The 10 Commandments Of Making Your Groceries And Leftovers Last

Keep new groceries fresh and leftovers from going bad with these rules of food storage.

1. Thou shalt store food in the right places.

Americans have been conditioned to believe the refrigerator is the best storage area for everything from A (apples) to Z (zucchini), when the counter is sufficient for many of our needs. Here’s a quick rundown of what goes where:

  • Counter: root veggies, winter squash, garlic, onions, tomatoes, citrus fruit, bananas, melons, non-dairy baked goods, apples (1 week), honey, peanut butter, pineapple, watermelon, eggplant, peppers

  • Fridge: meats, fish, dairy products, dairy-based baked goods, leafy greens, summer squash, beans, celery, grapes, cruciferous veggies, berries, corn, mushrooms

  • Avocados and stone fruits can ripen on the counter. Once they’re ready, into the fridge they go.

    For more details, check out the lists on Lifehacker and Sparkpeople, and gauge storage times using this chart from North Dakota State University.

2. Thou shalt use the right equipment.

In general, food should be kept in its original packaging until you’re ready to use it. Once it’s been opened, things change.

Plastic wrap, aluminum foil, and double-zipper plastic bags are good bets for almost all produce, herbs, and meats. (Cooks Illustrated likes Ziploc’s gallon bags best.) Small, flat Tupperware, glass, and disposable plastic containers work for leftovers, sauces, and gravies.
Cheese, bread, basil, and mushrooms are different.
  • Hard cheeses should be removed from wrappers and placed in parchment or wax paper, at which point it’s okay to put them in a plastic bag.

  • Fresh bread should stay in their original bags (preferably paper) on the counter.

  • Place basil stalks in a glass with 1 inch of water on your counter, covering the leaves loosely with a plastic bag.

  • Mushrooms go in the fridge, but in a paper bag.

3. Thou shalt not wash food as soon as you get home.

It’s nice to have your food ready to eat, but keep in mind that moisture speeds mold and decomposition in produce, especially if the fruits and vegetables are more delicate to begin with. If you must wash berries, greens, beans, and the like prior to placing them in the fridge, make sure you thoroughly dry them. For even better protection, store them with a paper towel, which can absorb excess moisture.

Incidentally, you shouldn’t wash poultry, either, says the USDA. There’s a near-zero chance you’ll clean off the bacteria, but a very good chance you’ll spread the germs around your sink and countertops.

4. Thou shalt remove rotten foods and parts.

Rot begets rot. If you find a bad apple, moldy piece of cheese, or fuzzy dinner roll, check its neighbors for signs of decomposition. Barring none, remove the offending edible immediately, before it begins to contaminate everything else. Once you do this, make sure to finish the remaining food fairly quickly, or wrap it tightly and store it in the freezer, since the rot could be a sign it doesn’t have much time left.

5. Thou shalt take care of your fridge.

Maintaining a spic-and-span refrigerator prevents questionable odors from tainting your groceries, not to mention cross-contamination from spills. But cleanliness isn’t the only factor in ideal food storage: You should also ensure the shelves aren’t overstuffed. It prevents air from circulating, which is key to keeping food cool and fresh, longer.

6. Thou shalt remember: Air is the enemy of leftovers and cut foods.

While it’s good practice to store whole produce with a little air circulating—think of perforated plastic grape bags—once it’s cut up, it’s a goner unless you act. Wrap chopped produce and meats securely in airtight containers, plastic wrap, or aluminum foil, and place them in the refrigerator. Never leave them sitting on a counter.

To go an extra step, you may even want to:

  1. Buy a vacuum sealer.
  2. Suck the excess air out of bagswith a straw.
  3. Rub cut produce like avocados with a small amount of lemon or lime juice, which prevents browning.

7. Thou shalt not mix foods that speed rotting.

Before produce is shipped to your supermarket, it’s often sprayed with ethylene gas, a harmless alkene that promotes ripening. Many fruits produce the gas on their own, and some kinds (peaches, tomatoes, apples, etc.) create more than others. If you want your produce to last longer, it’s important to keep high-ethylene foods together, and avoid storing them with other, low-ethylene fruits and vegetables (leafy greens, eggplant, summer squash, etc.), since they’ll speed ripening, and eventually, rotting.

Check this guide from The Kitchn for a more comprehensive rundown of ethylene content, and look into buying this ethylene gas absorber if you’re really into preservation.

8. Thou shalt keep a log of what you waste.

One of the biggest reasons food goes bad is because we buy too much in the first place. In fact, the National Resources Defense Council estimates a family of four can throw away up to $2,275 of groceries per year. To prevent the excess, the folks at Greatist suggest keeping a diary of exactly how much food you chuck. “Tossing half a loaf of bread each week?,” says blogger Laura Newcomer, “Maybe it’s time to start freezing half that loaf the moment you buy it so it doesn’t go stale before you’re able to eat it.” Speaking of...

9. Thou shalt refrigerate quickly, and freeze what you can.

The longer leftovers sit at room temperature, the shorter their ultimate lifespan. So, once you cook something, pack the unused portions into the refrigerator as soon as possible, in an (of course) airtight container. There’s no need to worry about it cooling down—modern refrigerators can handle the temperature differentials.And if you don’t think you’re going to eat the leftovers anytime soon—within a few days—unload them into the freezer for longer-term storage. In fact, with few exceptions (lettuce, mashed potatoes, sour cream, etc.) moston-the-verge foods can go into the freezer.

10. Thou shalt buy in-season and local, if possible.

Did you know the average supermarket apple is 6 to 12 months old? It’s picked, processed, and kept in cold, long-term storage until it’s ready to be shipped to the grocer. There’s no telling how long it will last once you purchase it, since it’s no longer being artificially preserved.

The truth is, you have no idea how old most of your “fresh” produce is when you buy it. It could have been sitting for weeks, months, even a year by the time you’re ready to take it home. And the longer it sits, the fewer nutrients it has, and the less idea you have about when it’s actually going to go bad.

For the freshest, healthiest food—fruits and vegetables that leave nothing up to the imagination, including their lifespans—try to purchase from farmer’s markets or other local sources. It’ll taste better, too.

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