9 Food Storage Mistakes That Are Costing You Money (or Worse, Making You Sick)
Here are some of the most common food storage mistakes—plus, how to fix them.
Even common food storage mistakes have consequences. They don’t just cost you money, but you can end up wasting food and time. At the very worst, food storage mistakes can lead to food poisoning.
While we all have good intentions after cooking a meal, we often rush to put away our leftovers and end up doing it improperly. This includes using the wrong food storage containers and taking meals from the table to the refrigerator too quickly.
Another factor to consider when it comes to food storage safety is shelf placement. After a long trip to the supermarket, we try to put our perishables into the refrigerator before they spoil, placing items on shelves without much thought. This mistake seems minor, but it can actually make us sick.
While checking expiration dates is common knowledge, we rarely check what we should and should not be storing in the refrigerator. If you notice your fruits and vegetables going from ripe to rotten too quickly, it could be because you’re keeping them in the wrong part of the refrigerator. This doesn’t simply waste money, but discovering your produce is spoiled when you're about to cook a meal is very frustrating.
Here are some of the most common food storage mistakes and how to easily fix them.
Storing Food on the Wrong Shelves
Katie Heil, who is a certified professional in food safety as well as a food safety education writer for State Food Safety, says choosing the wrong refrigerator shelf is a major food storage mistake. “It's important to store food in the correct order to reduce the risk of cross-contamination,” she says.
One example is storing raw ground beef above a lettuce salad. “The juices from the beef could drip down and contaminate the salad,” Heil says. “If you eat the contaminated salad, you'll likely get food poisoning. There's an easy way to prevent this—store the meat below the salad!”
Heil suggests organizing your food storage so the foods that require less or no cooking are at the top. “Foods that require more cooking should be at the bottom. That way, even if juices do drip down, they'll be killed during the cooking process. For example, ground beef has to be cooked to an internal temperature of 155°F, so it should be stored above chicken, which must be cooked to 165°F.”
Storing Food Uncovered
We’ve all been lazy and made the mistake of putting an uncovered plate in the refrigerator. While this might not appear to be a major problem, it can be a dangerous food storage mistake and lead to cross-contamination. Heil says it’s important to remember to store everything in enclosed containers. “This may seem like a no-brainer, but it's easy to forget when you're in a hurry,” she says. “In addition to protecting it from contamination, storing food in covered containers also helps it last longer.”
If you’re really in a rush (or just tired), at the very least, you should cover plates and bowls with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. However, taking the extra time to put food in containers is best.
Using Improper Food Storage Containers
This is a big one! Food should ideally be stored in airtight glass food containers, such as Bayco Glass Food Storage Containers With Lids ($30 for 12 containers; amazon.com). Unlike plastic, glass containers are microwave and dishwasher safe as well as free of BPA.
The worst place to store food is in those takeout containers that many of us end up hoarding away in our cabinets. They’re fine for transporting or storing your leftover dinner for lunch the next day, but they aren’t designed to be reused multiple times. The same rule applies to yogurt cups and any sort of plastic tub that you buy food in.
Storing Food Before It Cools Down
“When cooling leftover food,” says Heill, “You have to be careful to keep it out of the temperature danger zone (41–135°F) as much as possible.”
This is the only time it's ok to store food in the refrigerator uncovered. “However, after the food has cooled sufficiently, you should move it to a covered container for long-term storage,” she says.
Failing to Rotate food
Have you ever found food in your pantry or fridge that's seen better days? It could be green and moldy, or just way past the expiration date. If this is a common occurrence, Heil says, “Chances are, it happened because you didn't rotate your food. Luckily, there's an easy fix! After you go grocery shopping, put the new food items you just bought behind older items of the same type. Commercial kitchens use this method to help reduce food waste, and it can help you too. When you get into this habit, you'll always eat the oldest food first, before it goes to waste.”
Keeping Your Food Unsealed
Don’t keep the ketchup top flipped up. Tighten up those jars of mustard and bottles of salad dressing. It’s important to make sure all of your food containers are properly closed and sealed. Otherwise, you risk your food rotting. The same rule applies to food storage bags, plastic wrap, and aluminum foil. Seal everything as tightly as possible!
Refrigerating the Wrong Produce
Not all produce should be stored in the refrigerator. Melon (unless it’s already cut up), tomatoes (ever wonder why they shrivel?), onions, potatoes, and citrus fruits should never be refrigerated because the cold air affects their taste.
However, fruits such as nectarines, peaches, pears, and avocados should be refrigerated when they are ripe to prevent over-ripening.
Another common produce storage mistake occurs with apples. Most of us leave them out, but they should actually be kept in the fridge.
Using the Refrigerator Door for Perishable Items
The door feels like the perfect spot to store perishable items such as eggs and milk. However, this common mistake is a very bad idea because the temperature tends to fluctuate here the most as we open and close the door. Instead, dairy, eggs, and especially meat should be stored in the coldest sections of the refrigerator.
Keeping Your Refrigerator at the Wrong Temperature
Do you notice your food is often spoiling too quickly or feels frozen in the fridge? The issue might not be where or what you're storing, but the temperature of the refrigerator itself. Check the thermostat: Your refrigerator should be set no higher than 40ºF (aim to stay between 35° and 38°F) and the freezer should be set to below 0°F.