Storing Food Safely

How many times have you wondered if you've kept food too long and asked, "Is it still all right to eat?"  To help you decide whether to keep it or throw it out, here are some simple guidelines.

Basic Food Storage Rules

  • The first rule in handling food is to keep it clean.  Before preparing food for storage, wash your hands well and make sure utensils are absolutely clean.
  • When shopping, choose cans that are not dented on the seam or rim.  In your home, quickly dispose of foods in leaking, bulging or rusting cans.
  • Keep food either hot (above 140°F) or cold (below 37°F), never in between for any length of time, as this temperature "danger zone" provides ideal conditions for the growth of common bacteria that can cause spoilage or even food related-illnesses.  Never leave foods in the danger zone for more than two hours.
  • Most importantly, smell -- but don't taste -- any food you suspect is spoiled.  If in doubt, throw it out!

Canned Foods

In general, most canned foods have a very long "health life" and when stored properly are safe to eat for many years.  A product's practical shelf life, however, is tied to proper storage.  Although canned foods may be perfectly safe to eat, they may gradually start losing nutrients or flavor, so as a general rule, use them within a year.

To keep canned foods at their best quality:

  • Store in clean, dry, cool cabinets, away from the range, the refrigerator's exhaust or other sources of heat.
  • Don't store in cupboards where pipes are located.  Leaks can damage food containers.
  • Keep in a dark place as prolonged light can affect food color, making it look less appetizing while still safe to eat.

Check The Label

Product freshness dating on some products can help you decide how long to store them.  The "sell by" or "pull" date generally displayed on dairy products and fresh bakery products is the last date the product should be sold, allowing you a reasonable length of time to use the food at home.

The "best if used by" date used on items with longer shelf lives like canned foods, frozen foods, cereals and fried snack foods indicates the approximate date when the product quality will begin to decline.   The product can still be used safely for a short period after this date, however.

The "expiration" date found on refrigerated dough products, packaged yeast and eggs tells you the last day an item should be used before it's likely to lose flavor or quality.

Foods That Need Special Care

Take extra precautions with foods that are especially susceptible to bacterial growth -- poultry, fish and shellfish, meat, dairy products, puddings, stuffing and creamed mixtures.

Cover leftover cooked meats and poultry tightly after use and store them in the refrigerator immediately.

Avoid using cracked eggs.  If you must use them, make sure they are cooked thoroughly to kill any bacteria that may be in the egg.  Do not cool cooked eggs in water on the counter: cool them in cold running water, then refrigerate or use immediately.

For ease of preparation and food safety considerations, cook dressing (stuffing) separately from the chicken or turkey.  However, if you decide to stuff poultry, never stuff it the night before you roast it.  When refrigerating leftover poultry and stuffing, remove the stuffing from the bird and store in separate containers.

Cook meat and poultry all the way through.  Do no cook partially to finish later.

Refrigerator And Freezer Storage

Set your refrigerator between 34°F and 37°F and use a thermometer placed in the refrigerator to alert you to temperature fluctuations.  Don't overload the refrigerator, as air must circulate freely to cool all foods evenly.  Clean the refrigerator regularly to remove spoiled foods so that bacteria can't be passed to other foods.  Store food in foil, plastic wrap or bags or airtight containers to keep food from drying out.

The freezer should be set at 0°F or lower and a thermometer should be used to monitor freezer temperature, which should not rise above 5°F.  Check the thermostat for the proper setting.

To package items for the freezer, especially meat and poultry, remove the product from its original container and wrap using heavy-duty foil, moisture and vapor-proof paper, plastic freezer wraps or freezer containers.  Foil may develop holes when folded causing freezer burn.  If necessary, use special freezer tape to ensure items are airtight.

Before freezing, label all freezer foods with the date packed, type of food and weight or number of servings before freezing.

Partially thawed food can be refrozen safely as long as it still has ice crystals and has been held no longer than a day at refrigerator temperatures.  Refreezing, however, may cause a loss of quality, so it's best to cook the food and then refreeze it.  Combination dishes (pies, stews and casseroles) that have been thawed should not be refrozen.

Maintaining Freshness And Quality

To preserve the freshness and quality of food, follow these general principles:

  • Buy foods in reasonable quantities.  Excess food may be wasted through spoilage.
  • Select sound packages of food.  Avoid items that are in torn, dented or damaged packages.
  • Use a first-in-first-out system of rotation and use foods in their order of purchase.   Mark foods with purchase date or use label dates.
  • Take time to reseal packages such as cookies, biscuits and cereals carefully after use.

(Source: Martha Archuleta, Extension Food and Nutrition Specialist, New Mexico State University, College of Agriculture and Home Economics)