How to Store Food to Keep It Fresh

Food items

Sour milk, rotten fruits and veggies, freezer burn, spoiled packaging, moldy bread. These words conjure unpleasant images and feelings.

It’s difficult not to cringe imagining or experiencing food that has gone bad. And no one likes to throw food out and feel like they’re wasting money.

It’s impossible to be perfect in buying the right amount of food and preserving it until it can be used. But we’d like to clear up a few food storage myths and share some guidelines for how you can keep food fresh for longer. 

A note on food expiration dates

One important thing to note right off the bat, food expiration dates don’t always mean what you think they do. 

“Best if used by” dates give you an estimate of how long a food will be at peak quality, not necessarily how long it will be safe to eat. If a carton of milk is a few days past its expiration date, chances are it’s still good. 

A better indication of whether food has spoiled is whether you notice changes in its color, smell, taste, or texture. If food is clearly bad according to your senses, you should throw it out.

Food storage tips

To make the most of your food, the best place to start is with meal planning and preparation. When shopping, only buy enough food to satisfy your meal plan. Try to avoid buying items in bulk that you are unsure whether you can use before it will go bad. 

When you know you won’t be able to use all of a product before it goes bad, consider freezing it instead of throwing it out. 

If you know a food won’t freeze well (for example, salad doesn’t freeze well), there are other things you can do to help lengthen its shelf life. The FDA provides the following suggestions:

  • Don’t peel or cut fruits and vegetables until you are ready to use them.
  • Prioritize use of ingredients that are about to go bad. Consider making recipes that include these ingredients to use them up.
  • Use the FoodKeeper app to check how long various types of food stay good. Consider marking the date you bought certain foods so you know when you need to use them.

In addition, consider these general tips:

  • Store food in dry places where moisture won’t diminish its life. Most bacteria need air, water, and warm temperatures to multiply.
  • Canned food usually lasts indefinitely, as long as the packaging isn’t punctured or damaged and you don’t see any rust or bulging on the can.

Fresh fridge, fresh food

Refrigerating food can extend the life and quality of many products. Again, we’ll start with some federal guidelines for refrigerator preservation:

  • The refrigerator should be set to 40°F or below to slow bacteria growth.
  • Keep your refrigerator clean to avoid possibly contaminating food. 
  • Avoid keeping perishable food out longer than two hours. If you’re hosting a party, keep dips, cheeses, and other perishable foods in the refrigerator when not in use.
  • If you pack too much food into the refrigerator, cold air may not be able to circulate and maintain food temperatures. Make sure to leave enough space between foods that they’ll stay cold.

Keep these other refrigeration tips in mind as well:

  • Cover refrigerated food with the correct size lid or with foil/plastic wrap to preserve freshness and avoid spills.
  • Follow the principles of FIFO, including date marking foods so you avoid accidentally using newer ingredients before the ones that are about to expire.
  • Save leftovers, make plans to eat them, and consider using them as ingredients in other dishes to get the most use of them.
  • Cook foods that are nearing their expiration date to get a few extra days out of them.

Guidelines for freezing food

Ultimately, the best way to make food last is through the freezer. Frozen food can last indefinitely when preserved at 0°F or below. 

The USDA provides the following suggestions for freezing food:

  • Place extra wrapping on open packages to preserve quality and prevent freezer burn. (Wrap the package until no part remains open or exposed.)
  • If food does get some freezer burn, cut the bad spots out. You can still use the rest.
  • Use proper thawing methods to ensure bacteria doesn’t grow during the thawing process. When it’s been thawed correctly, food may be refrozen.
  • If the power goes out, open your freezer door as few times as possible. The food inside will remain good for up to two days as long as the door is kept shut.
  • Please note that food kept in the freezer will lose quality over time, but will still be safe to eat. The sooner food is frozen, the better its quality will be when thawed. For example, a casserole will retain its quality better if it is frozen right after being prepared, rather than a few days later.

The goal of proper food storage is safe, fresh-tasting food. When you follow the guidelines in this article, not only will your food last longer and taste better, but you’ll be implementing good food safety practice in your home.

Check out our food handler training today for more practical food safety tips!

— Calvin Clark

Updated: February 27, 2020 — 12:06 am
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