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Refrigerate - The Basics

Contributors: Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD

Published: June 23, 2018

Reviewed: August 13, 2018

Refrigerate - The Basics
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When stored properly, foods remain safe and retain their quality, nutrients and flavor or longer. Be sure to store foods in the right container, at the right temperature and for the right length of time. Proper food storage will reduce your risk of food poisoning and also stretch your wallet since your food won't spoil as quickly.

It is easy for foods to get lost in the vast expanses of your refrigerator. To keep perishable food safe and out of the danger zone, you must wrap and store it properly for the appropriate amount of time.

In the Fridge

From meats to cheeses and leftovers, use these tips to ensure you are storing foods safely in the refrigerator.

  • Keep your refrigerator below 40°F. At this temperature, bacteria that spoil food grow slowly. Buy a refrigerator thermometer and keep it in your fridge. Also, make your refrigerator raids quick so the door doesn't stay open for too long.
  • Store all foods wrapped or in covered containers. Leave food in its store wrapping unless the package is torn. If you have to re-wrap, seal storage containers well to prevent moisture loss and absorption of odors.
  • Store foods quickly. Don't keep perishable foods at room temperature for longer than two hours.
  • Avoid overloading your refrigerator because cold air needs room to circulate.
  • Once a week, clean out the refrigerator. Discard any questionable foods rather than risk food poisoning. When in doub — throw it out!
  • If food is moldy, discard it in a bag or wrapper so mold spores don't spread. Clean the moldy food's container and the refrigerator or pantry to remove mold spores. Check items that the moldy food may have touched because mold spreads fast on fruits and vegetables.

Meat, Poultry and Fish

  • Keep packages of raw meat, poultry and fish in a separate plastic bag, bowl or pan on the lowest refrigerator shelf. This keeps juices from dripping onto other foods, and the lowest shelf is usually the coldest.
  • Use fresh meat, poultry and fish within a couple days. Toss meat, poultry or fish with an off odor, a sticky or slimy surface or perhaps a discoloration.


  • Eggs will stay fresher longer if you keep them in their carton, not in the egg tray or door shelf.
  • Use fresh eggs in the shell within three to five weeks.

Fruits and Vegetables

  • Refrigerate perishable fruits and vegetables such as berries, lettuce, mushrooms and herbs. Wait to wash fresh produce until just before using, and dry all fresh produce thoroughly with a paper towel after washing.
  • Keep produce in crisper bins in the refrigerator. That helps retain moisture. If possible, keep fruit in a separate crisper from vegetables because fruit gives off ethylene gas that can shorten storage life.
  • Refrigerate cut, peeled or cooked fruits and vegetables.

Fresh Dairy Products

  • Refrigerate all dairy products promptly and preferable in the back of the refrigerator because it's colder. Cover well so they don't pick up other odors.
  • Once milk is poured, never return it to its original container because it can be contaminated with outside organisms that cause spoilage and food poisoning.

Grains and Canned Foods

  • If stored properly in airtight containers, most whole-grain flours and meals will keep for 1 to 3 months on a cool, dry pantry shelf or 2 to 6 months in the freezer.
  • Once canned foods have been opened, transfer them to a clean, covered container before refrigerating. You can refrigerate opened canned foods in the can if covered, but flavor may be affected.


  • Refrigerate promptly – even if leftovers are still warm – to ensure they don't enter the danger zone, between 40°F and 140°F.
  • Store large amounts of leftovers in several small, shallow containers to cool faster.
  • Carefully date leftovers and keep them at the front of the refrigerator where you can see them and use them right away.
  • Discard all leftovers after four days.
  • Remove as much air as possible from storage bags to keep foods fresh longer. The less you handle food, the better.

Cooling foods keeps them out the "danger zone" — between 40°F and 140°F — and slows the growth of illness-causing bacteria. Refrigerate promptly and properly to reduce your risk of food poisoning. Never thaw or marinate foods on the counter. Also, toss expired foods.

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