People have used the traditional household skill of food storage for thousands of years to prepare for times of famine or food scarcity. After 4000 years, wheat discovered preserved in Egyptian tombs was still edible.
By preventing spoilage, proper food storage retains the quality and nutritional value of the products you purchase while maximizing your food budget. Additionally, safe food storage can help avoid foodborne diseases from dangerous germs.
If you don’t know how to get started, this article will provide tips and guidelines for fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy in preventing spoilage and maintaining freshness.
Understanding food storage
Proper food storage helps prevent spoilage and contamination of foods. Hence, many factors influence the shelf life of your food, the most important of which are temperature, humidity, light, and air.
Storage temperature is one of the most important factors, as microorganisms have been found to grow in almost all temperatures. Below are several essential points to be observed:
- Avoid the “Danger Zone.” Never keep food out of the refrigerator for more than two hours. Food should not be left out for more than one hour if the room temperature is over 90 °F.
- Maintain heated food at or above 140 °F. Cooked foods should be placed in chafing dishes, warmed steam tables, warming trays, and/or slow cookers.
- Keep cold food cold at or below 40 °F. Place food in ice-filled containers.
The United States Department of Agriculture states that for every 10.8 degrees in temperature rise, you decrease the shelf life of stored food by half. The best food storage range is a temperature between 40 and 60 degrees. Avoid freezing temperatures as well.
If the humidity levels are too high, it has a detrimental impact on food storage. When dry food is exposed to moisture, germs and molds develop, ruining the meal and causing disease. Moisture also aids in the degradation of paper packing and causes rust on metal containers.
Since humidity is also important to consider when storing perishable goods, below are the three best ways to store food in high-humidity areas.
Remove the air from the packaging to help food be safe and not spoil. Foods best suited for the dehydration method would be fruits and vegetables.
It is also suggested to store grains and beans in this manner. The disadvantage of the dehydration method is that food loses some of its nutritional integrity.
One of the best-known ways of storing food is the traditional canning method. Pressure canners provide the option of canning a wider variety of food types, as pressure canners seal the food at higher temperatures.
Canned food has an excellent food safety record. Beans and grains can be canned in a jar with oxygen absorbers and then sealed securely to preserve them for up to 30 years. Over the past few decades, there have been very few incidents of food poisoning due to the failure of the can — most accidents involved human error.
The tinplate and aluminum can provide a perfect gas and light barrier, protecting nutrients. Not only having a long shelf life, canned products can also be stored at room temperature for many years and thus save energy.
According to a 2000 study, Delgado and Sun stated that freezing is one of the oldest and most widely used methods of food preservation. Food’s flavor, texture, and nutritional content may be preserved in frozen foods better than with any other technique.
The freezing process combines the advantages of low temperatures, which prevent the growth of microbes, slow down chemical processes, and postpone cellular metabolic responses.
A method that can be used for various foods; some exceptions include food in cans and eggs with shells. Also, some foods, such as mayonnaise, cream sauce, and lettuce, don’t freeze well.
When frozen, raw meat and poultry maintain their quality longer than cooked meat because moisture is lost during cooking.
A form of energy that can degrade the food value of foods also influences several chemical reactions that lead to the spoilage of foods. Store food in dark locations and opaque containers; light can react with the food and affect its nutrition. Glass jars or cans can be covered with material sleeves to protect them from the light.
The Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Many of the compounds in food are oxidized by oxygen, reducing their shelf life over time. Bacteria, one of the numerous factors that cause food to develop rancidly, require air to flourish. Therefore, food should be kept in an oxygen-free environment for the longest shelf life.
Storage for various foods
Food must be stored properly to minimize foodborne illness outbreaks, save food waste, help consume foods before expiration, and decrease food waste footprint. While often overlooked, storage can be one of the most crucial elements to a happy, healthy, and organized living or workspace.
But all too often, storage is used in homes and offices to conceal piles of clutter that don’t have a designated place. Here are some guidelines on how to store various foods.
Uncured, raw beef can be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days. Freezing is your best choice if you want to preserve raw meat for longer. Before freezing, seal the meat in airtight packaging.
According to Healthline, below are general guidelines for how long raw meats can be kept safe if stored properly.
- For uncooked poultry: it can be refrigerated for 1-2 days, or frozen for nine months to 1 year;
- For uncooked ground meat: it can be refrigerated for 1-2 days, or frozen for 3-4 months;
- For uncooked steaks or chops: it can be refrigerated for 3-4 days, or frozen for 4-12 months;
- For uncooked fish: it can be refrigerated for 1-2 days, or frozen for six months;
- For cooked poultry, meat, or fish: it can be refrigerated for 3-4 days, or frozen for 2-6 months;
- For hot dogs and lunch meat: it can be refrigerated up to 1 week (open package) or two weeks (closed package), or frozen for 1-2 months
For fruits and vegetables
Selecting the freshest fruits and veggies is the first step to getting the longest storage life. Any washed and cut fruit or vegetable should be refrigerated or frozen for safety reasons. Store cleaned and chopped vegetables in a plastic bag or sealed container to limit air contact and keep produce fresh.
Different fruits and vegetables should be stored in different ways. Follow these guidelines below:
- Produce that does best in cold, moist storage includes apples, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, and eggplant.
- Produce that does best in cold, dry storage includes garlic and onions.
- Produce that does best in warm, dry conditions includes hot peppers, pumpkins, winter squash, and sweet potatoes.
Why should fruit and vegetables be stored separately?
Some fruits and vegetables release ethylene gas which can hasten the ripening of various other products. The top ethylene-producing fruits and vegetables include apples, avocados, bananas, kiwis, peaches, pears, and tomatoes, whereas the most ethylene-sensitive produce includes cucumbers, grapes, leafy greens, and peppers.
Here are several tips for handling raw fruit and vegetables:
- During storage and preparation, keep unwashed fresh fruits and vegetables apart from ready-to-eat meals.
- Use separate chopping boards, knives, and utensils for unclean raw veggies and ready-to-eat meals, or thoroughly wash these items between uses.
- Always wash your hands thoroughly when handling raw food, including vegetables.
- Check the label carefully; unless the wrapping around the veggies states “ready to eat,” vegetables must be washed, peeled, or cooked before eating.
- Rubbing vegetables under water, such as in a bowl of cold water, will help to reduce splashing. Wash the least soiled things first and give them all a last rinse. Brushing off dried soil before washing may help minimize the amount of washing required to clean the veggies.
Refrigerators and freezers need to be periodically cleaned and adjusted at the right storage temperature to ensure the security and quality of dairy products. Make sure the freezer is at 0°F or colder, and the refrigerator is running at 41°F or less using a thermometer.
Frozen dairy products are safe as long as they are frozen. But for maximum quality, adhere to the advised storage durations. Beginning with clean hands, utensils, and preparation spaces can help ensure that dairy products are ready for storage.
Here are storage guidelines for dairies (from the Food Marketing Institute’s The Food Keeper):
- For milk, plain or flavored: it can be refrigerated up to 1 week, or frozen for three months;
- For buttermilk: it can be refrigerated for 1-2 week, or frozen for three months;
- For hard cheese (Cheddar, Swiss): it can be refrigerated up to 6 months unopened, 3-4 weeks opened; or frozen for six months;
- For cheese, processed slices: it can be refrigerated for 3-4 weeks; unfortunately, it doesn’t freeze well;
- For cheese, shredded (Cheddar, etc.): it can be refrigerated up to 1 month, or frozen for 3-4 months;
- For soft cheese (Brie): it can be refrigerated for 1-2 weeks, or frozen for six months;
- For cottage cheese (Ricotta): it can be refrigerated up to 2 weeks unopened or one week opened; unfortunately, it doesn’t freeze well;
- For half & half cream: it can be refrigerated for 3-4 days, or frozen for four months;
- For cream, whipping, ultra-pasteurized: it can be refrigerated up to 1 month unopened, one week opened; unfortunately, it doesn’t freeze well;
- For sour cream: it can be refrigerated for 7-21 days (follow date on package); unfortunately, it doesn’t freeze well;
- For yogurt: it can be refrigerated for 7-14 days, or frozen for 1-2 months;
- For ice cream: 2-4 months when frozen
A common mistake is storing eggs in the handy built-in section by the door. Egg racks are susceptible to changes in temperature due to the fridge door opening and closing and can cause your eggs to go rotten more quickly.
A study in 2014 found that consumers who stored eggs t in the refrigerator would do this on the top or middle shelf, which could lead to meat juice contaminating other foods. Store eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator, which is at the back of the bottom shelf.
For grains and dry goods
Dried foods should be kept in cold, dry, and dark places. Dried food storage durations range from four months to a year. Because heat affects food quality, the storage temperature influences the length of storage; the higher the temperature, the shorter the storage time.
If dry food is not stored in an airtight container, moisture may be absorbed. This results in clumpy powders and limp biscuits or crackers.
Many people frequently have leftovers when dining out or preparing food at home. Therefore, it is important to ensure the meal is prepared at a safe temperature and quickly place leftovers in the refrigerator to keep them safe.
The two primary causes of foodborne disease are not preparing food to an acceptable temperature and leaving food out at an unhealthy temperature. Handling leftovers safely is crucial if you want to reduce the risk of foodborne disease. Here are some tips on storing leftovers:
- Don’t refrigerate leftover soup broth, tuna fish, cranberry sauce, or other foods in cans. Once a can is opened, residual metal on the rim can leach into food and leave a metallic taste.
- Follow the ‘first in, first out’ rule.
- Store all leftovers in leak-proof, clear containers or wraps.
- Mark the date on the storage container
- Never taste leftovers — just do the smell test.
- Observe the two-hour rule. Discard any perishables left out at room temperature for more than 2 hours. In hot weather, reduce this time to one hour.
Aside from storing leftovers, it is also essential for you to know the guidelines on how to reheat foods. Below are some tips on reheating leftovers.
- Before reheating frozen leftovers, properly defrost them by placing them in the refrigerator or using the defrost function in the microwave. Refrigerate after defrosting, then consume within three to four days.
- Do not reheat leftovers more than once.
- Do not refreeze leftovers that have already been defrosted.
- Serve reheated leftovers immediately.
- Reheat the leftovers to a temperature of 165°F (70°C) for two minutes. To ensure equal heating, stir food as it is being heated, especially if using a microwave.
Unhealthy mistakes you might be making with leftovers
Keeping leftovers for too long is a big mistake. According to the FDA Food Code, all perishable foods opened or prepared should be thrown out after a maximum of seven days.
In 2021, a 19-year-old man had severe food poisoning after eating leftovers. After eating leftover chicken, rice, and lo mein, the guy was covered head to toe in a purple rash, his oxygen levels plummeted, and he was transferred by a medical helicopter within 24 hours.
Understanding how to store food properly minimizes food wastage, enhances food safety, reduces food spending, and maintains food quality by keeping its flavor, color, texture, and nutrients.
Contamination and health risks can be prevented with good practice on how to keep food stock fresh and well-kept. And by applying and understanding the tips in this article, you can live a healthy and organized life.
If you would like to see more resources on food storage, check out the Household Management Science Labs. The lab uses the research of the Institute for Life Management Science to produce courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other tools. Visit the Household Management Science Labs today.
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