What’s one of the most effective ways to keep your food safe? Storing food properly! Proper storage keeps your food from growing harmful germs, and when you keep your food from spoiling it also helps your food budget.
Unhappily, storage is one of the most ignored and unappreciated of food safety measures.
Has this ever happened to you? You pull into the driveway, car loaded up with groceries. You bring the bags into your kitchen and set them on the counter… and the phone rings. You talk, hang up, and – since you’re standing there – you check the answering machine and make a return phone call. Then you run out to the mailbox and find a letter you’d been hoping to receive for some time. You sit down to read it and answer it…. Finally you realize that – oh, yes! – your food is still sitting there waiting for you to put away.
In the meantime, any germs that may have been in your food when you purchased it could be going crazy, enjoying the warmth and coziness of your kitchen.
Putting food away safely must be a priority!
Now, as a reader if this web site, you’re smart when you shop (check out our grocery store guidelines), so you’re bringing home good-quality, wholesome food. The trip home, however (especially if it’s a long one), can raise food temperatures to a point where germs start to grow. Keep that in mind. Try to plan your shopping so your food gets home quickly. It’s a good idea to do your other errands first, and your grocery shopping last. If that isn’t possible, or if you have a long ride home, a cooler in your car’s trunk for frozen and cold food items might be a good investment. Collapsible coolers are available that can let you use your trunk space efficiently. Some grocery stores will also give you a small amount of dry ice to help keep your food cold – just ask!
Bring the food inside and put it away quickly. Start with the unfrozen but cold items – for instance, meats, cheeses, and eggs. Then do the frozen things, and finally put away your shelf-stable (dry) foods like cans, mixes, and bakery items.
Where should it all go?
Restaurants have strict regulations for storing food to keep it safe (even stating what shelf to put what items on), but most restaurants have pretty large coolers to store all their food supplies. You probably don’t have a giant walk-in cooler or freezer in your home. Most families have a refrigerator and freezer of some size; some might even have a separate freezer as well.
The principles that restaurants and groceries follow are actually best practices, however. They may not completely work for you, but adapt them to your own equipment as best you can.
Put the raw chicken on the bottom shelf or floor of your refrigerator. Raw chicken can contain germs, like Salmonella or Campylobacter, which can be killed by proper cooking (click here). But the juices (they may look like blood but they’re really not) that surround your raw chicken may also carry these dangerous bacteria. If your packaging has any rips, this chicken juice will drip onto anything below it. Imagine your head of romaine lettuce on the shelf below getting a nice bath of salmonella. So your fried chicken won’t make you sick, but you might become ill from the lettuce! [With this in mind, why do most refrigerators have crisper drawers on the bottom?]
Any opened food items should be completely wrapped up and labeled. Once something is opened – whether it be chicken, steaks, or salad mix – it’s best to take precautions. The manufacturer’s expiration date may be on the packaging, but you need to use up some foods within a certain time from being opened. Here’s a great chart from the Colorado State University website:
How Long Can Your Food Last In Storage?
By writing down the date you open the product, you’ll know how long it is still safe to use. Ways to do this include special containers you can write on, freezer bags with write-on tabs, or simply jotting down the date on a piece of freezer tape and sticking it on the package. Make this kind of dating a habit.
You may not need to label bread, milk, and other foods your family goes through quickly. But do it if you think you might need it.
With this in mind, think about how to put these practices into effect for your family. You’ll find that your food stays fresher, longer, and you’ll save money on your food budget.
What storage temperatures are best?
Germs enjoy what we call “room temperature” (65-72 ˚ F, 18.8-22.2 ˚ C), but they can grow in lower and higher temperatures as well. We know that below 41 ˚ F (5 ˚ C), growth is slowed down to little or nothing (although some germs can grow when they’re this cold, and some even survive freezing temperatures!). You want to keep your food out of the temperatures that germs like (in food safety terms, the Temperature Danger Zone, or TDZ for short).
The best temperature for your refrigerator is 36 to 40 ˚ F (2.2 to 4.4 ˚ C). Keep your freezer ideally at 0 to 10 ˚ F (-17 to -12 ˚ C). How do you know if your appliances are at the right temps? Here are a couple of ways to check:
Put a thermometer inside! That’s pretty simple. But what sort of thermometer works best? Not all thermometers are scientifically accurate, but a refrigerator thermometer from your grocery or specialty cooking store should do the trick.
A more accurate way is to place a cup of water in your fridge for a few hours. Then stick a cooking thermometer into the water. The needle or readout will tell you exactly how cold the refrigerator is. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for a freezer, but it will give you a nice cup of ice.
Store your dry goods in a cabinet or pantry. It is always a good idea not to leave food on the floor. Most areas of the world have bugs and critters looking for lunch. They consider floor-level food an open invitation, and they bring with them germs and other things you don’t want in your breakfast. So keep all food storage off the floor. A cabinet or shelf is best.
It’s also a good idea to keep your dry foods out of sunlight; they do best in a dry, cool, closed cabinet or pantry. Sunlight can heat up canned items and cause them to go bad faster than you would expect.
- How long can this food last?
Great question. It depends on how good it was when you bought it and how well you’ve stored it.
How long? Check the manufacturer’s expiration date if you haven’t opened the package. If that’s OK, you should be OK. If you’ve opened it and want to know how long it’s safe to use, check out this excellent link:
The basic principle is always to use your best judgment. Just be sure your judgment is as good as you can make it (what’s why we’re here). Back in college, my roommate decided that the milk didn’t taste THAT bad, and he claimed that the date on the carton didn’t matter. He ended up with a bad case of diarrhea (not that he shared that tid-bit of info with me - you just knew). Back then we all “did what was right in our own eyes” – I just remember him visiting the bathroom a lot for the rest of the day!