It is important to keep cold food safe in the refrigerator and freezer at home by storing it properly and using an appliance thermometer (i.e., refrigerator/freezer thermometers). Properly storing food at home helps maintain safety as well as food quality by keeping flavor, color, texture, and nutrients in food according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Check out the Home Food Storage Chart for recommended storage times for food in the refrigerator, freezer, and/or pantry.
Home refrigerators should be kept at or below 40°F (4°C). Use a refrigerator thermometer to monitor the temperature. To prevent unwanted freezing of foods, adjust refrigerator temperature between 34°F and 40°F (1°C and 4°C). Additional refrigeration tips include:
- Use food quickly. Opened and partially used items usually deteriorate more quickly than unopened packages. Do not expect foods to remain high-quality for the maximum length of time.
- Choose the right containers. Foil, plastic wrap, storage bags, and/or airtight containers are the best choices for storing most foods in the refrigerator. Open dishes may result in refrigerator odors, dried-out foods, loss of nutrients and mold growth. Store raw meat, poultry, and seafood in a sealed container or wrapped securely on a plate pan to prevent raw juices from contaminating other foods.
- Refrigerate perishables right away. While grocery shopping, pick up perishable foods last and then take them straight home and put them in the refrigerator. Chill groceries and leftovers within 2 hours or 1 hour if exposed to temperatures above 90°F (32°C).
- Avoid overpacking. Do not stack foods tightly or cover refrigerator shelves with foil or any material that prevents air circulation from quickly and evenly cooling the food. It is not recommended to store perishable foods in the door since those temperatures vary more than the main compartment.
- Clean the fridge frequently. Wipe spills immediately. Clean the surface using hot, soapy water and then rinse.
- Check food often. Review what you have and what needs to be used. Eat or freeze foods before they go bad. Throw out perishable foods that should no longer be eaten due to spoilage (e.g., develop an off odor, flavor, or texture). A product should be safe if the date-labeling phrase (e.g., best if used by/before, sell-by, use-by, or freeze-by) passes during home storage until spoilage occurs except for infant formula. Reach out to the manufacturer if you have questions or concerns about the quality and safety of the packaged foods. When in doubt, throw it out.
Home freezers should be kept at 0°F (-18°C) or lower. Use an appliance thermometer to monitor the temperature. Because freezing keeps food safe indefinitely, freezer storage times are recommended for quality (flavor, color, texture, etc.) only. Additional freezer tips include:
- Use proper packaging. To help maintain quality and prevent freezer burn, use plastic freezer bags, freezer paper, freezer Aluminum foil, or plastic containers with the snowflake symbol. Containers not suitable for long-term freezer storage (unless they are lined with freezer bag or wrap) include plastic food storage bags, milk cartons, cottage cheese cartons, whipped cream containers, butter or margarine containers, and plastic bread or other product bags. If freezing meat and poultry in its original package longer than 2 months, cover these packages with heavy-duty foil, plastic wrap, or freezer paper; or place the package inside a freezer bag.
- Follow safe thawing methods. There are three ways to thaw food safely: in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Plan ahead and thaw foods in the refrigerator. Most foods require a day or two to thaw in the refrigerator except small items may defrost overnight. Once food is thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze it without cooking, although there may be a loss of quality due to the moisture lost through thawing. For faster thawing, place food in a leak proof plastic bag and immerse it in cold water. Change the water every 30 minutes and cook immediately after thawing. When using the microwave, plan to cook it immediately after thawing. It is not recommended to thaw food on the kitchen counter.
- Cook frozen foods safely. Raw or cooked meat, poultry or casseroles can be cooked or reheated from the frozen state, but it will take about one and a half times as long to cook. Follow the cooking instructions on the package to assure safety of commercially frozen foods. Make sure to use a food thermometer to check whether food has reached a safe internal temperature. If food removed from the freezer is found to have white, dried-out patches, freezer burn has occurred. Freezer burn means improper packaging allowed air to dry out the food surface. While freezer-burned food will not cause illness, it may be tough or tasteless when consumed.
Place an appliance thermometer in your refrigerator and freezer to ensure they stay at the proper temperature to keep food safe. They are designed to provide accuracy at cold temperatures. Always keep the appliance thermometer in the refrigerator and freezer to monitor the temperature, which can help determine if the food is safe after a power outage. Refer to the owner's manual to learn how to adjust the temperature. When changing the temperature, an adjustment period is often required.
- Home Food Storage, Nebraska Extension
- Food Storage, Nebraska Extension
- Appliance Thermometers, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Refrigeration & Food Safety, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Food Product Dating, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Food Facts - How to Cut Food Waste and Maintain Food Safety, Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Are you Storing Food Safely?, Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Freezing and Food Safety, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Containers for Freezing, National Center for Home Food Preservation