A Food Storage Refresher

by in Healthy Tips, March 22, 2009

Some people hate throwing anything out and that includes food. I’m not talking about any food — I mean those rusty cans, condiments and spices you’ve had for years and frozen meats you need a chisel to remove from the freezer.

It’s spring cleaning time — make sure that extends to the kitchen! Learn the best ways to keep a safe refrigerator, freezer and pantry.

The Refrigerator
The refrigerator is a short-term storage area for many products, including dairy, raw meats, poultry, fish and eggs. You can store condiments longer, but check the expiration date to make sure you discard them on time (or they can make you sick!). If you’re tossing condiments out while they’re still half-full, consider purchasing your new ones in smaller sizes to avoid waste. This handy chart has good recommendations for the storage time of common foods.

Be aware that the use-by date indicates when the quality is best, and the expiration date, which is typically on fresh products, is when you should no longer eat something. Consumer Reports has some tips for deciphering the dates on foods. Does something not have a date on it? If you’re not sure when you bought it, toss it to be safe.

Ideally, you should set your refrigerator to about 38°F. Your manufacturer will tell you the number to set the refrigerator dial to. If you’re moving the dial in either direction for any changes, your fridge may not be set properly; this may also interfere with your freezer temperature if the two are connected (in many units they are). To be sure, invest in a refrigerator thermometer, and if you find the temp to be over 41°F, then adjust the dial until you get a correct reading.

    Here is a quick rundown of absolute no-no’s for your fridge:

  • Don’t line your refrigerator shelves: It interferes with the circulation and temperature.
  • Don’t place hot food in your fridge to cool: This will raise the interior temperature and make the refrigerator work harder (no one wants higher electric bill). Check here for some helpful hints on safely cooling food.
  • Minimize the time the door is open and closed: Temperature of foods, especially those in the fridge door will go up when exposed.

For more info, check out Dana’s hints on cleaning out your fridge.

The Freezer
How long has that frozen dinner been in there? The suggested time is three months! The freezer is a temporary storage unit — it’s not meant to store foods forever. Use this chart to check if your freezer needs a good cleaning out.

Ice crystals are another thing to look for. These are large pieces of ice that start forming on your food — you may notice when you “soften” your ice cream in the microwave too often and then pop it back in the freezer, the top of the ice cream gets crystallized. This added ice layer indicates that the food has been thawed and refrozen — a common sign of mishandling. It ruins the quality and typically means that harmful bacteria are present on the food.

    Here is a rundown of what not to do with your freezer:

  • Never thaw food and then refreeze it: Once foods are defrosted, it means harmful microorganisms had a chance to grow. The freezer slows down their growth, but they will multiple once you defrost that food again.
  • Never cool leftovers in your freezer: The quality of the food and freezer temperature is affected.
  • Don’t jam-pack your freezer.

Pantry Storage
Foods stored in the pantry should be covered and out of direct sunlight. The temperature should be between 50-70°F. Again, this does not mean that canned food, spices, sugar, rice and all other dry goods last a lifetime. Check out this cupboard storage chart to see if it’s time to rid of the old and bring in some new, fresh items.

The “first in, first out” (FIFO) method restaurants use also works for home. This means rotating your items so that older products get used first. This way you’ll find any products that may have any insects lurking in them, and you won’t let anything get past its expiration dates.

Be careful to examine canned foods for swollen or bulging tops, leaks or dents — don’t use these cans. If you open a can and you find it’s foamy and bubbling, discard immediately! This may be a sign of botulism, which is very deadly (even a little taste can kill you!).

The Bottom Line:
Know what’s in your food storage units and make sure to clean them out regularly (I clean mine weekly!). To avoid waste, stock up on only what you’ll use up quickly.

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