Exactly How to Stock Your Fridge If You Want Your Food to Last
In these days of social distancing, stretching your grocery haul is more important than ever. Here's how the pros do it.
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Welcome to grocery shopping 2.0
Given the many precautions shoppers must take during the coronavirus pandemic, you hardly need health experts to urge you to keep food shopping trips to a minimum. Buy wisely, and take steps to make the food you get last longer.
One of the most fundamental ground rules for keeping refrigerated items fresh: “The colder the fridge, the longer things will last,” says Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, a professor of food and hospitality management and director of the Drexel Food Lab at Drexel University. “Refrigerators should be between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit for both safety and quality—even a degree can make a difference for products like milk.”
Beyond that, Deutsch says, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the best way to store each food item. So, we rounded up all the expert tips we could find to help you make sure your food lasts longer and save you from having to make unwanted grocery store trips. You’ll also want to make sure you’re not doing any of these things that shorten the life of your fridge.
Choose foods with staying power
“Never before has processed food become more important for health,” says Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., a food scientist and principal of Corvus Blue LLC, a food science and research firm. It’s important to remember that not all processed food is bad—sometimes the processing that’s done is to help make it shelf-stable. Organic milk, for instance, will last much longer than conventional because of the ultra pasteurization it undergoes. Some other long-lasting picks, according to Shelke: apples, winter squash, eggs (they’re good up to five weeks, and it’s easy to know when one’s gone bad), citrus, onions, hard cheeses, tofu, pickles, cream cheese, sour cream, heavy cream and bacon.
Socially isolate your produce
All fruits and vegetables are not created equal, and tossing them all into the same crisper drawer can significantly shorten the lifespan of some food items. Apples, tomatoes, potatoes, melon and peaches, among others, produce a lot of ethylene gas, a plant hormone that speeds up the ripening process. Asparagus, garlic, onion, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, peppers and strawberries are among the produce items most sensitive to the effects of ethylene. If you must refrigerate these items, store high ethylene producers in its own drawer, and use a device like this greensaver crisper unit that absorbs the gas to make them last even longer. Potatoes, tomatoes, onions and avocados last longer at room temp, Deutsch says. These are more foods that shouldn’t go in your fridge.
Spoilage can be caused by several factors, including moisture and oxidation (exposure to air), says Shelke. But with produce, time is usually the killer. “Some enzymes in fruits and vegetables continue to be active and cause deterioration in their quality and safety,” she says. That’s why for root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, turnips and beets, removing its leafy tops can extend its life in storage by months. For other produce items, these crisper bags can help. Learn how to keep your fridge organized to help you make sure nothing goes to waste.
Wait to wash things
Not your hands, definitely wash those as much as possible. But moisture leads to mold, so washing a whole carton of strawberries at once is a ticket to spoiler city. Instead, only wash the amount you’re going to eat in one sitting immediately before eating it and leave the rest dry, says Deutsch. You can also find refrigerator bins that reduce humidity to keep produce fresh and crisp. Find out how long different types of fresh fruits last.
Bag your herbs
Ingredients like fresh herbs make a big impact but those delicate greens never last long. Growing your own is always a good option, as is using dried. The best way to extend the life of cut leafy herbs like cilantro and parsley is to stick it in a jar of water and place a plastic bag loosely over the top. That helps maintain proper moisture levels. Remember to change the water regularly. You can also invest in an herb keeper for the same purpose. Here’s more on how to store your herbs properly.
Halve your losses
Sometimes you only need half an onion, tomato or lime, and that’s OK. Since exposure to oxygen is one of the fastest ways to spoil food, you want to minimize your cut surfaces (i.e. don’t chop the rest of that onion) and cover it tightly with plastic wrap. Bonus: This will prevent odors from stinkier items like onions from permeating surrounding foods, says Deutsch.
Don’t smother your cheese
Cheese, especially good cheese, is a living thing. And plastic wrap, the standard way to store an open wedge, doesn’t let it breathe. Instead, it traps moisture inside, which is why cheese can start to feel slick and slimy before sprouting mold (the bad kind). A better option: If you didn’t save the fancy paper it came in, wrap it in parchment or wax paper and pop it in a small container with a tight-fitting lid. If you’re really serious about cheese, you might want a cheese vault. Find out the foods you didn’t know you could freeze.
Ideally, you want to treat the food in your refrigerator and freezer like you’d treat yourself on a sub-zero day: Layer up. Start by wrapping leftovers in plastic wrap, foil or both, before popping then in a food container. This can be especially important for preventing freezer burn on foods you’re planning to keep for longer times. If you’re waste-conscious, check out this multipurpose beeswax-infused organic cotton wrap, which can be used and then reused. These are more reusable versions of things you use every day.
Vacuum pack it
When you don’t want to take any chances with food going bad before it’s time, pumping the air out of the container your leftovers are in is the only solution. Proponents claim that vacuum sealing can keep food fresh for five times as long as other storage methods. This vacuum sealer starter set makes it easy. This is how to store every type of leftover.
One of the reasons food goes bad is because people forget to eat it. That’s why transparent storage containers are so important: So you can see what’s ready to be consumed at a glance. Tagging each dish or item with the date you put it in there takes seconds, but can save you countless meals. These nifty labels make it easy to go label crazy. Find out about the food containers you’ve been using all wrong.
Preserving foods through pickling or fermenting can extend its shelf life several times over. Pickles, salt-preserved lemons, kimchi and sweet or savory jams are all great options to make at home. “I’m a huge fan of canning applesauce and tomatoes,” says Marisa McClellan, author of The Food in Jars Kitchen. “They are things that my family uses in abundance and the homemade versions are both cheaper and better.” If you find any of these items in your kitchen, toss them ASAP.
Put a lid on it
It’s time to institute a no open containers policy in your refrigerator. Everything goes into storage. No containers? No problem. Stretchable lids fit right over the top of the serving bowls and containers you already own. And some of them look really good, too. What could be easier? Next, read on for some pantry organization tips from the pros.