Most of us have probably thrown out food due to spoilage, but regularly doing this is terribly wasteful and expensive. Thankfully, you can safely preserve the quality of your food and make it last longer by learning a few food storage techniques.
Photo by Rubbermaid.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when storing food, such as: how to safely handle food to prevent foodborne illness, the types of containers you use, and how long foods normally last in the fridge or freezer. Here are some guidelines from the USDA (and, where noted, other sources):
Handling Food Safely
Keep raw meat, poultry and fish away from other foods so they don’t contaminate them. (This is probably why many fridges have a meat compartment in the bottom of the fridge; if yours doesn’t, store uncooked meat/seafood on the lowest rack to prevent their juices from leaking onto the other foods.)
Also always wash your hands – there’s a best way to do it – before and after handling food, whether cooking or putting it away.
Refrigerator and Freezer Temperature
The temperature of your refrigerator should be 4C or below and the freezer at -17C or below.
Storing Leftovers and Perishable Food
Timing: Freeze or refrigerate perishable food within two hours or one hour if the temperature is over 30C. A general guideline is to eat leftovers within four days. This chart shows pizza and cooked meat or poultry should last three to four days, while lunch meats and egg, tuna or macaroni salads may last three to five days.
Containers: Store the food in the best-fitting, shallow containers. Glass storage containers have the benefit of being easy to check the contents, may be microwavable, and are more eco-friendly. If you have plastic containers already, just check to make sure they’re labelled BPA-free; as dealnews mentions in “6 Best Choices for Food Storage Containers,” if the number on the recycling icon on the container has a “7” on it, it likely has BPA in it, which may be hazardous. If your kitchen is drowning in food containers, it may be time to trim your stash to include only the most essential types of containers.
One trick for making sure your leftovers actually get eaten, not just stored prettily, is to put the most recently cooked food behind earlier leftovers. If you have trouble remembering when you put the food in the fridge, try using a dry erase marker to note the date on the cover.
Storing Fruits and Vegetables
Produce can be tricky to store because some fruits and vegetables are incompatible when stored together. Some fruits emit ethylene gas which can cause vegetables to spoil prematurely. Vegetarian Times recommends keeping these “gas releasers” out of the fridge: avocados, bananas, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums and tomatoes.
You can refrigerate apples, apricots, cantaloupes, figs and honeydew, but keep them out of the vegetable bin/crisper where you may be storing ethelyne-sensitive vegetables (check the Vegetarian Times article for the list of these vulnerable veggies; VT also recommends which fruits and vegetables to eat first based on how rapidly they spoil).
Speaking of the vegetable bin, most standard fridges have a vegetable crisper designed to keep produce firm and fresher for longer, and sometimes come with moisture and temperature controls. This may be a good place to keep your gas-sensitive vegetables, as the area is sealed off from the rest of the fridge.
Don’t store fruits and vegetables in their own airtight bags or containers, however, because that might speed up decay. Produce preserving products like Debbie Meyer Green Bags, on the other hand, might help extend the life of your produce (but we can’t personally vouch for them).
Because there are so many types of egg products and eggs require special care to avoid food poisoning, FoodSafety.gov has a chart on how to store different egg products, whether in the fridge or freezer. Basically, raw eggs in the shell can last a long time (three to five weeks), while liquid egg substitutes only last a few days.
Keep your food in air tight packages in the freezer to prevent freezer burn, which degrades the quality of your food. If you’re not ready to invest in something like the FoodSaver vacuum sealer, an inexpensive alternative is the Reynolds Handi-Vac vacuum-sealing kit, which works on the same principle of removing air from the accompanying freezer bags. It’s a bit noisy, but saves counter space and works (for the most part).
Tinkernut says to wrap meat like a pro for freezing, use good quality freezer paper. Fold the paper over the meat and crease, then continue folding and pressing the air out. After folding and turning under the ends, seal with freezer tape. You could double up the paper or layer with aluminium foil or plastic for more security.
Real Simple advises you to let breads and other baked goods cool off before freezing in freezer bags so the moisture doesn’t form ice crystals inside. This may also apply to other just-cooked items.
Label your frozen foods with the date and name of the food, and try to separate foods into portion sizes for easy reheating.
Finally, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has a long list of freezing information by specific food, as well as general advice like foods that don’t freeze well (e.g. like milk sauces), how much headspace to allow between packed food (1cm to 4cm), and freezer management tips like making sure you keep your freezer full for best efficiency.
See the USDA’s cold storage chart for safe time limits for storing food in the fridge or freezer (there are many others available like this one from University of Nebraska-Lincoln and this one from the Colorado State University).
Have any tips or advice for better food storage? Let’s hear them in the comments.