7 Ways to Make Use of Sub-Par Produce

By Linsey Knerl on 23 March 2010 (Updated 23 March 2011) 18 comments

My grocer has a little known secret: It sells damaged and past-date produce weekly. To find it, you have to go around the corner of the regular produce aisle, next to where the employees take their breaks, and right in front of where the forklifts go in and out. It’s in a wire bin with no special markings or signage. It’s our little piece of heaven.

In addition to finding your typical antique bananas and bags of slightly bruised apples, there are other delicious treasures: plastic-wrapped packages of bell peppers, bags of pre-washed organic lettuce hearts, and sacks of hodge-podge items that combine avocados, artichokes, and lemons in the same space. While not everything here is worth buying, they charge 50-99 cents for each package — regardless of what’s inside or what shape it’s in.

Because we are not food snobs, and we’ve learn to adapt our diet to include the parts of produce that others throw away, we love stocking up as much as we can fit into our cart. Anything that gets home in too bad a shape for us to eat happily goes to our 40+ laying hens for some much needed dietary excitement. Here are the ways we use up the good stuff, and how we eat well for pennies per pound of produce.

Dehydrate (drying)

This is perhaps one of the easiest ways to use up food. Bananas are especially delicious when sliced thinly and placed on the drying racks of our $25 food dehydrator. Other foods we have had fun doing this with include whole chili peppers and apple rings.

You’ll want to consult the directions that come with your food dehydrator to see if you’ll need to add citric acid to your produce, but as long as the portions you are drying are not too bruised and are mold-free, you’ll have a way to keep food for many months or even decorate your kitchen! (Our dried chili peppers are beautiful on the counter.)

Breads

Sweet breads, muffins, and cakes are very forgiving to the quality of fruit and veggies you can use. The parts of the bananas that are too mushy or brown to be dried effectively end up in a plastic bag that gets mushed up and made into banana bread. As long as the fruit hasn’t reached the stage of fermentation (smells like alcohol), you’re usually safe to put past-date fruits of all kinds into your favorite baking recipes. Don’t forget that you can do this with some veggies, too! My favorite carrot cake recipe uses a whopping 3 cups of grated carrots, and this vegetable garden bread puts cabbage and celery to good use!

Soups

While salads are often more about presentation than flavor, soups are the exact opposite. Traditionally, soup pots have been a final destination for the parts of the veggie that most of us today just chuck into our compost pile. The skins and rinds of certain produce, however, can contain more than just hearty flavor; they also house some of the most nutritious portions of the vegetable. Potatoes, for example, are chock full of vitamins when the skin is left on (just avoid anything that has already begun to sprout or places where the skin is green — this signifies a high glycoalkaloid content, which is toxic!) By using up your slightly wilted celery, less-than-juicy onions, and blemished carrots, you can create delicious soup bases, stocks, and stews for mere pennies. Hungry for a skin-on potato soup? Check out this mouth-watering rendition from J.D. Roth!

Note: Please be careful to wash all produce carefully, and be aware that some items will be healthiest when purchased as an organic offering.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Freezing

My favorite way to quickly store the oodles of green, red, and yellow bell peppers that my grocer likes to put on quick sale is to simply rinse each pepper, slice into fourths, remove the seeds, and toss into a freezer bag. This is a great way to have green peppers on hand for making fajitas, meatloaves, or any other dish that requires cooked bell peppers. You can also freeze most any fruit or veggie, but blanching and citric acid may be required to maintain quality. (Dicing up tiny pieces of peppers, celery, and berries and then freezing them in ice cube trays make preparing soups and smoothies a breeze!)

Jams and Jellies

Much more labor-intensive, but possibly the most long-term of all solutions, making up a batch of strawberry jam or jelly is a tasty way to use up that couple of pints that didn’t look so appealing at the grocery store. While the process itself takes some mastering, you can enjoy the “fruits” of your labor for many months to come!

(Editors Note: As a few readers have pointed out, some types of overripe fruit may not be suitable for typical jams and jellies, as they will not contain the pectin needed to set well.  Some ideas for long-term storage of fruit concoctions include chutneys, some berry jams that are stored in the fridge, and using overripe fruit as an addition to a basic jelly/jam or in homemade applesauce.  Thanks to our many jam and jelly experts for helping us finetune this article!)

Juice

Have one of those expensive juicers at home just taking up space? Maybe you don’t use it more because you hate cleaning it after every use. Or you just figured out how darned expensive it is to feed your juicing habit. Enter the miracle that is discounted produce: Use those bruised apples, bumpy carrots, and overripe berries to fuel you up before you leave for work. Feel good and save money!

Yes! My absolutely most frugal tip of this article is for the tiniest of foodies. Avoid buying premade baby food if you can make it yourself — for far less with reduced price produce! Whether you enjoy making up tiny portions of applesauce (crockpots work nicely for this), or you want to give a steamed, mashed broccoli mix a try, any edible, thoroughly washed, and properly cooked fruit or veggie can be blended into a beautiful and affordable puree for baby. Freeze or refrigerate for weeks’ worth of snacks and meals!

Before you turn up your nose at the “Manager’s Special” offered in your grocer’s produce aisle, consider how much money you could save by buying their unwanted fruits and vegetables. Then look at the typical amount of fresh food wasted by the average American family. Buying slightly damaged produce isn’t disgusting — throwing away your money on overpriced food that you’ll eventually let rot in the bottom of your crisper drawer, in my opinion, most certainly is.

Additional photo credit: Linsey B. Knerl
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Guest's picture
Michele

As a long-time home canning enthusiast (nearly 20 years), I would not use anything but top-quality, freshest produce for jams, jellies, and marmalades. In fact, fruit spreads almost always benefit from the use of a small quantity of under-ripe fruit, because it tends to promote a better set. In my opinion, it's a waste of time, money, and stove fuel to use fruit that's past its prime for jams and jellies. I even try to use produce that's picked that very morning.

However! I wouldn't hesitate to add some over-ripe fruits to a batch of applesauce, say, plums or peaches or berries. But I wouldn't make it a significant portion of the overall volume of fruit. Also, I'd add some spices or some lemon juice, because a big reason not to can over-ripe fruit is that it doesn't have as much flavor and tartness as the freshest fruit.

Better to use up mushy fruit in a fruit sauce or a smoothie, I think. Otherwise I think the tips here are very good and useful!

Guest's picture
Mary

I just want to point out that you should probably dry spicy chiles with the dehydrator outside; I'm not sure, but I suspect the strong circulation of air around spicy chiles would cause some of the spice in them to become airborne. I have this problem when people around me cook with spicy chiles, and I get burning sensations in my eyes and throat.

You can also dehydrate leafy greens like kale and spinach to a crisp, grind them to a powder, and sneak it into your family's food- I don't know if this would save much money, but there's lots of nutrients in them thar leaves!

Linsey Knerl's picture

Yes! That is a good tip :)

I dried a few kinds of peppers, and my house did smell rather "spicy" for days.  While it didn't bother me, it was kind of distracting.  I dry my peppers in the laundry room now, just in case we have company over and don't want the whole house smelling like chili.

Linsey Knerl

Linsey Knerl's picture

I appreciate your tips for canning jams and jellies.  I have to admit that I've just made a few kinds on my lifetime, and because I like to toss a few overripe strawberries in with a rhubarb or peach jam, it never occurred to me that I may actually be hindering the setting process.  I think that the best way to use up these rogue fruits is to make a fruit leather in the dehydrator, but I'm always trying to think of ways to make my fruit purchases store longer.  I'll have to continue with the applesauce method and use your tips to add some various fruit flavors for variety.

Thanks!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
beatty bug

If you don't mind sharing, what is your fruit leather recipe?

Myscha Theriault's picture

Great one, Linsey! I have to admit to your soup tip being the one we use most often here, and we haven't found a source hear for outdated produce yet like we have in other places. That being said, we're not above it - particularly when it comes to bell peppers and bananas.

You can also follow me on Twitter and Trek Hound.

Andrea Karim's picture

I know grocery stores in my hometown sold past-prime produce quietly (behind the swinging doors, just as you describe), as well as old bread and things like that, but I have never looked for it while in the city.

Other awesomes that I make from leftovers/almost bad bits: bread pudding and other savory bread stuffings, smoothies (you mentioned juice, but I also like to make fruit and veggie smoothies), ice cream and yogurt (milk works better for yogurt when it is past its prime), and fried rice... you can put pretty much any chopped up meat or veggie in fried rice. 

Guest's picture
Olivia

My kids like chunky applesauce, which means you peel the apples first before cooking. Instead of tossing remains into the compost pile as usual, I made my first batch of apple peel jelly. Not only did it taste great, it turned this lovely pink peach color. Pretty enough for gifts. I'll have to look for hidden stashes of over the edge produce. Good lead. Thanks.

Guest's picture

I often stew up fruit that is a bit overipe and use it for dessert or for sauces. Making soup is one of my favourite ways to use veggies up, I keep a bag in the freezer and toss excess veggies in it for using in soup.

Guest's picture
Ben-David

Most wines, vinegars, and brandies start with pulped fruit. There are many companies that sell starter kits with yeast and other equipment.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Would have liked to include your tip, Ben-David, but this is one area where I have the least experience.  Glad you brought it up so that our readers could research more if they're interested in experimenting with homemade wines and such.  Thanks!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture

Seriously, these are some really interesting ideas. On the idea of juicers or chopping things up, I highly recommend the Magic Bullet. I received one of these for XMAS from my mother and it has made my life (the life of a bachelor!) MUCH easier.

Now I have some more ideas.

Mike

Guest's picture
marci357

Bananas in skins can be frozen as is. Take then out when you need them for breads etc.

I would only use fresh prime fruits for canning and jellies etc.

Veggies can be cooked up quickly and then frozen, or blanched and frozen.

Linsey Knerl's picture

Funny you mentioned that!  While my experiences with the little gadget have been hit or miss, it did work well to mash up the blueberries as shown in my picture (see the little guy in the photo?)  I like it for baby food and for mixing up my breakfast shakes.  Good tip!

Linsey Knerl

Guest's picture
Allison

Thanks for all of these interesting ideas and suggestions! My newest dilemma is whether to start shopping at stores like Wal-Mart that are now offering local and organic produce.

http://blog.greensherpa.com/index.php/personal-finance/produce-wars-wal-...

Whats your take on this story?

Guest's picture
happymomy

You can also use up older fruit to make your own kids roll ups or fruit leathers. You just puree the fruit until smooth, then spread on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake at the lowest temperature until is is the consistency you like. Store in freezer bags or rolled up in wax paper. Kids love it and it is made with real fruit not the sugar stuff from the box you get at the store.

Guest's picture
Diane

You could probably make freezer pops for kids by freezing the fruit puree with sticks in it. Another thing I do, when I find a moldy citrus fruit in a bag, is zest the remaining good peel and squeeze the juice, and freeze them separately. Then you never have to buy a fruit just for the zest, or a bottle of orange juice when you just need a quarter cup. I've noticed that when broccoli starts to go bad, it's the flowers that go first, so the stems are still good for making soup, or shredding in the food processer for broccoli slaw.

Guest's picture
Emily

anyone else read "sweet breads" and think animal organs?