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17 tips to pick the freshest veggies and ripest fruit

Finding the best, ripest and tastiest fruits and vegetables isn’t as intuitive as you might think.
/ Source: Eat This, Not That!

Refusing to eat broccoli or skipping the salad bar aren’t just habits exhibited by picky kids; turns out, most grown-ups aren’t eating their fruits and veggies, either. Federal guidelines recommend adults eat at least 1 and 1/2 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables a day. But only 12 percent of adults meet the requirement for fruit and just 9 percent of adults eat enough vegetables, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Making sure you’re getting your daily fill isn’t the only problem; finding the best, ripest and tastiest fruits and vegetables isn’t as intuitive as you might think. It’s a task that requires all five senses to decipher the quality of your supermarket produce. Regardless of what you’re shopping for, start with these three rules:

1. Beautiful doesn’t mean delicious

Sub-par conventional produce is bred to look waxy, glistening, and perfectly symmetrical, while prime fruits and vegetables are often irregularly shaped, with slight visual imperfections outside but a world of flavor waiting inside.

2. Use your hands

You can learn more about a fruit or vegetable from picking it up than you can from staring it down. Heavy, sturdy fruits and vegetables with taut skin and peels are telltale signs of freshness.

3. Shop with the seasons

In the Golden Age of the American supermarket, Chilean tomatoes and South African asparagus are an arm’s length away when our soil is blanketed in snow. Sure, sometimes you just need a tomato, but there are three persuasive reasons to shop in season: it’s cheaper, it’s better and it’s better for you.

To dig even deeper into our hunt for perfect produce, Eat This, Not That! asked Aliza Green, author of "Field Guide to Produce," and Chef Ned Elliott of Portland’s Urban Farmer restaurant for the dirt on scoring the best of the bounty. Use the tips and tricks that follow and you’ll bring home the best fruits and vegetables every time, just like an Italian grandma. And while you’re at the store, check out these50 Best Supermarket Shopping Tips Ever.

1. Apples

Perfect pick: Firm and heavy for its size with smooth, matte, unbroken skin and no bruising. The odd blemish (read: wormhole) or brown “scald” streaks do not negatively impact flavor. The smaller the apple, the bigger the flavor wallop.

Peak season: September to May

Handle with care: Keep apples in a plastic bag in the crisper away from vegetables. Here, they should remain edible for several weeks.

The payoff: These fall and spring favorites are packed with quercetin, a flavonoid linked to better heart health, plus the soluble fiber pectin, which keeps cholesterol in check.

2. Artichokes

Perfect pick: An artichoke with deep green, heavyset, undamaged, tightly closed leaves is the best bet. The leaves should squeak when pinched together.

Peak season: March to May

Handle with care: Store in the fridge in a plastic bag for up to five days.

The payoff: Aside from being a good source of protein, artichokes have a higher total antioxidant capacity than any other common vegetable, according to USDA tests.

3. Asparagus

Perfect pick: Look for vibrant green spears with tight purple-tinged buds. Avoid spears that are fading in color or wilting. Thinner spears are sweeter and more tender.

Peak season: March to June

Handle with care: Trim the woody ends and stand the stalks upright in a small amount of water in a tall container. Cover the tops with a plastic bag and cook within a few days.

The payoff: Asparagus are potent sources of folate, a B-vitamin that protects the heart by helping to reduce inflammation.

4. Avocados

Perfect pick: Avocados should feel firm to the touch without any sunken, mushy spots. They should not rattle when shaken — that’s a sign the pit has pulled away from the flesh.

Peak season: Year-round

Handle with care: To ripen, place avocados in a paper bag and store at room temperature for two to four days. To speed up this process, add an apple to the bag, which emits ripening ethylene gas. Ripe avocados can be stored in the fridge for up to one week.

The payoff: The green berry (yes, we said berry!) packs plenty of cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat. Bonus: A diet rich in monounsaturated fat may prevent body fat distribution around the belly by down regulating the expression of certain fat genes. Simply put: It can whittle your waist by zapping away belly fat.

5. Bananas

Perfect pick: Ripe bananas have uniform yellow skins or small brown freckles indicating they are at their sweetest. Avoid any with evident bruising or split skins.

Peak season: Year-round

Handle with care: Store unripe bananas on the counter, away from direct heat and sunlight (speed things up by placing green bananas in an open paper bag). Once ripened, refrigerate; though the peel turns brown, the flavor and quality are unaffected.

The payoff: Bananas are a good source of vitamin B6, which helps prevent cognitive decline, according to scientists at the USDA.

6. Beets

Perfect pick: A beet that’s in its prime should have a smooth, deep-red surface that’s unyielding when pressed. Smaller roots are sweeter and more tender. Attached greens should be deep green and not withered.

Peak season: June to October

Handle with care: Remove the leaves (which are great sautéed in olive oil) and store in a plastic bag in the fridge for no more than two days. The beets will last in the crisper for up to 2 weeks.

The payoff: Beets serve up a hefty dose of folate, which may help regulate cholesterol levels and boost heart health.

7. Bell Peppers

Perfect pick: A perfect bell pepper should have lots of heft for their size with a brightly colored, wrinkle-free exterior. The stems should be a lively green.

Peak season: July to December

Handle with care: Refrigerate in the crisper for up to two weeks.

The payoff: All bell peppers are loaded with antioxidants, especially vitamin C. Red peppers lead the pack, with nearly three times the amount of vitamin C found in fresh oranges. A single serving also has a full day’s worth of vision-protecting vitamin A.

8. Blueberries

Perfect pick: Look for plump, uniform indigo berries with taut skin and a dull white frost. Check the bottom of the container for juice stains indicating many crushed berries. Those with a red or green tinge will never fully ripen.

Peak season: June to August

Handle with care: Transfer, unwashed, to an airtight container and refrigerate for five to seven days. Blueberries spoil quickly if left at room temperature.

The payoff: Blueberries have more disease-fighting antioxidants than most commonly consumed fruits, according to Cornell University researchers. Another study out of the University of Michigan found that rats that ate blueberry powder as part of their meals lost belly fat and had lower cholesterol levels than their counterparts — even when they ate a high-fat diet. It’s theorized that the catechins in blueberries activate the fat-burning gene in belly-fat cells.

9. Broccoli

Perfect pick: Look for veggies with rigid stems and tightly formed floret clusters that are deep green or tinged purple. Pass on any with yellowing heads — they will inevitably be more bitter.

Peak season: October to May

Handle with care: Place in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

The payoff: These mini trees are filled to the brim with sulforaphane, a phytonutrient that activates enzymes that seek out and destroy cancerous cells. Sulforaphane has also been shown to boost testosterone and fights off body fat storage, making it one of the best foods to lose weight.

10. Brussels sprouts

Perfect pick: Look for compact, tight, and un-shriveled heads that are vibrant green and feel overweight for their size. Select ones of similar size for ease of cooking, knowing that smaller sprouts pack sweeter flavor.

Peak season: October to November

Handle with care: Refrigerate, unwashed, in a tightly wrapped perforated plastic bag for up to two weeks.

The payoff: Brussels sprouts contain nitrogen compounds called indoles, which have cancer-protecting efficacy. They’re also an excellent source of vitamin C, delivering up to a day’s worth in just a cup.

11. Cantaloupe

Perfect pick: The stem end of the melon should have a smooth indentation. Look for a sweet aroma, slightly oval shape, and a good coverage of netting. The blossom end should give slightly to pressure. Avoid those with soft spots — an indication of an overripe melon.

Peak season: May to September

Handle with care: Ripe cantaloupes should be stored in plastic in the fridge for up to five days, after which they begin to lose flavor.

The payoff: Cantaloupes have loads of vitamin C, which may offer protection against having a stroke. The vitamin has also been shown to elevate mood and counteract stress hormones that leave you feeling tense and trigger the storage of belly fat. Aside from noshing on melon, there are plenty of other ways to fight back against a widening waistline.

12. Carrots

Perfect pick: Carrots should be smooth and firm with bright orange color. Avoid those that are bendable or cracked at the base. Bunches with bright green tops still in place are your freshest choice.

Peak season: Year-round

Handle with care: Store carrots in the crisper in a plastic bag with the greens removed for up to three weeks.

The payoff: Bugs Bunny’s favorite veggie carries tons of beta-carotene, a nutrient that helps fight off infections. They’re also a great source of vitamin K and potassium.

13. Cauliflower

Perfect pick: When shopping for cauliflower, look for a veggie that’s ivory white with compact florets, There should be no dark spotting on the florets or the leaves. The leaves should be verdant and perky.

Peak season: September to November

Handle with care: Refrigerate, unwashed, in a plastic bag for up to one week. If light brown spots develop on the florets, shave off with a paring knife before cooking.

The payoff: The veggie is filled with detoxifying compounds called isothiocyanates, which offer protection against aggressive forms of prostate cancer.

14. Eggplant

Perfect pick: Look for eggplants that have good weight to them with tight, shiny, wrinkle-free skin. When they’re pressed, look for them to be springy, not spongy. The stem and cap should be forest green, not browning.

Peak season: August to September

Handle with care: Store eggplants in a cool location (not the fridge) for three to five days. Eggplants are quite sensitive to the cold.

The payoff: The tasty purple veggie contains chlorogenic acid, a phenol antioxidant that scavenges disease-causing free radicals. It also contains powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins that provide neuroprotective benefits like bolstering short-term memory and reducing mood-killing inflammation.

15. Fennel

Perfect pick: Fennel bulbs should be uniform in color, with no browning and a clean, fragrant aroma. Smaller bulbs have a sweeter licorice-like flavor. Leave bulbs with wilted tops, called fronds, behind.

Peak season: Year-round

Handle with care: Separate the greens and bulbs and keep each, unwashed, in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for three to five days. Wilted fennel can be revived in ice water.

The payoff: Fennel is filled with anethole, a phytonutrient that may lessen inflammation and cancer risk.

16. Figs

Perfect pick: Figs should be plump with a deeply rich color; soft but not mushy to the touch. Avoid those with bruises or a sour odor.

Peak season: July to September

Handle with care: Place fresh figs on a plate lined with a paper towel and eat them as they ripen. They bruise easily, so gentle handling is prudent. They also ripen quickly, so eat within a few days of purchasing. If overripe, simmer with a bit of water, sugar, and balsamic vinegar for a fig jam or sauce.

The payoff: Figs contain phytosterols, which help keep cholesterol levels in check. They also carry a bit of bone-building calcium. (Three medium fruits carry 5 percent of the daily recommended intake.)

17. Garlic

Perfect pick: A fresh garlic bulb should feel heavy for its size, with tightly closed cloves in the bulb that remain firm when gently pressed. The skin can be pure white or have purple-tinged stripes and should be tight fitting.

Peak season: Year-round

Handle with care: Place bulbs in a cool, dark, well-ventilated location for up to one month.

The payoff: Garlic contains the cancer-fighting compound allicin, which has also been shown to fight off the bacteria responsible for the development of stomach ulcers.

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