6 Common Food Storage Mistakes to Avoid, According to Food Scientists

Learn what not to do so you can follow safe food storage practices.

Learning how to properly store food is one of the best ways to save money, reduce waste, and enjoy leftovers at a later date. It's also crucial for preventing food poisoning, an illness that can put a damper on any meal. That's why so many basic food safety rules are rooted in proper storage.

Still, there are some food storage errors that home cooks often make that might not seem so obvious. To learn more, we asked food scientists and experts about the most common food storage mistakes—and how to fix them.

1. Refrigerating Wet Fruits and Vegetables

Although it can be tempting to rinse fruits and vegetables before storing them in the fridge, this is not the best move for shelf life. Moisture encourages the growth of microorganisms like bacteria and mold, even in the cool temperature of the refrigerator, says Bryan Quoc Le, Ph.D., food consultant and author of 150 Food Science Questions Answered.

washed berries

2. Storing Food Uncovered

If you regularly refrigerate foods unwrapped or uncovered, you may want to ditch the habit, says Le. Some microorganisms (such as molds and yeasts) can thrive in the cold temperature of the refrigerator, where they can circulate in the air and land on food. This air exposure can also accelerate the chemical breakdown of flavor compounds in food, adds Le. "Additionally, foods can pick up odors fairly quickly in the fridge, so covering food helps reduce the formation of off-flavors," he says.

In the freezer, microbial growth isn't possible—but if frozen food is left uncovered, it will slowly react with oxygen in the air and develop an unpleasant flavor. "Frozen foods can also release moisture, causing the surface of foods to dry and [develop] freezer burn," says Le. Covering or wrapping foods in the freezer, however, will inhibit the process.

  • The fix: Cover food with plastic wrap or use lidded fridge or freezer-safe containers before stashing items in the refrigerator.
Pack of eggs on a fridge shelf

3. Placing Eggs in the Refrigerator Door

Some refrigerators have an egg tray in the door, allowing you to toss the carton and keep eggs within reach. Don't use it: Storing eggs in this spot can pose a food safety risk, says Kimberly Baker, Ph.D., RD, LD, director of the Clemson Extension Food Systems and Safety Program Team. The reason? Eggs need to be stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less in order to stay fresh, but when the door is opened (which happens frequently), the temperature of the eggs increases. This places them in the temperature danger zone of 40 and 140 degrees, a range in which bacteria like Salmonella can quickly grow.

  • The fix: Store eggs in the coldest part of the refrigerator—typically this is at the back of the bottom shelf.

4. Keeping Leftovers for Too Long

Leftovers can be a timesaver on busy nights, especially if you're cooking for multiple people. But contrary to popular belief, properly refrigerating leftovers doesn't mean they will last a long time. "After three to four days, the number of microorganisms growing in freshly prepared food is quite high," says Le. These foods can pick up bacterial and mold spores from the air or via contact with soiled cutlery, dirty hands, or other foods. What's more, it's not always possible to tell if food has illness-causing pathogens, as these germs won't change its appearance, color, or texture, according to the USDA.

  • The fix: Toss food after three to four days to be safe.

5. Not Dating and Labeling Leftovers

Speaking of leftovers: Labeling food is one of the simplest ways to ensure you eat it within the recommended time frame. Many home cooks rely on their memory—which isn't always accurate—to determine when something was opened or prepared. By labeling food before it goes in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry, you'll have an easier time finding items before they go bad. Labeling will help reduce both the risk of foodborne illness and waste in the kitchen.

  • The fix: Use freezer tape, wet-erase markers, or chalkboard labels to label food with the date it was opened or cooked, the date it should be consumed by, and (if the container isn't clear) the item inside.

6. Choosing the Wrong Shelf in the Refrigerator

Another common food storage mistake is putting foods on the wrong shelves. If not stored in the correct place in the refrigerator, the juices from raw meat or fish can drip on other items, potentially spreading illness-causing bacteria. Specifically, raw meat can contain germs such as Salmonella or E.coli, which are normally killed during the cooking process, says Trevor Craig, food safety consultant at Microbac Laboratories. But if these pathogens spread to other products (like raw lettuce for salads, for example), they may pose a risk for food poisoning.

  • The fix: Raw meat or fish should be stored on the bottom shelf, while ready-to-eat foods should be kept on top. For an added layer of safety, store raw meat in "containers with raised edges or lips [to] help prevent juices from spilling or splashing," says Craig.
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