Keeping the food that you purchase fresh for as long as possible is important if you’re eating on a budget or whenever you’re in a situation in which you don’t have frequent access to grocery stores. It’s also important to understand the do’s and don’ts of long-term food storage in order to prevent getting sick due to eating spoiled food.
Below we cover the duration of time that different foods last, tips for safely extending the shelf life of foods (such as using certain food storage containers) and what you need to know about expiration/use-by dates.
Importance of Food Storage
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States, proper food storage — whether pickling, turning into jam or freezing — can help maintain food quality by keeping a food’s flavors, colors, texture and nutrients intact.
Storing foods to extend their shelf life involves putting cooked and/or raw ingredients in appropriate containers and keeping them in optimal conditions that will prevent the food from decaying via the growth of harmful bacteria. This way the food will last much longer than it normally would and can be safely used in the future when needed.
What are some methods of food storage?
You can think of there being three main components of food storage: short-term supply, long-term supply and clean water supply. A food will be processed and stored differently depending on how long it’s intended to remain good for.
- Some foods can be stored safely at room temperature, such as in a pantry or in a cupboard, because they don’t spoil easily. With time you might notice that some ingredients experience changes in quality, color and flavor, however the food may remain safe to eat for a long time.
- Using food storage containers can help prevent oxygen/air, sunlight and moisture from reaching the food. Food storage containers can include cans, vacuum-sealed packages, glass containers, freezer bags and special airtight plastic containers.
- Certain foods that are more perishable/not very shelf-stable need to be refrigerated. It’s best to keep foods like meat and dairy products in a refrigerator (or freezer) that is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees C).
- Freezing foods such as vegetables, fruits and meats is a good option if you wish to keep them fresh for several weeks or longer. Freezers should be kept at 0 degrees F (-18 degrees C) or lower. While it’s possible to safely keep most foods frozen for many months, this can affect their flavor, color and texture.
Food Storage Tips to Help Extend Shelf Life
1. Store Foods In a Cool, Dry Place
- The best way to prolong the freshness of food is to keep it stored in a cool, dry place — or the refrigerator or freezer. If the food does not need to be refrigerated or frozen, it can be stored someone cool that’s between 55–70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Keep canned, packaged and freeze-dried foods away from moisture, oxygen and sunlight. All of these cause the food to spoil quicker.
- Depending on the time of year or season, you may need to change where you store food. For example, a room that gets lots of sunlight in the summer is not the best storing location; neither is a humid, damp basement.
2. Make Sure Your Refrigerator and Freezer Are the Proper Temperatures
Use a refrigerator thermometer to check that it’s cool enough, especially if you tend to have a very crowded or old fridge. This is important for keeping food from spoiling and preventing someone from becoming ill as a result.
3. Check Expiration Dates
When buying food, be sure to look at the expiration dates and purchase those that have the dates farthest in the future. When opening food in your home, double check that the “sell-by” or expiration date hasn’t past.
- Sell By — used by stores so they know how long to keep the item on their shelves. Tells you when food is at peak quality of freshness, taste and consistency.
- Best If Used By or Use By — tells you when the food will taste and appear the best, however it will still be safe to eat even after this date, usually for several more weeks. That said, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that you eat food before its “Use By” or “Best If Used By” date to be safe.
- Freeze By — indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality
In some cases, the food may spoil earlier than the expiration date — for example, if it’s stored somewhere that’s too warm or humid — so look for any changes in the color, smell or appearance of the food.
4. Refrigerate Cooked and Pre-Cut Foods
Some foods store best when left dry and unwashed, so it’s recommended that you wash all produce thoroughly under cold water (never use bleach or soap) before preparing and/or eating it, but in most cases not as soon as you bring it home. If you do prewash foods before storing them, make sure to let them dry or pat them dry with a clean towel.
Fresh herbs last longest if you place them standing up in fresh cold water in the fridge.
5. Use the Right Food Storage Containers
Dairy, meat, fish and poultry should always be kept in the refrigerator inside packages and away from other foods. Keep these foods sealed in their packaging until just before using, which will help prevent oxygen from getting to the food.
If freezing meat and poultry (which you should do within three days of buying it), keep the food in its original packaging and also cover the packages with heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap or freezer paper — or place the package inside a freezer bag.
- Look for those that are airtight and have tight-fitting lids. Airtight food storage containers help keep oxygen and moisture from reaching foods like grains, beans, nuts, etc.
- Many people find that because glass food storage containers aren’t porous, they do the best job of keeping food fresh. They are also convenient and versatile because glass containers can be used in the freezer, microwave or dishwasher, plus you can rest assure that they won’t cause any unsafe plastics to leach into your food. They can help you go plastic-free as well.
- Depending on what you’re storing, other good options are reusable bags that are food-grade and freezer-safe.
- Plastic and ceramic containers may allow air to get in more easily if used for long periods of time, plus they can also become stained. If you do use plastic, choose containers made specifically for storing food and that are BPA-free. This way it won’t contain certain endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
- Before using any food storage container, make sure to properly clean it and allow it to totally dry.
Long-Term Food Storage Safety
Long-term food storage can help you be prepared with an emergency food supply should you need one in case of a disaster. Most experts consider an emergency food supply to be one that will last you three months or more.
While there are many non-perishable foods that will last months or even years in your home — such as grains, beans, milk alternatives, pickled veggies and canned fish — certain foods shouldn’t be stored long term.
- Meat, Poultry, Fish: One to five days in refrigerator if fresh (two to four days if cooked) or three to 12 months in freezer (chopped meat, bacon and sausages don’t last as long as fresh chops or steaks).
- Eggs: Three to five weeks in refrigerator if raw; do not freeze unless cooked.
- Milk and Dairy Products: One to six weeks in refrigerator depending on the kind (unopened cheese lasts longer than milk, yogurt or soft cheeses) or several months in the freezer.
- Fruits: Several days at room temp, one to two weeks in refrigerator or two to 12 months in freezer depending on the kind (citrus fruits, apples and dried fruits last the longest).
- Vegetables: Several days at room temp, one to two weeks in refrigerator or five to 12 months in freezer depending on the kind (potatoes, onions, squash and carrots last the longest).
- Dry Goods (beans, grains, etc.): Three to 12 months at room temperature depending on the kind (unopened boxes may last longer), four months in refrigerator, up to 12 months in freezer.
- Condiments, Sauces: Usually six to 18 months depending on the type, so check expiration dates and storage recommendations.
- Canned Goods: Two to five years when stored in pantry or three to four days once opened and kept in refrigerator.
- Freeze-Dried Goods: Two to five years or longer when stored in pantry away from moisture.
- Baked Goods: Two to seven days when left at room temperature, one to two weeks in refrigerator or three to six months in freezer.
There are now many companies that offer prepared, emergency food supply products, such as freeze-dried and dehydrated foods, which tend to stay good for a relatively long time. These types of foods make convenient options for people who are traveling, camping or simply looking to stock up on shelf-stable ingredients that will help them be prepared for possible future emergencies.
The foods that can be safely stored for the longest time include:
- Oats, rice, barley
- Canned veggies (mushrooms, potatoes, peas, etc.)
- Tomato paste and powder
- Freeze-dried veggies like kale, onions, green beans, etc.
- Freeze-dried fruits like apple chips, berries, banana chips, etc.
- Jarred applesauce
- Canned soup
- Although they won’t last as long, it’s safe to store these fresh foods for several weeks in most cases when stored in cool dark place: onions, potatoes and other root vegetables, hard squashes, apples, citrus fruits.
- How long will freeze-dried food last? Some manufacturers claim that when freeze-dried foods are stored in special containers in optimal conditions they can last up to 25 years. Canned foods are also good long-term options, since they can last for three to five years.
- Frozen food can possibly last “indefinitely” if stored right, however the taste and nutrient content of the food may change. It’s a good idea to write on the package the date you froze the food so you know how long it’ll stay good.
- To make the most of frozen foods and ensure food doesn’t go to waste, try to freeze in individual portions. Freeze batches in the amount you’d need for one meal, which makes cooking freezer meals a breeze.
- If you can’t fit all of your stored foods in your refrigerator or freezer, consider setting up a cooler box or deep freezer in a cool spot, such as your basement or garage.
Risks and Side Effects
When purchasing shelf-stable foods, always look carefully at the nutritional data of each food to ensure you get a quality product. Try to avoid foods made with lots of additives, preservatives and sodium.
Be sure to check the expiration date of all foods that you plan on eating, which is determined by the manufacturer to help you determine when the food is freshest until. If a food is expired but you still think it’s good, rely on your senses by smelling it.
Spoiled foods will develop an off odor, flavor or texture due to naturally occurring microorganisms, such as molds, yeasts and bacteria. Never eat food that smells or taste “off” in order to avoid becoming sick.
- Food storage extends how long a food remains edible and safe to eat. Methods of food storage include refrigeration, freezing, freeze-drying, dehydrating, canning, pickling and jarring.
- What are the best food storage containers to use? Tightly sealed glass containers with airtight lids are among the best, since they aren’t porous and won’t get stained — plus they won’t cause plastic to leach into food. If you do use plastic, make sure the containers or bags are meant to store food.
- When it comes to long-term food storage, canned or jarred foods, frozen foods, and freeze-dried foods are your best options. Other foods that can be stored for a relatively long time include grains, beans, nuts and seeds, nut milks, onions, potatoes and other root vegetables, hard squashes, apples, and citrus fruits.