A Comprehensive Guide to Keeping Foods Fresher Longer
There’s no doubt about it - everything has gotten a little (OK maybe a lot) more expensive in the past year - including food! Well, what are we to do about it when we literally have to eat to live? Sure, you could start growing all of your own food yourself, but for most of us, that’s just not going to be feasible. There’s a myth out there that “eating healthy is too expensive”. But the truth is that you can eat healthy on a budget! One of the most common things we hear is “my fresh foods go bad and I’m wasting money on unused food”. In this case, yes, it can get really expensive buying and throwing away the same foods over and over. So, instead of making the answer “well I just won’t buy fresh food anymore” let’s focus on solutions that help us make our fresh foods last longer. This way your hard earned dollars spent on food are able to go a little bit further!
We’ll preface this with that we know there are a lot of different opinions when it comes to where, how, and how long foods should be stored. Our ways are certainly not the only ways, but we’re sharing what we’ve found to work best with the goal of giving you the most bang for your buck!
As a general rule of thumb, the majority of foods are going to stay fresher longer when stored in the fridge (vs. being stored at room temperature outside of the fridge). Why? Bacterial growth is slower in colder temperatures and colder temperatures generally also slow the ripening process of many fresh foods and produce. So, the easiest way to prolong the shelf life of your food? Put it in the fridge! This rule doesn’t apply to all foods equally. There are some exceptions and there are some foods that simply taste better and have better texture outside of the fridge. For foods that are more preferable at room temperature, such as tomatoes and avocados, you can choose to either store these foods at room temperature and be diligent about using them before they rot or you can always initially store in the fridge and take these foods out of the fridge a couple hours in advance of your meal to let them come to room temperature. Many foods can be bought in bulk so you can get a better price per item (apples, potatoes, oranges, berries, and more). Sometimes, it's more than what we need. When you have an excess of fresh foods, make the fridge your first line of defense against spoilage. If you simply bought way too much even for the fridge, then consider freezing some of your foods. Note: not all foods respond well to freezing, but many of them do. Think about the foods that you can buy prepackaged frozen from the grocery store, and let that be a guide for freezing your own.
So, where should you store your produce in the fridge? Most fridges come equipped with a crisper drawer (or multiple crisper drawers). Crisper drawers provide better storage conditions for perishable foods - particularly produce that can be sensitive to humidity and moisture. A feature of crisper drawers (that make them different from other drawers or areas of your fridge) is the ability to control the humidity inside the drawer. Low-humidity crisper drawers are generally best for pears, apples, melons, and other pitted fruits that are ethylene-emitting. High-humidity crisper drawers are generally best for broccoli, cucumber, lettuce, leafy greens, and other thin-skinned vegetables that are prone to wilting. But if you don’t have the time or the space to separate foods based on their preferences, storing them in the fridge is a great first step to extending the shelf life of these goods.
Below are some foods that are commonly cooked with and found in kitchens. With them are our best tips for keeping them freshest longest. A note to MRC Clients following an MRC menu: refer to your menu to see if these foods are on your current menu, as food options vary between menus. All fruits and vegetables listed below are being referred to as in a raw (uncooked) state unless otherwise noted. For fruits and vegetables that have been sliced, these should always be stored in the fridge in an airtight container. Sliced fruits and vegetables will loose freshness faster (either spoiling or becoming dried out) than those left in a whole, uncut state. So, if you’re not planning on using them or finishing them up within 2-3 days, then we recommend leaving them whole and uncut until it’s closer to when you’ll be consuming them!
Apples can stay fresh for up to a week or two out on the counter at room temperature. If you know you won’t consume them within this time frame, then you can go ahead and throw them in the fridge to keep them fresher longer. Uncut apples stay fresh in the fridge for upwards of 4-6 weeks.
Avocados will ripen faster at room temperature. But as many of us know too well, sometimes they ripen a little too fast! If you’re buying multiple avocados to get bulk savings, then keep just enough out at room temperature that you’ll eat in a day or two, and store the rest in the fridge.
Bananas are best kept on your countertop, in a pantry, or on a fruit hook. We don’t recommend this one going in the fridge. The great thing about bananas is they are usually always sold by weight - so they’re a very cost effective fruit that allows you to buy only what you need so you don’t end up with a whole lot extra. Too many bananas anyway? Put them in the freezer to blend into a smoothie!
Berries are a mixed bag. If you keep them in the fridge, you will slow the ripening process, but be sure to keep them in a low-moisture area because moisture can damage the fruit. The dry, open air outside of your fridge is good for berries, but they will ripen a bit faster than when inside the fridge. Regardless, you should wait to wash berries until just before consuming to reduce moisture.
Grapefruit will ripen fastest kept out at room temperature. If you want to slow the ripening process, then store it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of your fridge.
Melons will ripen fastest outside of the fridge, but can be stored whole in the fridge if you know it will be a little bit before you use it. Regardless, once you’ve sliced open your melon, the pieces should always be stored in the fridge. Whole melons will tend to stay fresher longer than sliced melons; so if you aren’t going to eat it all right away, keep it whole until you’re ready to really start enjoying it.
Oranges & Tangerines keep best in colder places. When stored in the crisper drawer of your fridge, these fruits can stay fresh for up to a month. Comparatively, they’ll keep for about a week stored on the counter at room temperature.
Pineapple is best consumed within a few days of purchasing. Raw, uncut pineapple will keep on the counter for about 3 days. Then you should trim and cut it. Pineapple chunks should be stored in the fridge in an airtight container and will keep fresh for up to another week.
Stone fruits (peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, etc.) that are ripe are best eaten right away. You can, however, store stone fruits in a sealed bag or container in the fridge to slow the ripening process, but you’ll probably want to let them come to room temperature before consuming. Stone fruits can be very seasonal and hard to get during certain times of the year depending on where you live. If you can’t find stone fruits year round where you live, then you can purchase it while it’s in season, slice, and freeze for use in off season months!
Asparagus is best enjoyed the same day it’s purchased, but if you’re not making it the same day you bought it then trim the bottoms and stand the spears up up in glass or jar. Fill the glass or jar with about an inch of water, cover loosely with a plastic bag, and place on a shelf in the fridge.
Bell Peppers stay crunchiest at room temperature, but can be kept in the fridge to prolong their shelf life. Store in a plastic bag in your fridge’s crisper drawer and they’ll keep for 1-2 weeks in the fridge.
Broccoli is best stored in the fridge in an unsealed or perforated plastic bag (unlike some foods, air circulation actually helps broccoli to stay fresh). You can store broccoli in a crisper drawer, but be sure to keep it away from fruits that emit ethylene gasses.
Cauliflower is stored similarly to broccoli - in the fridge in an unsealed or perforated plastic bag. If you bought a cauliflower head from the store in a plastic bag, you can simply loosen the knot and just put it right in the fridge.
Celery is a high moisture vegetable. As such, it’s actually best stored in water. Wrapping in damp paper towels will help retain moisture. Our preferred storage method for celery is taking a quart size plastic container (we’ve all probably got one or a hundred floating around our tupperware drawer from takeout), slice your celery to fit inside of the container and pack in vertically. Fill the container with water, put the lid on, and place in the fridge - now you’ve got grab-and-go celery sticks whenever you need them!
Corn is best used the day you buy or harvest it, but you can keep it fresher longer by storing it in the fridge. Store unwashed and unpeeled in a sealed plastic bag in a crisper drawer, and it will keep for up to a week.
Cucumbers can be kept in the fridge, but you’ll want to store them in a high-humidity crisper drawer. Equally as effective is placing them in an airtight container at room temperature because cucumbers are very sensitive to prolonged exposure to colder temperatures.
Eggplant is tricky. Similar to cucumbers, eggplant is very sensitive to prolonged exposure to colder temperatures; so it’s best to store this one outside of the fridge. You’ll want to put it in a ventilated container or wrapped in paper towels and placed in a paper bag stored in a cooler, darker area of your kitchen (do not store it in a place that receives direct sunlight). To complicate things further, eggplant is also highly sensitive to ethylene; so you’ll also want to make sure you’re storing it away from high ethylene producing foods like bananas, tomatoes, and melons. Your best bet is to buy eggplant when you’re within a couple days of being ready to use it!
Fresh herbs can be a wonderfully aromatic, tasty, and colorful addition to meals prepared at home. Typically bought in bunches at the grocery store, there’s a good chance you’re not using all of what you buy with just one meal or recipe. Fresh herbs can be easily stored in the fridge to prolong shelf life. In fact, stored properly, fresh herbs can last up to 2-3 weeks instead of just days:
- Soft leafy herbs (cilantro, parsley, mint, basil) should be trimmed - about ½ inch off the bottom of the stems - and stored stem side down in a glass with 1-2 inches of water. Cover with a clear plastic bag and store on a shelf in the fridge
- Hardier herbs (rosemary, dill, sage, thyme, chives, oregano) can be loosely wrapped in a damp paper towel and kept in a tightly sealed container or ziploc bag to prevent oxygen from entering and the leaves from wilting.
Green onions can be wrapped in a lightly dampened paper towel, loosely wrap in a plastic bag, and stored in the fridge. Note: you can use ziploc bags or leftover grocery bags are great for this, too. When the towel dries out, redampen.
Garlic is best stored in a cool, dry place away from heat sources such as a cupboard, cellar, or low-light pantry. If stored whole, unpeeled, and in the right conditions, a head of garlic can keep for up to six months!
Lettuce & Leafy Greens should be wrapped in a kitchen towel or paper towels and stored in the crisper drawer of the fridge. The paper towels will help to absorb excess moisture during storage - keeping the leaves fresher and crisper longer. Stored properly, lettuce can last a week to 10 days in the fridge.
Mushrooms can be stored in their container if you’re going to use them within about 5 days of purchase. If you want to extend the shelf life of your mushrooms, pour them out of their container and into a paper towel lined paper bag (not a plastic bag!). The paper towels and paper bag work to draw away moisture (plastic bags can retain moisture and actually cause the mushrooms to spoil faster - so you’re better off just leaving them in the container they came in if you don’t have a brown paper bag). In all cases, you’ll want to wait to wash mushrooms until you’re ready to use them.
Onions should be stored the same way as garlic - in a cool, dry place. Pro tip: if you’re storing onions and potatoes, give them some separation! Onions can cause potatoes to ripen too fast while the higher moisture content in potatoes can cause onions to liquify and leak. Best to keep these two away from one another!
Potatoes are best stored at room temperature in a paper bag away from onions. If you don't have a paper bag to put them in, then in a cool, dry, place out of sunlight will be just fine. These vegetables are hardy and can keep for up to 2 months when stored properly.
Radishes can be washed and trimmed of the stem once you get home. Wrap them in a bundle with damp paper towels and store in a sealed plastic bag. Stored properly, radishes can keep in the fridge for 1-2 weeks.
Squash & Zucchini can remain fresh for more than a week if stored in the crisper drawer of your fridge in a paper bag or plastic bag with holes poked in it to allow air flow. Avoid storing in completely sealed or airtight containers.
Tomatoes (technically a fruit, but used more in cooking like a vegetable) are best stored at room temperature IF your main goal is maximum flavor and juiciness. If you don’t mind a firmer tomato and your main goal is to maximize shelf life, go ahead and store these in the fridge and let them come to room temperature before using (or not if you don’t mind a chilly tomato - we don’t!).
MEATS, CONDIMENTS, AND OTHER THINGS
Bread - this one’s controversial, we know! Some people swear by bread in the fridge, and if that’s you, we won’t tell you you’re wrong and have to change your ways. But we’ll just leave this alternate idea here: leave your bread out for the first 24 hours or so. Anything that you haven’t used can be frozen and thawed in a toaster as needed before eating!
Condiments - the vast majority of condiments you’ll buy at a grocery store have been processed to be shelf stable. So, most shelf-stable condiments can actually be safely stored at room temperature (in a cool dark place like a pantry is better than a sun-exposed countertop). Storing in the fridge, as with many other foods, will help slow the growth of bacteria and help it stay fresher longer. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong following the instructions on the label.
Dairy products should be stored in the fridge in almost all cases. Follow the instructions on the product label.
Dressings should be stored the way that you bought them. If you bought your dressing from the refrigerated section, then you should store it in the fridge as soon as you get home. If you bought your dressing from the aisle shelf, then you can store it outside of the fridge until you’re ready to open it. Once open, these will stay freshest longest stored in the fridge.
Dried spices can be stored in in airtight containers away from direct sunlight - in a cabinet, drawer, or pantry is perfect.
Meats need to be stored in the fridge to help prevent the growth of bacteria. We recommend a “two hour rule” for meats (the same goes for seafood, eggs, and dairy): if the air temperature is above 40 degrees F (which most of our houses hopefully are) then don’t leave meats and other perishables out for more than 2 hours. Unless you’re buying your meat from a butcher, most of it comes in pre-weighed packages. So, there’s a chance you’ll end up with more than you’re going to use. In that case, freeze any meat portions that won’t be used before they need to be tossed. Meat that is properly and continuously stored in a freezer at 9 degrees will be safe to eat indefinitely. However, it will begin to lose quality and taste after time. If your meat has a foul smell and slimy texture, this can be a sign that it is rotten and should be discarded. We promise you the few dollars that you lose over tossing spoiled meat will end up costing you far less than a stint in the hospital because of food poisoning!
Nuts are best stored in airtight containers or packaging outside of the fridge. If you’ve gotten a really good deal and have nuts that you know you won’t use in the next 6 months, then store them in an airtight container in the freezer until you’re ready to use them.
Olive oil is best stored in a cool dark area of your kitchen such as a pantry or countertop that’s not exposed to direct sunlight. Olive oil can actually harden in the fridge, so this one’s best kept stored outside of the fridge in all cases.
Vinegar can be stored outside of the fridge because the high acidity level (from acetic acid) creates inhospitable conditions for bacteria and mold to grow and thrive. In fact, many vinegars can be kept for up to two to five years (though maximum freshness will likely peak around the printed date on the bottle)
Bottom line: you don't have to let spoiled food get in the way of eating healthy. With a few adjustments and a little extra care, you can make your foods stay fresher longer - so your hard earned dollars go the furthest for keeping you and your household healthy!
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