I was always told to wash fruit and vegetables right before eating or cooking them, and not earlier. This is supposedly intended to "keep them fresh" or "keep them safe from bacteria" (depends on the source).

I tried to find some sourced information on Internet but while there is no shortage of information about how to wash them (especially today with the COVID-19 pandemic), I did not find anything about when they are best washed (right after buying them, or right before consumption).

I would be interested in a generic information - that is not targeted on today's critical handling of fruit or vegetables (or anything else - again, COVID-19), but one for "normal times".

  • While this doesn't directly answer your question, the link in the first answer might. cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/43038/… – moscafj Apr 30 '20 at 14:21
  • @moscafj: I cannot find in the link you provided the when part (the how is there, as in the many other sources I mentioned in my question) – WoJ Apr 30 '20 at 14:25
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    From linked source: "According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), you should wash raw fruits and vegetables very well before you peel, cut, eat or cook with them." – moscafj Apr 30 '20 at 14:33
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    @moscafj: English is not my first language so apologies if I misunderstood but my understanding of this sentence is: wash the vegetables before peeling them (as in "do not peel the vegs without having washed them" (without stating when to wash)) – WoJ Apr 30 '20 at 15:04
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    My interpretation is that it is ok to store without washing, but you should wash before using. – moscafj Apr 30 '20 at 16:04

Wash them right before you use them. You could wash them when you get home, it's not going to hurt most things if you're gentle, but that won't mean they're still clean once you're ready to use them. I'm guessing you aren't storing them somewhere sterile, so they will get dirty again during storage, and you'll just have to wash them again.

The other issue with washing a considerable amount of time before using is that washing doesn't remove 100% of bacteria on a surface. It should get rid of enough so it doesn't make you sick, but if you let it sit long enough after washing, the bacteria could reproduce into a dangerous quantity again. Obviously that's not true of everything you wash off produce (it's not going to magically gain more pesticides and some pathogens can't reproduce on the surface of produce), but it could be of some things.

In short, washing produce when you get it home isn't sufficient to make it safe to consume later, and you probably don't want to wash it twice if you don't have to, so just wash it before you use it. An exception might be in the current pandemic situation, where you want to get rid of any viruses on your produce before putting it away. In that case, feel free to wash produce when you get it home along with other washable items, but you should still wash it again before using it.

With that said, nothing makes eating raw produce perfectly safe, so it's really a matter of your risk appetite. If it's much more convenient for you to prep your produce in advance and you keep them in something that's thoroughly washed between uses, then it's not terribly likely to hurt you. It's a bit safer to wash them closer to when you use them, and some things may keep longer if they aren't washed, but it wouldn't be unreasonable to wash them sooner in some cases.

  • Do you think this holds if you put it in a bag or container after washing? That's what I usually do after chopping and washing lettuce... seems like if it didn't work the whole concept of "pre-washed" lettuce at the grocery store would be iffy. – Casey May 1 '20 at 0:46
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    There's also the issue with some fruits or vegetables, for example blueberries, which you shouldn't wash before storing or it promotes faster mold growth. – Luciano May 1 '20 at 9:21
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    @Casey Well, maybe. Lettuce is a tricky one, as you can still get sick from prewashed lettuce. Cutting/breaking the lettuce can provide food for E. coli to reproduce, which obviously gets worse the longer it sits. They also wash it with more than just water, so it's not likely to be analogous to your washing technique at home. If it's perfectly washed and cleaned, sure, it's fine, but if any bacteria remains, then it might reproduce as it sits. But washing even right before use might not save you with lettuce, so it's a bit of gamble regardless. – Kat May 1 '20 at 18:13
  • @Kat All fair points. I've been doing it for years, so I suppose either my washing technique is very thorough, I'm pretty hardy, or the risk is not huge. Lettuce won't keep that long, so I suppose it's also possible it just rots faster than that becomes an issue. – Casey May 1 '20 at 18:15
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    @Casey I'm pretty sure lots of people either don't wash their produce at all or do it very poorly yet don't ever get sick, so the risk is probably not very high. Like eating undercooked eggs or ground beef, there's technically a risk, but it probably won't have serious consequences if you're generally healthy. I edited my answer to reflect that. – Kat May 1 '20 at 18:29

Wash them right before. Especially apples. When you get these at the grocery store they have a coat of light oil or wax on them that keeps them from drying out. That is a good thing and safe it eat, but also fine to wash off.

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