The tassels at the top should be brown and sticky to the touch.

If the husk has gone brown or the tassels are dry and black, you’re looking at an old ear of corn, so skip it.

Lettuce and Other Leafy Greens

A stack of lettuce at the grocery store.

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If you’re lazy like me and buy pre-packaged lettuce, you have the benefit of an expiration date — but I’ve watched leaves go brown and slimy way before their time, even while hermetically sealed.

Lettuce of any variety should be turgid, green and dry, without conspicuous brown spots. Give a head of iceberg a squeeze — it should feel firm and juicy, and its outer leaves shouldn’t be sloughing off.

Most leafy greens have a pretty short shelf life (a week, tops). So get to eating those greens! After all, they’re good for you.

Melons

Melons are the most confusing fruit ever. All their goodness is trapped inside their great big shell, unavailable to assess for ripeness.

What to do about it? Make like a detective and rely on the clues you can access.

If you’ve ever seen anyone knocking on a melon, you may be wondering what exactly they expect to hear. Me, too.

And though melon-knockers may seem decisive, and their touch full of finesse, the metrics for a “ripe-sounding” melon are pretty vague: The New York Times suggests you “listen for a melon that sounds full and more like a tenor than a bass.”

Since I wasn’t in my high school band, I think I’ll try a different way for selecting produce.

With watermelon, specifically, you have a major advantage: Water is heavy. So if you pick up one up, it should weigh quite a bit in proportion to its size if it’s ripe and full of water.

While you’ve got it lifted, give it a turn and check its “field spot” — the discolored portion where the melon sat on the ground before it was harvested.

According to the watermelon experts (yes, they exist — see for yourself), this spot should be a “creamy yellow.” If it’s white or greenish, the melon might not be quite ready to eat, but it’ll be great if you’re shopping ahead of time for this weekend’s barbecue!

Honeydew and cantaloupe are a little less mysterious since their rinds aren’t so thick. Like all other fruit, they should be as symmetrical and bruise-free as possible.

Give ‘em a whiff and a squeeze, too: When they’re fully ripe, both of these melons will smell sweet, even through their skin, and they’ll give just a little bit under your fingers.

If you want your melons to hang around for a bit before you eat them, consider going for a scent-free, rock-hard specimen. Just don’t wait too long!

Although firmness is a good indicator for selecting a peach, if it’s too firm, it’s going to taste like nothing at all.

And odds are, this is how you’ll find them at the grocery store, since shipping can be a rough process and ripe peaches bruise easily.

As with other fruits that produce ethylene gas while they mature (like avocados, apples and tomatoes), you can hasten ripening by placing a peach in a brown paper bag on your counter at room temperature.

Peaches are ripe once they smell sweet and are slightly soft to the touch. They’re also more yellow than red — that color is more indicative of sun exposure than ripeness!

Pineapples

A person cuts into a pineapple.

Aileen Perilla/The Penny Hoarder

It might seem like a prickly mess to figure out whether a pineapple is ripe. Just looking at one, you may wonder what brave soul first decided we should try to eat these.

Smelling the underside of the pineapple is a good place to start: If the fruit is ripe, it’ll smell sweet, but it’ll be less detectable behind the hard, spiky skin around its sides.

A perfectly ripe pineapple will also give ever-so-slightly when firmly squeezed. Pick a hard one at the grocery store so you can keep it as a sign of welcome on your counter for a few days.

Squash

Squash is to vegetables what melon is to fruit: encased in a big, hard shell and pretty hard (literally) to crack.

Your best bet is to squeeze gently and check for good weight. The skin should be matte, not shiny, and free of obvious blemishes.

One good shortcut? Buy it in late summer and early fall — when you know it’s in season.

Jamie Cattanach is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder. 

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This article originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder