Reviewed by Eleese Cunningham, RDN
women cooking next to refrigerator

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Refrigeration Tips to Keep Your Food Safe

Although the refrigerator is an essential kitchen appliance, Americans lack important knowledge on how to keep foods safe in the fridge. A survey conducted by The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, found that most consumers don't understand the consequences of storing foods at an incorrect temperature.

Just four out of 10 consumers recognize that eating food stored in a refrigerator with a temperature higher than 40°F would increase the likelihood of foodborne illness. According to experts, cold temperatures (40°F or below) keep harmful bacteria from growing.

Refrigerator temperatures fluctuate, especially from season to season. The best way to regulate your refrigerator is with a refrigerator thermometer. Set the thermometer in the center of the middle shelf (not on the door) and keep it inside at all times. Most importantly, check the temperature regularly to be sure your food is stored safely below 40°F! Adjust the settings on the control dial accordingly.

Spring Cleaning

Springtime is often a motivation to give your home a thorough cleaning. When scrubbing the kitchen, include a "refrigerator make-over" on your to-do list. Not only will the fridge be spotless, it will improve the safety and quality of your foods. For the best cleaning results, always refer to your owner's manual, but here are a few simple tips.

  • Scrub down the inside of your refrigerator (including shelves and drawers) using a clean sponge and warm soapy water. Rinse with clean water, then dry with paper towels or a clean cloth. Avoid using cleaners that may pass on taste to food or cause damage to surfaces.
  • Eliminate odors between cleanings by placing an opened box of baking soda in the back of the fridge. Change the box every three months at the time of your next make-over.
  • Make it a habit to wipe up spills immediately, especially from raw meat juices. Defrosting meats on the bottom shelf in a covered container reduces the chance of a spill and cross-contamination.
  • Keep the front grill free of dust to allow free airflow to the condenser for best cooling and efficiency. Also, clean the condenser coils with a brush or vacuum. And remember to unplug the refrigerator when cleaning the coils.
  • Throw out foods that have been "hibernating" in the fridge. As a rule of thumb, sort through foods at least once a week. Check expiration dates to help determine when to dispose of foods. But when in doubt, throw it out.
  • "Use by" or "best if used by" date is not a safety-related date. It's the last date recommended for use of the product at optimal quality.
  • "Expiration" date means don't consume the product after this date.

Living With Leftovers

Perishable leftovers from a meal should not stay out of refrigeration longer than two hours. In hot weather (80°F or above), this time is reduced to one hour. Here are general guidelines for storing leftovers:

Leftovers Keeps Up To
Cooked fresh vegetables 3-4 days
Cooked pasta 3-5 days
Cooked rice 1 week
Deli counter meats 5 days
Ham, cooked and sliced
Hot dogs, opened
Lunch meats, prepackaged, opened
Cooked beef, pork, poultry,fish and meat casseroles
Cooked patties and nuggets,gravy and broth

3-4 days
1 week
3-5 days
3-4 days
1-2 days
3-4 days
Seafood, cooked 3-4 days
Soups and stews 3-4 days
Stuffing 3-4 days

Download: Refrigerator Calculator Tip Sheet.

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