The Importance of Food Storage and How To Do It Properly
Ever leave the grocery store, proud and confident of the fresh produce you are surely going to eat, only to find soggy greens in your fridge and mushy bananas in your fruit bowl the following week? Just me? This recurring cycle makes me feel like I'm failing at adulting. To put an end to wasted food and money, I’ve outlined food storage tips to minimize nutrient losses and prolong your produce’s life.
Per the FDA, your refrigerator should be 40° or less, and your freezer should be 0° or colder to prevent bacterial growth and spoilage. Buy a small fridge thermometer to keep inside if yours does not display the internal temperature.
Without the right conditions, the refrigeration tips below are irrelevant.
Most fruits should be stored at room temperature to ripen and, once ripe, transferred to the fridge to delay spoiling. There are some exceptions, however. Citrus fruits do not continue to ripen once picked, and you should always store berries in the refrigerator but tomatoes outside of it.
Apples, tomatoes, melons, and bananas emit the most ethylene gas as they ripen. This gas accelerates the spoiling of nearby produce, so store them separate from delicate fruits and veggies like leafy greens. I use this to my advantage when I want an avocado to ripen faster, just put it in a brown paper bag with a banana or apple for a day or two. I also use Bluapple in my fridge drawers to absorb ethylene gas and prolong the life of my produce.
Wait to wash most fruits and vegetables until ready to use to avoid spoiling faster.
Keep veggies like potatoes, winter squash, garlic, onions, and shallots in a cool, dry area with ventilation. Storing them in the fridge turns their starch to sugar, altering flavor and texture. Most other vegetables, however, should be kept in the refrigerator and benefit from higher levels of humidity.
Leafy greens spoil quickly. Keep them away from fruits to minimize ethylene gas exposure. Softer lettuce (think mesclun) perishes more quickly than heartier, crispier-leafed lettuce (think kale or romaine), which can last up to a week. Wash and thoroughly dry your lettuce before storing it with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture.
🧀Eggs and Dairy
Fresh uncooked eggs keep for at least 4-5 weeks in the refrigerator, once hard-boiled, they can be refrigerated in their shell for up to one week. Due to a USDA mandated washing process, store-bought eggs must be refrigerated. The procedure removes contaminants and reduces the risk of salmonella, but it also leaves the eggshell porous and necessitates refrigeration.
Store cheese in the fridge tightly wrapped to keep moisture in. Firm and hard cheese can last several weeks while fresh soft cheeses spoil in about 7-10 days.
🥩Meat and Poultry
Put raw poultry in the coldest part of the fridge, usually the back, sealed in a bowl or platter for no more than 1-2 days. Cooked chicken and turkey will last 3-4 days. Allow frozen poultry to fully defrost in the fridge, usually 1-2 days before cooking. If not, it will not cook evenly, and the middle will likely not reach a safe temperature of 165°.
Vacuum packed meat stays fresh in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks, but once opened, it will spoil within 2-3 days. Ground meat only lasts 1-2 days and should be stored in air-permeable paper. Tight plastic wrap provides a breeding ground for bacteria. Storage life of frozen meat varies by type and species but generally think six months and always thaw in the fridge, not at room temperature or in warm water.
Raw seafood keeps for 2-3 days, while cooked leftovers are good for up to 3 days. When you bring fish home, immediately remove it from the store wrapping paper, thoroughly rinse in cold water, and pat dry. Line a plate or glass storage container with paper towels and cover with a lid or sealed wrap before storing it in the coldest part of your fridge.
Be sure to remove frozen vacuum-sealed meat and seafood from its packaging before defrosting it overnight in the fridge. This reduces the risk of botulism, an anaerobic bacterium that thrives in low-oxygen environments. Exposing fish to air inhibits this deadly toxin. Cooking to an internal temperature of 145° also helps prevent food-borne illnesses.
🍝Grains and Pasta
Store in airtight containers in a dark, cool, dry place to reduce nutrient losses from oxidation and to prevent mold growth. Whole grains that include the oily germ can be stored in the refrigerator to avoid turning rancid.
Dry pasta lasts for several months in your pantry, while fresh pasta should be kept in airtight wrapping in the fridge for no more than a few days.
🌰Nuts and Seeds
Because nuts and seeds contain delicate unsaturated fats, they are susceptible to damage by light, heat, and oxygen. Cold storage will extend shelf-life and prevent rancidity. Nuts and seeds will last for six months in the fridge or one year in the freezer. I transfer mine to airtight jars before storing them. I love Weck jars because they're simple, beautiful, and the seal is legit.
Like nuts and seeds, oils are subject to oxidation, which damages the flavor and turns otherwise healthy fat toxic. Purchase oils in opaque or dark green or yellow glass to block damaging light rays and store in a cabinet or pantry. Do not transfer your oil to a decorative clear glass bottle.
Avoid exposing oil to heat. Never store it above your stovetop and always measure out what you need away from your heat source. Steam can damage the oil in your bottle if you pour directly onto a hot pan. I don't recommend storing oil in the fridge, as it may become cloudy and thick; however, this is perfectly safe and not a sign of damage. It will return to its clear, liquid state at room temperature.
FDA. (2017). Refrigerator thermometers: Cold facts about food safety. https://www.fda.gov/food/buy-store-serve-safe-food/refrigerator-thermometers-cold-facts-about-food-safety
Institute for Functional Medicine. (2017). A guide to cooking with fats and oils [PDF].
Labensky S. R., Hause, A. M., & Martel, P. A. (2015). On cooking: A textbook of culinary fundamentals (5th ed updated.). New York: Pearson.