Making a couple of extra stops on the way home from the grocery store? Not putting leftovers away until your favorite show is over? All these practices test the limits of how long food can be safely stored.
Here are some safe food storage tips from the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition:
- Don't delay. Refrigerate or freeze perishables right away after picking them up from the grocery store or deli.
- Keep it cool. Use a refrigerator/freezer thermometer to make sure your refrigerator is between 35 degrees and 40 degrees and your freezer is below zero degrees.
- Wrap it right. Poultry and meat heading for the refrigerator may be stored as purchased in the plastic wrap for a day or two. If only part of the meat or poultry is going to be used right away, it can be wrapped loosely for refrigerator storage. Just make sure juices can't escape to contaminate other foods. Tightly wrap foods destined for the freezer in freezer paper or freezer bags.
- Store it right. Store eggs in their carton in the refrigerator itself rather than on the door, where the temperature is warmer. Seafood always should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer until preparation time. Leftovers should be stored in tight containers. Don't crowd the refrigerator or freezer so tightly that air can't circulate.
- Read the label. Always check labels on cans or jars to determine how the contents should be stored. Many items besides fresh meats, vegetables and dairy products need to be kept cold. For instance, mayonnaise and ketchup should go in the refrigerator after opening. If you've neglected to refrigerate items, it's usually best to throw them out.
- Keep potatoes and onions cool, dry and safe. Potatoes don't belong in the refrigerator but should not be stored under the sink because leakage from the pipes can damage them. Potatoes and onions are best stored in a cool, dry place away from household cleaning products and chemicals.
- Practice FIFO. Date canned goods when purchased and follow the FIFO (first in, first out) rule to use the older cans first. Check cans before using to make sure they are not sticky on the outside. This may indicate a leak and potentially dangerous food.
- Remember 140 to 40 in two hours. Refrigerate hot foods as soon as possible after cooking and serving. Ideally, food should go from hot serving temperature (140 degrees) to cold refrigerator temperature (40 degrees) in two hours. If cooked, perishable foods have been at room temperature for more than two hours, the safest practice is to throw them out.
- Date leftovers. Generally, leftovers that have been quickly refrigerated after serving will remain safe to eat for three to five days. Anything that looks or smells suspicious should be thrown out. If in doubt, always throw it out. It's not worth a food-borne illness for the small amount of food involved.
Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with University of Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.