When I read the results of a national study in 2002 that said American families threw away about 470 pounds of food (or about $600) a year—mostly produce—I opened my fridge and looked inside with despair. It was true. How often had I thrown out once-beautiful tomatoes, cantaloupes and pears destined for fabulous dishes but reduced to sad, slimy lumps in the crisper drawers?

Too often. And my wallet and my tomatoes deserved better!

Like the couponer's mantra says, "A dollar saved is a dollar earned." The longer your produce lasts, the further it'll stretch and the less you'll have to buy. Follow these seven tips to keep your produce perky and your budget happy!

1. Store it smart

A big part of keeping fruits and veggies in prime condition has to do with where you store them. Some should go in the fridge as soon as possible; others should never see the inside of a crisper drawer. Still others should be allowed to ripen on the counter, then chill in the fridge once optimal ripeness is achieved. Here's our short list of some of the most commonly eaten fruits and veggies!

  • Never refrigerate: tomatoes, potatoes, onions, basil, garlic, bananas (all of these foods will deteriorate in texture and taste if kept in the fridge).
  • Refrigerate as soon as possible: berries, cherries, grapes, spinach, corn, herbs (except basil!) lettuce, broccoli, beans, mushrooms, and all cut fruit.
  • Ripen on counter, then refrigerate: peaches, pears, melons, avocado, kiwi, plums.

2. Wash it right

Wash lettuce, kale, and spinach before storing it in the fridge. The extra moisture will help these leafy greens stay perkier and fresher longer. However, wait to wash all other fruits and vegetables until immediately before you're ready to use them. Washing removes pesticides and dirt, but it also removes some of nature's preservatives and can make fruits and veggies spoil more quickly.

3. Separate it

Apparently there are two crisper drawers for a reason (other than organization). Many fruits release something called ethylene gas, which speeds up ripening. If you store these gas-releasers with veggies, you end up with veggies that spoil quickly. Some of the most prolific ethylene-producers include bananas, avocados, tomatoes and pears. Keep these bad boys far away from your veggies (and other fruit you want to keep from becoming overripe)!

4. Know when to quit

The good news is, nearly all fruits and veggies freeze well (avocado and lettuce being notable exceptions). If you realize you bought way too much kale this go-round at the grocery store, chop it into bite-sized pieces, lay the pieces in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and pop them in the freezer for a couple of hours. Then store in a freezer-tight plastic bag for up to two months. I love using these chopped extras in soups, pies, smoothies and casseroles.

5. Let it breathe

For the longest time, I thought the best way to keep my produce fresh was to seal it up as tightly as possible in a plastic bag in the fridge. I've since learned that fruits and veggies need to "breathe." Keeping produce in a loosely closed plastic bag, or a bag with a few holes, is the ideal situation. Suffocating fruits and veggies leads to speedier decay and reduced quality.

6. Keep it whole

Nature knew what she was doing when she gave your apple a stem. To keep your produce fresh as long as possible, don't remove stems or leaves until you're ready to consume your produce. Removing anything allows for potential breakage (and bacteria), which will speed up spoilage.

7. Block the ethylene

Back to ethylene! There's not much you can do to keep fruits from releasing this ripening agent. But you can block it! One of my favorite products is Bluapple. Just drop this small egg-shaped object into your crisper drawer to absorb ethylene gases. The best price I've found after some digging is a year's supply on Amazon for about $20.

Other products that battle ethylene include bags like Debbie Meyer GreenBags. I'd recommend using Bluapple, however, since the GreenBags aren't reusable and run about $8 discounted on Amazon for a pack of 20.

8. Plan it out

This last tip might just be the most important. No matter how carefully you store and care for the produce you buy, some types of fruits and veggies are hardier than others. Plan your menu around the most fragile fruits and veggies in your shopping cart to keep spoilage to a minimum. Here's a rough guide I use when deciding my menu for the week:

  • Eat within three days: asparagus, bananas, broccoli, mushrooms, basil, cherries, strawberries, avocados, and corn.
  • Eat within five days: cucumbers, grapes, lettuce, lemons and limes, pineapple, and zucchini.
  • Eat within 7 days: bell peppers, blueberries, cauliflower, grapefruits, apricots, Brussels sprouts, oranges, peaches, pears, plums, spinach, tomatoes, watermelon, and herbs (except basil).

Here's to perfectly ripened avocados, crispier lettuce, and no more of that icky green stuff in the bottom of our produce bags!

This is a guest post by Noelle from Boise, ID.

8 Surprising Tips to Make Your Produce Last Longer