Are your food storage habits leading to waste?

Throwing out unused food feels a lot like flushing money down the drain. But with proper storage, you can extend food’s shelf life. The first thing is to make sure you’re only stocking your fridge and pantry with food items you know you’ll use. Then use these tips to store your food.

The secret to spoiled food

Ever wonder why fresh produce goes bad so quickly? Many fruits and vegetables produce ethylene gas, a colorless, odorless gas, as they begin to ripen. Some foods aren't affected much by ethylene gas, while others are extremely sensitive to it.

When these sensitive fruits and vegetables come in contact with ethylene gas, they ripen at a much faster rate than normal. This leads to premature rotting and a shorter shelf life. But with some strategic storage, you can extend the shelf life of your fresh fruits and vegetables.

Ethylene-producing foods should never be stored in the same basket, drawer, or shelf as the ethylene-sensitive foods listed.

  • Ethylene-producing produce: apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, blueberries, cantaloupes, citrus fruit, cranberries, figs, guavas, grapes, green onions, honeydew, kiwi, mangoes, melons, mushrooms, nectarines, okra, papayas, passion fruit, peaches, pears, peppers, persimmons, pineapple, plantains, plums/prunes, tomatoes, and watermelons
  • Ethylene-sensitive produce: asparagus, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, endives, escarole, green beans, kale, lettuce, parsley, peas, potatoes, romaine, spinach, squash, sweet potatoes, watercress, and yams

Keeping your fridge and freezer safe

A clean refrigerator means safer food. When something spills in your fridge, sprinkle some baking soda on the mess, cover with a warm, wet paper towel or washcloth for about 60 seconds, and then wipe it up. Keep your refrigerator at 40º F. Put a thermometer in the refrigerator to double check that yours is working properly. Keep airflow and temperatures consistent by not overfilling your fridge.

Once your fridge is clean, keep your food fresh and safe by organizing items on the right shelves. You don’t want that chicken you’re defrosting to drip on your kale salad lunch for tomorrow. Get a shelf-by-shelf fridge organization guide.

Preparing your pantry

Your pantry may not get as much attention when it comes to food preservation and safety, but there are some important things to consider. Keep your pantry cool and dry to keep foods at their best quality, and throw out any cans that are damaged (rusting, badly dented, bulging, leaking, or have an unusual odor).

With the right conditions, canned foods can last long, making them good staples to keep on hand. But consider how long it may take you to use certain items before loading up. Adopt a first-in-first-out approach and rotate your pantry items as you buy new ones. High acidic canned foods, like pineapple, grapefruit, or tomatoes, should only be kept for 12 to 18 months. Low acidic canned food, such as canned meat, fish, and most vegetables, can be kept for as long as two to five years.

Shelf-stable foods like spices, oils, or dry ingredients that are kept in refillable containers may also be stored on the counter or in a cabinet. Store these foods in tightly-capped containers away from moisture, heat, and sunlight.

Another consideration with these items is to only use dry utensils or measuring spoons to get what you need to avoid introducing additional foods or conditions to the container. This will also keep you from repeatedly exposing spice containers to heat if sprinkled over the stove or foods that have come right out of the oven.

  • Olive and plant oils: good for three to five months after opening and stored in the pantry or cabinet or on a counter, four months if refrigerated after opening, and six to 12 months in the pantry before opening.
  • Coconut oil: can be good for three years when kept in the pantry.
  • Dry spices: can be used two to four years from the date of purchase.
  • Dry herbs: can be used one to two years from the date of purchase.

Produce like bananas should be stored at room temperature. Others like avocados and eggplant need to be ripened at room temperature and then stored in the refrigerator to lengthen their life. Check out the full list of storage tips.

Now that you know how to store food safely, check out these six ways to stick to your nutrition goals at home.

About the Author

Paige Crawford

Paige Crawford, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., is a senior project coordinator and performance dietitian at EXOS. She develops nutrition content and manages projects on the performance innovation team.

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