Proper Food Storage, Safety and Handling

Updated by Jim Deckebach

Proper food safety isn't just important in commercial kitchens; it is equally important in the home. Properly storing foods ensures that they remain safe to consume within their shelf-life. It minimizes the risk of cross-contamination and foodborne illness. Paired with a clean, well-maintained kitchen organized for safety and efficiency, food safety best practices can be made a little easier for households to follow. As you plan out your next week of meals and a trip to the grocery store, consider the following food safety advice and make necessary changes to ensure that your foods are properly stored.

Understanding Food Dating

Food dating is so much more than remembering to avoid garlic on your dinner plate or checking your teeth for spinach before dessert arrives. Food dating is a federally-regulated requirement and the manufacturer's way to making consumers aware of the food's shelf-life and when it may no longer be of peak quality or freshness.

  • "Best before"/"Best by" Date: This quality dating helps to alert the consumer of when the product starts to deteriorate. Food items can be safely consumed past this date, but they might not be of the best quality.
  • Expiration Date: This date indicates by when the food should be consumed.
  • "Sell by"/"use by" Date: This date notes product quality. It is typically safe to consume foods past their sell by date, with the caution and an understanding that the product may have some quality loss. An exception to this norm would be baby formula which should not be used past its use by date.
  • "Use or Freeze by": This type of dating is most often found on meat products. Fresh meats may be frozen as a way to extend their shelf-life.

The Difference in Food Dating

Best If Used By Dates

Food Storage Guide

To make sure foods are used within their shelf-lives, prioritize the items with the soonest dates to be used first. When stocking up on items that are bought frequently or habitually, it is important to rotate food items to make sure that you are using the oldest products before those with dating that is further away. Foods that will be frozen should be clearly labeled with their purchased and when they should be used by.

Keep It or Toss It?

Shelf-Stable & Pantry Storage

Words like canned, shelf-stable, pantry-stable, and cupboard are usually used to describe foods that will not spoil when stored at room temperature. They do not need cold storage like meat and dairy products do. Dry goods that can be stored at room temperature include flour, bottled water, and sugar. Canned goods are largely shelf-stable, but it is still important to check the labeling, as there are some exceptions to that rule.

  • Shelf-stable items should be stored in a dry, dark location that stays around 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • When buying canned items at the store, check to be sure that the can has not been dented and that there are no signs of corrosion or rust, as these defects can lead to spoilage. Do not eat food stored in cans that have been dented or appear to be bulging.
  • Be aware of which pantry items should be removed from their original packaging for storage. Brown sugar should be sealed in an airtight container. Whole-wheat flour and cornmeal should be stored in sealed bags in the freezer.

Pantry Food Storage Information

Storing Dried Foods

Approximate Storage Times for Dry Goods and Pantry Items

Refrigerated Foods and Safe Storage Order

The refrigerator revolutionized food storage. From chilling white wine that was otherwise stored using wine racks to storing produce, meat, and dairy at the proper temperature, this appliance is widely used. And while it is easiest to rush all of your groceries into the fridge, unorganized, there is an important storage order and tips to keep your food fresh and your family safe from food-borne illnesses.

  • Raw meat should always be stored on the bottom shelf of the fridge on a plate, even if the meat is packaged, using the plate will help to minimize contamination, should the packaging leak.
  • Prepared food items or leftovers should be stored on the upper shelves, keeping it away from raw meats.
  • Milk, eggs, yogurt, and other dairy products are best kept in the back of the fridge because it is the coldest part of the fridge.
  • Vegetables and fruits should be stored separately in the refrigerator's crisper drawers.

Organizing Your Refrigerator

Food Storage for Safety and Quality

Freezing Food Items and Prepared Dishes

Many families choose to practice large batch cooking and freeze leftovers to be enjoyed on a busy night when a freshly prepared meal is not an option. Freezing is a great option because it extends the usability of a food for months or even years. It is important to note though that quality, taste, and texture may start to deteriorate after three to twelve months, depending on the food and its storage.

Freezing Foods Safely

  • Foods should always be stored in the right packaging; securely sealed plastic freezer bags are a popular option that helps to prevent freezer burn.
  • Once frozen and thawed, food cannot be refrozen. The only exception to this is when the first round of freezing was raw, then cooked; the cooked food could then be frozen.
  • Do not put hot food into the freezer, as they will cause the temperature of the freezer to rise.
  • Frozen foods can be defrosted in ice water baths, in the refrigerator, or in the microwave.

Additional Food Safety Tips

  • Use color-coded cutting boards to avoid cross-contamination.
  • Alongside dish soap, keep hand soap by your kitchen sink. Paper towels or clean hand towels should be kept close by, too.
  • Your cutting boards should be made from non-porous wood, plastic, or acrylic. Porous wood boards may hold contaminants and odors.
  • Use a kitchen thermometer to confirm that meat has reached the minimum recommended temperature.
  • Make your own sanitizing solution at home by combining one gallon of water with one tablespoon of bleach. The solution can be used on cutting boards and countertops.

Four Steps to Safer Foods

Food Safety vs. Sanitation

Safe Food Storage

Proper Food Storage

Alternatives to Plastic Storage Containers

Food Storage for Consumers

Current Food Safety Issues


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