A Guide to Grocery Shopping

Learning to choose fresh produce as well as meats and fish is a lengthy process. How are you supposed to know if something is ripe without cutting it up or know if it will taste good without biting into it? Not to mention the terrifying world of trying to choose fish and meat. Here are a few hard and fast rules that I've learned over time when shopping for produce. They're not perfect, but 60% of the time, they work every time. Maybe a little more frequently even.

And yes, I skipped some letters because I couldn't think of any corresponding produce. If you can, let me know and I'll add to the list.

A general word about fruit: heavier usually means juicier so if you're stuck between two pieces that look and smell almost exactly the same, go for the heavier one.


Apples -- should be firm to the touch and smell floral. Avoid any with bruising around the stems or at the base.
Asparagus -- the stalks should be firm and the heads should be tight. If there's any wrinkling or wilting, pass them up.
Avocados -- the Hass avocados are ripe when the skins are dark purplish-brown and should be soft to the touch but not mushy. Florida avocados are enormous (as big as two fists usually) and bright green when they're ripe. Again, avoid obvious bruising.

Bananas -- Ripe when bright yellow, but probably still fine if there's a little green around the stem. They will ripen more quickly in a paper bag. You can freeze them indefinitely but the skins will turn black. This doesn't affect the flavor however.
Broccoli -- Look for firm stems and tightly clustered florets that are uniformly dark green. Avoid anything that is vaguely yellowed or starting to darken. I find organic broccoli to taste less earthy and much sweeter.
Beans -- Firm, uniformly colored (depending on variety) and should make a cracking noise if you snap one in two. They go bad very quickly so eat them within two days of purchase. If they start to feel a little slimy, rinse them well in hot water. Don't forget to trim the ends.
Blueberries -- Bright blue in color and firm but not hard. The bigger they are, the sweeter they are.

Carrots -- Bright orange and very firm. It's better to buy uncut carrots as they last longer but it is more work to have to peel them. These will keep for at least a week in your refrigerator.
Celery -- Bright green stalks that feel firm to the touch with no wilting leaves. The darker the color, the stronger the flavor.
Corn -- The husk be wrapped tightly around the cob. Strip back one or two of the leaves and some of the silk to check for bugs and the color of the corn. Again, brighter color means sweeter flavor. Avoid any with dark spots in the silk or that look chewed or dried around the tip.
Cucumbers -- Firm to the touch with no mushy spots around either end. English cucumbers (the long, skinny ones) are typically sweeter and have fewer seeds.

Eggplant -- A dark purple body with no obvious bruises is the way to go. The inside should be slightly off-white and spongy.
Eggs -- Not technically produce, but to test for freshness, place them in a pot of water. If they float, throw them out. At the store, check the bottoms of at least 4 in the carton for cracks.

Grapes -- Check the bottom of the bag for brown and/or squishy ones. The vine should be stiff and light green and a majority of the fruit should still be attached.
Garlic -- Look for a tightly closed head with no signs of wrinkling or browning. If you open the paper and the clove itself is wrinkled, it's old and should probably be tossed.
Ginger root -- The root, a light brown color, should be hard with no squishy spots. If it starts to go mushy in your fridge, you can chop that part off and use the rest of the root.

Lemons and Limes -- Should be uniformly bright yellow or bright green. If they feel too soft and malleable, they're overripe. If they're more tennis ball-textured they're not quite ripe. Shoot for somewhere in the middle; you should be able to comfortably squeeze one and feel it give.
Lettuce -- If you're buying bagged, again check the bottom to see if any of it has started to go brown. I personally recommend buying head lettuce because it's much cheaper and lasts longer. It's also easier to see if there are any slimy or brown pieces when you buy it. The leaves should be pretty tightly furled, not droopy and firm to the touch. Avoid any heads with browning leaves.

Mango -- Champagne mangos are completely yellow when ripe and much softer and smaller than the mangos you usually see at the grocery store which are bright orange-red when ripe. Regardless of variety, they should be soft but not squishy to touch and smell very strongly of, you guessed it, mango. If you can't smell anything, chances are it won't taste very good.
Melon -- Test a melon for freshness by pressing with your thumb around where the stem used to be at the top. It should give just a little and smell very floral.
Mushrooms -- The loose ones should feel dry to the touch and spongy but not squishy. The prepackaged ones tend to go bad more quickly and you'll be able to tell by the scent (kind of like gym shoes) and the slimy feel. If you buy mushrooms, immediately remove them from their package and put them into a brown paper bag which you can then refrigerate. It helps them last longer.

Nectarines -- Should be soft to the touch but not squishy with a bright orange and yellow skin. They will smell very strongly fruity when they're ripe and go bad pretty quickly afterwards. Sadly, I haven't yet found a way to completely avoid mealy fruit. If someone knows the warning signs, I'm all ears.

Onions -- Firm to the touch with a smooth exterior once you get past the paper. As the onions age they'll wrinkle a little bit but they won't go bad for at least a few weeks unless they're cut open in which case they'll only last for a few days.
Oranges -- Uniformly bright orange and soft but not squishy with no dark brown spots. They should be heavy and smell strongly of fruit. If they smell oddly vinegary or acidic they've gone bad.

Peaches -- Similar to nectarines, should be uniformly yellowish-orange and soft to the touch but not squishy. Avoid any with obvious bruising or splits in the skin. You can ripen peaches more quickly in a paper bag.
Plums -- Should be dark purple and quite soft but not so squishy that if you squeeze too hard the skin splits.
Peppers -- Should be all one color (red, green or yellow) and firm to the touch with no wrinkling. Peppers will stay good for weeks at a time if kept in a vegetable crisper but once the skin starts to wrinkle they will be tougher and not as tasty.
Pears -- The most common type of pear, Bosc, is red and yellow when fully ripe and will smell very floral. Avoid fruits with brown spots or squishing near the stem. They should still be firm to the touch but not hard.
Potatoes -- Very easy: avoid potatoes with eyes (sprouts that look like small warts) and obvious mold. They will keep for at least a week in a dark place like your cupboard.

Raspberries -- Look for dark-red fruits, again the larger the sweeter. Once you buy them, raspberries go bad quite quickly so after you wash them, place them in a single layer on a plate or baking sheet in the refrigerator to increase their longevity.

Strawberries -- Again, look for dark-red fruits. You should be able to smell the strawberries through the plastic box. In the states, where a significant amount of produce is genetically modified, bigger does not mean better for strawberries. In fact, organic strawberries are typically much smaller and almost purple-red and these are the sweetest I've tried.
Sweet potatoes -- See potatoes.

Tomatoes -- Choose dark red or bright yellow fruits that feel heavy with no obvious bruising or marks that are soft but not squishy to the touch. They should smell very strongly tomato-y. You'll have worse luck with your common grocery store hot-house tomato and better luck with the ugly but totally delicious heirloom tomatoes.
Tangerines -- See oranges, although the skin may sometimes be a mixture of orange and green when ripe.

Yams -- See potatoes.

Zucchini -- Zucchini is a case where bigger is not always better. In fact, the larger a zucchini is, the tougher the skin will be and the earthier it will taste. Choose small, dark green vegetables with no obvious bruises or marks. They should be firm and unyielding to the touch.

A word on chicken, beef and seafood: when in doubt, throw it out. Your nose is the first place you should look to if you're unsure about the freshness. Shopping in large supermarkets generally eliminates a good portion worry but avoid any "sale" meat or randomly packaged off-brand meat because it likely came from a sub-par product. In that same vein, the more a product was handled and broken down, the higher chances there are for contamination. Ground beef can be contaminated without any outward signs including scent and appearance. Overall, good chicken and beef shouldn't smell like anything. Good seafood should smell only vaguely salty (like a lake or an ocean) and not like a bait shop. No matter where you are, be wary if all you can smell is bleach because that's an easy way to cover up something ugly. You can also tell by the feel of things -- if it's slimy, and I mean really beyond just raw-meat-slimy, you should probably chuck it. Some people rinse and use the meat anyway but why take a chance?

Chicken -- I recommend buying chicken in the least processed form you possibly can. If you feel comfortable buying a whole one and breaking it down yourself, do it. If not, at least go for bone-in breasts. White meat shows less deterioration than dark meat but you'll know if either has gone bad by the smell: slightly sweetish and rotting, like old garbage. You can keep raw chicken in the fridge for up to 3 or 4 days, cooked for about 5 to a week and for a few months in the freezer.

Beef -- Again, the less it's processed, the better. As beef ages, it begins to show signs of oxidization by turning vaguely greenish or grey. This doesn't necessarily mean that it is unsafe to eat but if you're worried, cut that part away. A lot of people I know avoid ground beef altogether. Marrow also typically goes bad more quickly than the meat itself. Raw beef will keep in the fridge for 2 or 3 days, cooked for about a week and for a month or so in the freezer.

Seafood -- This is the easiest to tell if it's gone bad. In the supermarket or the fish store, always ask to see the whole fish. If the eyes are clear, then it's still very fresh. If they're slightly cloudy, it's probably a day or so old. If the eyes are completely cloudy, skip it. The fish section of the store will never smell great but if it smells particularly strong that day, you're probably not going to get the best product. Always cook fresh fish that night because it's very temperamental and easy to contaminate. You can keep cooked fish in the fridge for about 2 or 3 days but I don't recommend freezing previously cooked fish. Just buy the already-frozen fillets which will keep for months.

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