We originally published this post in June of 2012, but with an increase in food prices in recent years, the advice and tips that Erin offers here are still very useful!
Written by Erin Odom, Contributing Writer
Since this season is all about incorporating more veggies into our diets and eating from our pantries and freezers, I thought it would be a prime time to share one of my favorite frugal grocery shopping tips: how to take advantage of clearance produce.
You can stretch your weekly produce allowance a lot further if you check out the marked-down, overripe fruits and veggies!
I actually map out my grocery trips to stop at the clearance shelves and bins first. Most stores have these, and if you’re not sure if yours does, don’t be afraid to ask the store manager what they do with the overripe produce that isn’t at its prime but is not bad either. By taking advantage of these deals, you can shave up to 50-75% off your produce budget!
Image by Wonderlane
However, there are limits to what you can do with clearance produce. Keep these important tips in mind:
Make a Quick, Mental Plan Before Buying
I’ve made the mistake far, far too many times of buying too much clearance produce. While 5 pounds of mushrooms for $2.00 may sound great at the time, if they all go bad before you can use them, then it’s $2 wasted.
While I scour the clearance produce shelves, I try to form a mental plan of what I will do with the items. Some clearance produce items are eaten fine as is, but many times they make the mark-down racks because they may have a bruise or be extra soft, etc. Can I turn the bruised apples into applesauce? Can I cook these soft tomatoes into a yummy pasta sauce? I find that without this plan, my “great buys” may buy themselves time rotting in my fridge only to be tossed in the compost or trash can.
Image by amberdegrace
Be Willing To Change Your Meal Plan
In her Plan It, Don’t Panic meal planning eBook, Stephanie stresses the benefits of making a flexible meal plan. This is key when taking advantage of clearance produce.
If you’ve planned on baking chicken tenders with a green bean casserole that night but spy a big bag of lettuce for 50% off, can the green bean plans and serve grilled chicken salads instead! Move your night’s original meal onto the next night.
Know Your Produce’s Typical “Lifespan”
Believe it or not, there are actually a few produce items that will keep long past the point where they make it to the clearance shelves. Of course, the sooner you eat these items, the more nutritional value you will consume. It’s important to know which items will last longer than others–which foods can be stored in the fridge, frozen or used immediately, or used up or lost altogether.
Store in the Fridge
Don’t be scared to let these sit in the fridge a few days if you don’t already have a plan for them:
- apples–I very frequently find organic apples on clearance at our local health food store–sometimes for as low as $.49/pound in season! These will last a very long time, and if they do start to brown, you can easily make some applesauce, toss them into an applecado smoothie or make a yummy apple crisp!
- carrots–If they don’t have any signs of going bad right away, carrots will last in your fridge for quite a while. If you don’t think you’ll use them before they do rot, go ahead and chop or shred and freeze them. You won’t be able to eat these raw, but they’ll be perfect in a soup!
- citrus fruits–Unless they are growing mold (and, in that case, you need to toss them!), even clearance citrus fruits should last a bit longer than other produce.
Image by Calvert Cafe & Catering
Eat or Freeze
You should either eat or freeze these items the same day you purchase them.
- mangoes, pears, peaches and most fruits in general–If they are already soft and a bit mushy, you need to use them that day, or you can easily puree and freeze them in ice-cube trays. You can feed the thawed purees to your baby, or you can toss the frozen fruit cubes into a smoothie. Freshly pureed fruit is also perfect for making fruit leather. Ripe fruit is also perfect for making desserts and jellies/jams.
- bananas–These freeze so well! I usually puree mine first, so I can easily use the puree to make breads, muffins or in smoothies.
- greens–If you don’t plan on making a salad, specific greens dish, or some fun kale chips that day, steam and puree these as well. Again, you can feed the thawed puree to your baby or use the frozen cubes in a green smoothie. You could also mix the thawed greens into a soup or dip.
- peppers–I never leave peppers on the clearance shelf. Whether you cut them into strips or chop them into chunks, peppers freeze extremely well.
- avocados–I have personally never frozen these, but it can be done. Ripe avocados are perfect for making guacamole. Or, like many of the above, toss them into a smoothie!
Use It or Lose It
There are a few items that you really cannot freeze–and will not last in the fridge long either:
- mushrooms–Supposedly you can freeze them, but they must be fresh. If you don’t use them up quickly, they’ll go to waste.
- lettuce–I haven’t found a good way to preserve lettuce. So if you aren’t making that salad asap, leave that head of romaine on the shelf.