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Follow these tips to keep all your ingredients and leftovers tasting fresh and free from contamination.

By Betty Gold
Updated March 10, 2021
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Every year, the United States throws away nearly 40 percent of its food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, that adds up to more than $160 billion wasted per year.

There's nothing worse than being forced to toss (previously) perfectly good produce, dairy, or meat just because it was stored in an improper way. Here's exactly how to organize foods inside your fridge so they'll live their longest and best-tasting life—your wallet and the world as we know it will thank you, too. Once you read these storage tips, be sure to read our comprehensive guide to how long you can store every type of food next.

Leftovers

  • Store all leftovers in leak-proof, clear containers or wraps. We love those from Snapware and Rubbermaid—they're super airtight, which helps your food stay as fresh as possible.
  • Follow the 'first in, first out' rule: Always eat the oldest foods first.
  • Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of cooking. And there's no need to wait for piping-hot foods to cool down before storing them―modern refrigerators can handle the heat.
  • “Throw away all perishable foods that have been left in room temperature for more than two hours (one hour if the temperature is over 90°F, such as at an outdoor picnic during summer),” says the USDA on its website.
  • Divide leftovers into small, flat containers so that they cool faster. Some bacteria spores survive the cooking process and may germinate if the food is at room temperature long enough.
  • Check that your fridge is set at 40°F or below. And don’t just rely on the pre-programmed settings—rather, enlist help from a refrigerator thermometer.
  • Don't refrigerate leftover soup broth, tuna fish, cranberry sauce, or other foods in cans. Once a can is opened, residual metal on the rim can leach into food and leave a metallic taste.
  • The USDA recommends using refrigerated leftovers within three to five days or freezing them for up to four months

Meat, Fish, and Poultry

  • You want these in the coldest spot in your fridge, often but not always at the bottom, ideally stored in their own drawer. If your fridge allows you to adjust the temperature of the meat drawer, set it to 29° F.
  • Keep all fresh meat, fish, and poultry in its store wrapping, as re-wrapping increases the risk of exposing the food to harmful bacteria. If the item didn't come in a Styrofoam tray, slide a plate underneath it to catch any drippings.

Dairy

  • When you buy something new, like a fresh gallon of milk, rotate the older items to the front so that they can be used before the expiration date.
  • Leave cottage cheese, yogurt, eggs, sour cream, milk, and cream in the containers they came in. However, if you transfer milk to a pitcher or sour cream to a serving bowl, don't return them to the original containers. Instead, tightly cover the pitcher or bowl with plastic wrap.
  • Store hard cheeses in the store wrapping until you use them, then wrap them in wax paper, foil, or loose plastic.
  • Plastic milk bottles make more sense than cardboard cartons, since bacteria can grow near the cardboard spout and enter a glass of milk every time you pour. Nevertheless, as long as you use the milk within its shelf life, it should be safe to drink.
  • Whatever you do, don't store your milk in the door—it's the warmest spot in the fridge. The door should be used for nonperishable drinks and condiments only.

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Keep fruits and vegetables separate and store like with like: Apples with apples, carrots with carrots, bananas with bananas. Fruits and vegetables give off different gases that can cause others to deteriorate.
  • Leave refrigerated produce unwashed in its original packaging or wrapped loosely in a plastic bag. (There are exceptions, such as mushrooms and herbs.)
  • If your greens seem sandy or dirty—think lettuce from the farmers’ market—rinse and dry them well, then wrap them in a paper towel before placing in a plastic bag. Otherwise, avoid washing your produce before refrigerating it. The dampness can make it mold and rot more quickly.
  • Fruits and vegetables stored at room temperature should be removed from any packaging and left loose. 
  • Store cut fruits and vegetables in the fridge in perforated or unsealed plastic bags to maintain a moist environment yet still allow air to circulate.
  • Keep citrus at room temperature. However, once your lemons, limes, or oranges are past peak ripeness, storing them in the fridge will help them last longer (same goes for tomatoes and avocados). If your citrus starts to turn, you can slice the fruit up and freeze it: frozen citrus is great as ice cubes for drinks.
  • Onions, potatoes, and shallots should be stored in a cool dark place to keep them fresh, like a basket in a cupboard or a cellar. Avoid storing these products in plastic bags as this encourages spoilage. Once cut, onions should be stored in a resealable bag in the fridge where they will last for around a week, or stored in a container and kept in the freezer.
  • If you won’t be eating them immediately, buy bananas when they’re still slightly green and store them away from other fruits in the fruit bowl (they release high amounts of ethylene gas, which as mentioned can cause other fruits to go off more quickly). Consider using a banana tree to keep them separated and minimize bruising.
  • Keep apples in an uncovered fruit bowl on the countertop and make sure to store them out of direct sunlight.

For a comprehensive cold-storage chart, consult the federal food-safety website, foodsafety.gov.