Trusted Methods For Storing Food
Whether you’re concerned about building an emergency food supply or only looking to reduce food waste in your home, knowing the basics of food storage comes in handy.
Keeping the food that you purchase fresh for as long as possible is essential if you’re eating on a budget or whenever you’re in a situation in which you don’t have frequent access to grocery stores.
It’s also essential to understand the dos and don’ts of long-term food storage to prevent getting sick due to eating spoiled food.
Below we cover the duration of time that different foods last, tips for safely extending the shelf life of foods (such as using sure food storage containers), and what you need to know about expiration/use-by dates.
Importance of Food Storage
What is the meaning of food storage? Food storage extends how long food remains edible and safe to eat.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States, proper food storage — whether pickling, turning into jam or freezing — can help maintain food quality by keeping a food’s flavors, colors, texture, and nutrients intact.
Storing foods to extend their shelf life involves putting cooked and raw ingredients in appropriate containers and keeping them in optimal conditions that will prevent the food from decaying via the growth of harmful bacteria.
This way, the food will last much longer than it usually would and can be safely used in the future when needed.
What are some methods of food storage?
You can think of there being three main components of food storage: short-term supply, long-term supply, and clean water supply.
Food will be processed and stored differently depending on how long it’s intended to remain useful.
- Some foods can be stored safely at room temperatures, such as in a pantry or a cupboard because they don’t spoil quickly. With time you might notice that some ingredients experience changes in quality, color, and flavor, however, the food may remain safe to eat for a long time.
- Using food storage containers can help prevent oxygen/air, sunlight, and moisture from reaching the food. Food storage containers can include cans, vacuum-sealed packages, glass containers, freezer bags, and individual airtight plastic containers.
- Certain foods that are more perishable/not very shelf-stable need to be refrigerated. It’s best to keep foods like meat and dairy products in a refrigerator (or freezer) that is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees C).
- Freezing foods such as vegetables, fruits, and meats are a good option if you wish to keep them fresh for several weeks or longer. Freezers should be held at 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C) or lower. While it’s possible to keep most foods frozen for many months safely, this can affect their flavor, color, and texture.
Food Storage Tips to Help Extend Shelf Life
Wondering, “How can I improve my food storage?” Here are some tips that can help to extend the shelf life of the foods you buy safely:
1. Store Foods In a Cool, Dry Place
- The best way to prolong the freshness of food is to keep it stored in a cool, dry place — or the refrigerator or freezer. If the food does not need to be refrigerated or frozen, it can be stored someone cool that’s between 55–70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Keep canned, packaged, and freeze-dried foods away from moisture, oxygen, and sunlight. All of these cause the food to spoil quicker.
- Depending on the time of year or season, you may need to change where you store food. For example, a room that gets lots of sunlight in the summer is not the best-storing location; neither is a humid, damp basement.
2. Make Sure Your Refrigerator and Freezer Are the Proper Temperatures
Use a refrigerator thermometer to check that it’s cold enough, especially if you tend to have a very crowded or old fridge. This is important for keeping food from spoiling and preventing someone from becoming ill as a result.
3. Check Expiration Dates
When buying food, be sure to look at the expiration dates and purchase those that have the dates farthest in the future. When opening food in your home, double-check that the “sell-by” or expiration date hasn’t passed.
The FDA tells us that dates on foods indicate when a product will be of the best flavor or quality. However, they are not safety dates. Here’s what different types of expiration dates on foods mean:
- Sell By — used by stores, so they know how long to keep the item on their shelves. Tells you when food is at peak quality of freshness, taste, and consistency.
- Best If Used By or Use By — tells you when the food will taste and appear the best. However it will still be safe to eat even after this date, usually for several more weeks. That said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that you eat food before its “Use By” or “Best If Used By” date to be safe.
- Freeze By — indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality.
In some cases, the food may spoil earlier than the expiration date — for example, if it’s stored somewhere that’s too warm or humid — so look for any changes in the color, smell, or appearance of the food.
4. Refrigerate Cooked and Pre-Cut Foods
Always refrigerate vegetables and fruits that have been pre-cut or cooked.
Some foods store best when left dry and unwashed, so it’s recommended that you wash all produce thoroughly under cold water (never use bleach or soap) before preparing and eating it, but in most cases not as soon as you bring it home.
If you do prewash foods before storing them, make sure to let them dry or pat them dry with a clean towel.
Fresh herbs last longest if you place them standing up in clean cold water in the fridge.
5. Use the Right Food Storage Containers
Dairy, meat, fish, and poultry should always be kept in the refrigerator inside packages and away from other foods.
Keep these foods sealed in their packaging until just before using, which will help prevent oxygen from getting to the food.
Also, be sure to store raw foods below cooked foods in your fridge, making contamination less likely.
If freezing meat and poultry (which you should do within three days of buying it), keep the food in its original packaging and also cover the packages with heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap, or freezer paper — or place the package inside a freezer bag.
What are the best food storage containers to use if keeping foods in the pantry or cupboard?
- Look for those that are airtight and have tight-fitting lids. Airtight food storage containers help keep oxygen and moisture from reaching foods like grains, beans, nuts, etc.
- Many people find that because glass food storage containers aren’t porous, they do the best job of keeping food fresh. They are also convenient and versatile because glass containers can be used in the freezer, microwave, or dishwasher, plus you can rest assured that they won’t cause any unsafe plastics to leach into your food. They can help you go plastic-free as well.
- Depending on what you’re storing, other good options are reusable bags that are food-grade and freezer-safe.
- Plastic and ceramic containers may allow air to get in more quickly if used for long periods, plus they can also become stained. If you do use plastic, choose containers explicitly made for storing food and that are BPA-free. This way, it won’t contain certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
- Before using any food storage container, make sure to clean it properly and allow it to dry.
Long-Term Food Storage Safety
Long-term food storage can help you be prepared with an emergency food supply should you need one in case of a disaster.
Most experts consider an emergency food supply to be one that will last you three months or more.
You’ll also need to store about one gallon of water per person per day.
While many non-perishable foods will last months or even years in your home — such as grains, beans, milk alternatives, pickled veggies, and canned fish — certain foods shouldn’t be stored long term.
Here’s a chart showing roughly how different long types of foods can be stored before they will spoil:
- Meat, Poultry, Fish: One to five days in the refrigerator if fresh (two to four days if cooked) or three to 12 months in the freezer (chopped meat, bacon, and sausages don’t last as long as fresh chops or steaks).
- Eggs: Three to five weeks in the refrigerator if raw; do not freeze unless cooked.
- Milk and Dairy Products: One to six weeks in the refrigerator depending on the kind (unopened cheese lasts longer than milk, yogurt, or soft cheeses) or several months in the freezer.
- Fruits: Several days at room temp, one to two weeks in the refrigerator or two to 12 months in freezer depending on the kind (citrus fruits, apples, and dried fruits last the longest).
- Vegetables: Several days at room temp, one to two weeks in the refrigerator or five to 12 months in freezer depending on the kind (potatoes, onions, squash, and carrots last the longest).
- Dry Goods (beans, grains, etc.): Three to 12 months at room temperature depending on the kind (unopened boxes may last longer), four months in the refrigerator, up to 12 months in the freezer.
- Condiments, Sauces: Usually six to 18 months depending on the type, so check expiration dates and storage recommendations.
- Canned Goods: Two to five years when stored in pantry or three to four days once opened and kept in the refrigerator.
- Freeze-Dried Goods: Two to five years or longer when stored in the pantry away from moisture.
- Baked Goods: Two to seven days when left at room temperature, one to two weeks in the refrigerator or three to six months in the freezer.
There are now many companies that offer prepared, emergency food supply products, such as freeze-dried and dehydrated foods, which tend to stay good for a relatively long time.
These types of foods make convenient options for people who are traveling, camping or simply looking to stock up on shelf-stable ingredients that will help them be prepared for possible future emergencies.
The foods that can be safely stored for the longest time include:
- Oats, rice, barley
- Canned veggies (mushrooms, potatoes, peas, etc.)
- Tomato paste and powder
- Freeze-dried veggies like kale, onions, green beans, etc.
- Freeze-dried fruits like apple chips, berries, banana chips, etc.
- Jarred applesauce
- Canned soup
- Although they won’t last as long, it’s safe to store these fresh foods for several weeks in most cases when stored in a cool dark place: onions, potatoes and other root vegetables, hard squashes, apples, citrus fruits.
Here’s what you need to know about storing food long term and some tips to make food prep easier:
- How long will freeze-dried food last? Some manufacturers claim that when freeze-dried foods are stored in special containers in optimal conditions they can last up to 25 years. Canned foods are also good long-term options since they can last for three to five years.
- Frozen food can possibly last “indefinitely” if stored right, however the taste and nutrient content of the food may change. It’s a good idea to write on the package the date you froze the food so you know how long it’ll stay good.
- To make the most of frozen foods and ensure food doesn’t go to waste, try to freeze in individual portions. Freeze batches in the amount you’d need for one meal, which makes cooking freezer meals a breeze.
- If you can’t fit all of your stored foods in your refrigerator or freezer, consider setting up a cooler box or deep freezer in a cool spot, such as your basement or garage.
Risks and Side Effects
When purchasing shelf-stable foods, always look carefully at the nutritional data of each food to ensure you get a quality product.
Try to avoid foods made with lots of additives, preservatives, and sodium.
Additionally, many experts recommend avoiding canned foods that are made with BPA, which is a chemical that may be harmful. Therefore look for those labeled BPA-free.
Be sure to check the expiration date of all foods that you plan on eating, which is determined by the manufacturer to help you determine when the food is freshest until. If a food is expired but you still think it’s good, rely on your senses by smelling it.
Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor, or texture due to naturally occurring microorganisms, such as molds, yeasts, and bacteria. Never eat food that smells or taste “off” in order to avoid becoming sick.
- Food storage extends how long food remains edible and safe to eat. Methods of food storage include refrigeration, freezing, freeze-drying, dehydrating, canning, pickling, and jarring.
- What are the best food storage containers to use? Tightly sealed glass containers with airtight lids are among the best, since they aren’t porous and won’t get stained — plus they won’t cause the plastic to leach into food. If you do use plastic, make sure the containers or bags are meant to store food.
- When it comes to long-term food storage, canned or jarred foods, frozen foods, and freeze-dried foods are your best options. Other foods that can be stored for a relatively long time include grains, beans, nuts and seeds, nut milk, onions, potatoes, and other root vegetables, hard squashes, apples, and citrus fruits.