Even during normal times, food waste is a problem: Americans throw away about a fourth of the food we buy, amounting to an estimated $1,350 to $2,275 wasted by the average four-person household per year. During the current COVID-19 pandemic, many are shopping in larger quantities and cooking at home more, creating new opportunities for food to be wasted. Understanding some key ideas about storage and preservation can help you learn how to store food in a way that maximizes freshness, extends shelf life and reduces food waste.
We’ve covered how to store fresh foods including vegetables and fruits before. In this guide, we’re breaking down how to store foods that you keep in the fridge, like eggs, dairy and meat, as well as shelf-stable items such as canned foods, beans and more. Start by planning a smarter shopping list and cooking with an eye towards reducing waste. Then use these tips to help keep the food that you’ve already bought and cooked from going to waste, saving you time, money and, ultimately, food.
How to Organize the Fridge to Keep Food Fresh
The first step to storing food properly is an organized refrigerator. According to Consumer Reports, the ideal temperature of your fridge is around 37 degrees Fahrenheit, cold enough to keep your food chilled, but not so cold it freezes. Here is a quick overview on how to organize your fridge to keep food fresher longer.
How to Store Eggs, Dairy and Meat to Make them Last
Storing these items properly is all about keeping them cold, so they don’t spoil. It’s best to keep your eggs and dairy on the middle and lower shelves, near the back of the fridge and not in the door to minimize how much their temperature fluctuates. Write on the package the date you opened them to give you an idea of when you need to use them up.
Keep eggs in their original container, which helps protect them and keep refrigerator smells away from their porous shells. They will stay fresh three to five weeks after the sell-by-date. To check freshness, place eggs in a bowl of water; if they float, they are past their prime and should be composted. Store cracked eggs, either whole or whites or yolks separately, in an airtight container and use within two days. Older egg whites are actually better for whipping meringues, while egg yolks are great for custard and curds, and frittatas are a great use-it-up recipe for whole eggs.
Kept in the cold area of the fridge in its original container, milk will stay fresh about one week after the sell-by date (unopened) or seven to 10 days opened. Yogurt will last slightly longer, two to three weeks unopened, or roughly 10 days once opened. Surplus milk and yogurt are both great in marinades, soups, baked goods and more.
Cheese, on the other hand, should be removed from the plastic wrapping it is sold in (which shortens shelf life by reducing breathability) and transferred to waxed paper, foil or cheese paper, which can help circulate air and help prevent cheese from drying out. Ideally, cheeses should be kept together in a lidded box or dish, which will help maintain humidity, freshness and flavor, while keeping cheese aromas out of the fridge. Cheese lifespans depend on the variety and can range from one to two weeks for soft cheese like Brie to six months to a year for a hard cheese like Pecorino. Quiche, cheese dip and baked goods are all good ways to use up cheese that’s about to turn.
STORING MEAT, POULTRY AND SEAFOOD
The best way to store meat varies but the general rule of thumb to follow is to keep meat, poultry and seafood on the lowest shelf of the fridge where it’s coldest, and use it within a few days of purchase. If there is a chance of dripping, place it on a tray to reduce the risk of cross-contamination. If you don’t plan to cook it within two to three days, freeze it to preserve its freshness.
Once cooked, meat, poultry and seafood should be stored in an airtight container and used within three to five days. Tacos, sandwiches and salad are great ways to reinvent leftover meat.
How to Store Bread and Baked Goods
Bread and baked goods will dry out in the refrigerator, but keeping them there will help prevent mold from growing. Here’s how to handle the sensitive line between moldy and dry:
If you plan to use bread within two days, keep it at room temperature in a bread box or paper bag to reduce moisture loss and maintain a crisp crust. For longer storage and to keep bread from molding, wrap it tightly and store in the fridge; toast to use. Sliced bread or whole loaves can also be frozen, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and then again in foil or freezer paper to protect it from freezer burn. To use whole loaves, allow bread to come to room temperature in its wrapping, then warm in a moderate oven, around 325 degrees Fahrenheit, for 10 minutes or so to crisp up the crust. Extra bread can be used to make breadcrumbs (which can be frozen up to one year), stuffing, panzanella salad or French toast.
STORING BAKED GOODS
Although the cold temperature of the fridge will slow bacterial growth, when it comes to the texture and flavor of baked goods, the counter is a better option. Store items like cookies, brownies, muffins and pastries in an airtight container, where they will last up to five days at room temperature. Pro tip from Martha Stewart: place a piece of bread inside the container to help regulate moisture and keep baked goods fresh longer. Wrap pies tightly, keep cakes covered, and eat them within a few days. Dairy heavy items, however, such as custard, cream pie, or buttercream frosting, should be refrigerated.
To extend shelf life beyond a few days, tightly wrap baked goods and freeze individually. Fruit pies can be frozen whole, or in sections, well wrapped, but custard pies don’t thaw well.
How to Store Beans, Grains and Nuts
One could argue that beans, grains, nuts, rice and other pantry items are so important because they store so well. Think about giant grain bins dotting farm country and the international commodity market. It also makes these great to keep at home, but they don’t do anyone any good if they go stale. In general, keep these items in airtight containers and well-marked. Keep a running list on your refrigerator, phone, etc, so you don’t end up buying more rice at the grocery store when you have a half-bag sitting at home. Here are some more specific tips:
Dried and canned beans seem to last forever. That’s not far off: stored in the pantry, canned beans will last several years. When it comes to dried beans, the flavor will be better with fresher beans, so it’s ideal to use these within a year or two of harvest, but they can last indefinitely in dry storage. You can find the best quality, freshest dried beans at farmers’ markets and specialty stores; some of our favorite online retailers include Rancho Gordo and Zürsun Beans. The inexpensive bags you’ll find at the grocery store have likely been sitting around for years, and will require longer cooking time.
Store cooked beans in their cooking liquid, or water, in an airtight container for three to five days or frozen for up to three months.
Wondering how to store pecans, almonds, and other nuts? Nuts and legumes might seem similar to dry goods, but the high oil content in these items means they go rancid much more quickly. Keep these in airtight containers in a cool, dark place. Keeping them in your fridge or freezer is even better. While some nuts, such as almonds and peanuts are more shelf-stable, others like pine nuts and hazelnuts are more sensitive to temperature and should be stored in the freezer if you don’t plan to use them quickly.
GRAINS AND OTHER PANTRY ITEMS
Your cupboards are also likely filled with rice, oats, quinoa, pasta, flours and other dry ingredients. This is a good spot for them; dry goods will last roughly a year stored in a dry, cool place. Pasta should be kept in its original packaging, while flours, oats, rice and other grains are better kept in airtight containers. Flour, grains and legumes can also be frozen in airtight containers to extend shelf life.
How to Store Oils, Condiments and Vinegars
Once opened, oils actually go rancid much more quickly than you’d expect, so buy these items in smaller quantities and taste before using. They can be stored in a cool, dark place (no, the cabinet over the stove doesn’t count as “cool”), and tins are better than glass bottles for prolonging their lives.
Vinegar and vinegar-heavy condiments are acidic enough that it’s tough for the bacteria that cause spoilage to grow, so these can be left out of the fridge if preferred. Oil-based condiments, like mayonnaise and pesto, need to be refrigerated.
Your Freezer is Your Friend
Life gets in the way of our best food intentions. If you’re not able to use up all the milk you bought or know you won’t have a chance to eat your leftovers, the freezer will save them for when you can.
Freezing meat and fish is an important way to keep these high-foodprint items from going to waste, and you can also freeze bread and pantry items to extend their shelf life. While each ingredient is different, some of the most commonly frozen ingredients include eggs (lightly beat and store in airtight container), hard cheese (grate first), yogurt (give it a good stir after thawing), milk (low fat or skim freezes better and give a hearty shake after thawing) and bread (best if pre-sliced). Find more freezer tips at Love Food Hate Waste.
Using Less Plastic While Storing Food
A lot of food storage systems out there rely on plastic, and even though you may be reusing these items multiple times, you’re still eventually creating plastic waste. When possible, choose glass, ceramic, stainless steel options, as well as products designed to be reused or packaging that would go to waste otherwise. Dedicating a little time and treasure to cutting plastic waste out of your life is a great idea to improve your foodprint (and save money over time).
More Resources for How to Store Food Long Term
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