This post is from staff writer Tim Sullivan.

In France, they peel apples. When I worked as an au pair, the kids would ask me to peel them. I’d sit there wondering why anyone would ever peel an apple. One morning, I grabbed an apple out of the fridge, took a bite, and the mother said, “Oh, don’t you peel it first?” They don’t store butter in the fridge, nor eggs, nor milk, before it’s opened, as UHT (ultra-heat treatment, which kills spores) milk is the norm. And did I mention they peel apples? We have so many assumptions on the right way to do things, especially with food, based on our society, and of course, our parents. Often, we don’t even know they’re there.

I heard a story from a couple about how when they first moved in together, their first argument was over condiments. They needed ketchup for the faux chicken nuggets they were eating and the man grabbed a small bowl, poured the ketchup in, and placed it on the table with a spoon to be scooped out. The woman, seeing that the ketchup bottle was not on the table yet, did what her parents always did and placed the bottle on the table. The man was appalled. What, do we live in a zoo? The bottle right on the table?! Realizing it was just cultural conditioning, and it’s not like chicken nuggets are haute cuisine in need of proper presentation, he got a good chuckle out of his knee-jerk reaction.

My former roommate and I used to argue about what goes in the fridge and what doesn’t. Bread? Potatoes? Butter? I love when our quirks and habits come to light and we question the things we’ve always done because that’s just how you do them. I love it even more when the questioning of those habits saves me money. I’ve been doing this a lot recently with my fridge and food storage.

The art and science of storing produce
When I saw the website Save Food From the Fridge, I got inspired. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 99.9% of American households have a refrigerator. I follow suit, and in the past, apples, eggplants, peppers, and just about every other fruit and vegetable went in the fridge. It’s how my family did it, so it’s how I did it. Still, even with the fridge (or perhaps, because of the fridge) once every couple of weeks, some of it would spoil and be thrown away. Planning my food purchases better could surely help, but I was curious about ways to extend the self life of produce.

Save Food From the Fridge uses food biology and creative design to keep produce fresher for longer and saves electricity in the process. For example, studies show that there is a symbiotic relationship between apples and potatoes that can be exploited to keep both from spoiling. Apples emit ethylene gas which, for most fruits and vegetables, speeds up the process of ripening. If you ever have stored apples and bananas together, you know this fact all too well. But when apples are combined with potatoes, it slows down the ripening process. The website shows a wood box where potatoes are kept in their ideal condition, in the dark, while apples rest on holes above able to emit their ethylene to the potatoes.

I used to store produce like eggplants, cucumbers, and peppers in my fridge, even though it often left them slightly withered. Save Food From the Fridge suggests a simple rack with a water tray underneath so that the produce can have a constant source of humidity and hydration. That source of hydration keeps them fresher for longer than just keeping them cold, after all, they all are summer crops.

Life without a refrigerator?
My friend Knox runs a small art gallery and lives without a refrigerator. He lives alone in Chicago and has two grocery stores within walking distance, one of them is open 24 hours. He says that his refrigerator always ended up being a storage place for expired condiments and wilting greens. He doesn’t cook much, tends to eat a lot on the run, and describes himself as a forager, eating small amounts of food throughout the day — an apple and a handful of almonds, for example, in lieu of a big meal. For his lifestyle, fridge-free living works. When he travels for a month at a time, his electricity bill almost zeroes out.

For many people, even those who recycle, limit their lawn watering, bike to work, or take other steps to reduce their carbon footprint, unplugging the refrigerator would not only be inconvenient and more costly, but it also could use more energy. Not being able to store leftovers would be an issue, as would more frequent trips to the grocery store, which could mean more gas miles, and perhaps buying smaller quantities, which could lead to more packaging, more plastic, and higher costs. And what about milk drinkers?

Clearly few of us could (or would want to) unplug the refrigerator. But there are ways to reduce the energy cost of having a fridge. Check ‘em out:

  • Clean the door gaskets and compressor coils once a year. (Make sure you unplug the fridge first.)
  • Don’t open the door more often than you need, which reduces how often the compressor runs. If you’re in the market for a new refrigerator and are shopping for a high-end model, consider one that beeps when the door is ajar.
  • Try not to place the refrigerator directly next to the oven or in direct sunlight. If you keep the external temperature lower, the fridge doesn’t have to work as hard.

Even though I live alone and have grocery stores within walking distance, I’m keeping my refrigerator plugged in. My goal is to question the things I’ve accepted as the one right way, not to make drastic changes that feel forced or inappropriate. For example, I’ve started keeping some things out of the fridge. I like what Save Food From the Fridge calls The Verticality of Root Vegetables (keeping carrots upright, for example), which seems to make them last longer. Having my food on display also makes me want to eat it — it’s not lost at the bottom of a produce bin in the fridge.

The refrigerator and food storage are two examples of how we do things a certain way just because that’s how we learned to do them. But as with most aspects of personal finance, it’s important to question and to do what works for you, not just accept learned habits. This week, questioning my fridge use has saved me money on food waste and energy consumption.

What are some ways you’ve questioned the norm and saved money?

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