Including how to keep them sparkling clean and airtight for as long as possible.

By Betty Gold
January 27, 2021
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Tracking down—and maintaining—a set of airtight, sturdy, and stain-free food storage containers feels like an impossible task for many, especially those who meal prep. After all, how many of us have thrown in the towel and submitted to skirmishing away a small mountain of mismatched ex-takeout containers in place of the real deal?

Unfortunately, those flimsy plastic boxes and lids aren't just ready to rain down from your cupboard and smite you, avalanche-style; they're also not airtight, meaning they're ineffective at keeping your food fresh for as long as possible. (And important safety reminder: Many takeout containers are neither microwave nor dishwasher safe, which means harmful BPA could leach from the plastic into your food if you choose to aggressively heat them regardless).

The good news? So long as you follow the proper protocol, keeping a quality set of plastic or glass food storage containers in good shape is super simple. Sure, you might end up doing a bit more hand washing, but trust me: It's worth not having to store everything in a stack of tomato sauce-stained containers (or worse, having to throw out a week's worth of beautifully prepped dishes due to premature expiration). Find our favorite food storage containers here, then follow the fuss-free upkeep etiquette below.

1
Make sure your containers are microwave safe.

This is worth mentioning again, as heating plastic containers that aren’t labeled “microwave safe” is dangerous. Microwave safety is also a feature many tend to assume applies to all storage containers, which simply isn’t the case. Before you cook or reheat anything in the microwave, make sure to check the container’s packaging for the label, which is regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to the FDA, “You should not use some plastic containers because heated food can cause them to melt. The FDA recommends using glass, ceramic, and plastic containers labeled for microwave oven use.”

2
…But plate leftovers before microwaving them anyway.

Even if you’re certain your food storage containers are technically safe to go in the microwave, transferring leftovers (especially bright, highly acidic and/or fatty foods like spaghetti and meatballs) will keep your precious containers from getting permanently stained or degraded. Plating leftovers before you reheat them is a smart way to ensure your container’s quality remains intact. Of course, if your container is glass, you’re in the clear—just make sure remove the plastic lid.

3
Spritz the container with a light coating of cooking spray.

Here’s a slightly surprising hack for preventing stains on plastic containers: Spray a light coating of cooking oil on the inside of the container before you fill it with food. Even if you’re storing the most saucy, soupy of leftovers, the oil forms a thin barrier between the plastic and the food that helps repel future staining.

4
Make sure they’re dishwasher safe, and use the top rack only.

Again, check those labels—and only clean containers in the dishwasher that are clearly marked “dishwasher safe.” The high heat of the appliance can actually cause lids to warp (goodbye, tight seal) even if they are dishwasher safe, so consider hand washing your most precious plastic containers regardless. But in a pinch, toss them on the top rack of the dishwasher only—the bottom rack is closer to the heating element, which means it’s more likely to melt your plastic.

5
Give containers a quick rinse as soon as you empty them.

Just like your cookware and dinner plates, the longer you let food sit and dry in a food storage container, the more difficult it is to clean it—and the more likely it is that you’ll see your roasted veggie remnants stain the surface for months to come. As soon as you spoon leftovers onto a serving dish, give the container a rinse with hot water (and better yet, soap).

6
Remove stains with bleach, and odors with baking soda.

If you do spot stains on your plastic containers, simply soak them in a bleach solution—we recommend 1 tablespoon bleach per cup of warm water—for 30 minutes. Make sure to fully cover the plastic with the solution as they soak, then thoroughly wash and rinse the container in hot, sudsy water once they’re done. For lingering odors, wipe the exterior with a sponge that has been lightly dusted with baking soda, then wash well.

7
Acknowledge when it’s time to replace your set.

Even the best of the best storage containers won’t last forever. The moment you notice any signs of degradation or warping, toss them in the recycling bin and get yourself a new set. You could also consider making the switch from plastic to glass storage containers, which have a much longer lifespan (find the best glass picks here).