Reviewed by Leslie Bertsch
Field Specialist in Nutrition and Health

Londa Nwadike
State Specialist in Food Safety

Food costs money, so keeping the quality of the food you buy just makes good sense. Knowing how to properly store food and how long to keep it brings many benefits.

Winning the proper food storage

You can win four ways with proper food storage because:

  • The food will be safe to eat
  • Desirable flavor and texture will be retained
  • High levels of nutrients will be maintained
  • Money will not be wasted on spoiled food.

Safety first

A majority of food-borne illnesses in the United States are caused by microorganisms such as Norovirus, Campylobacter, Clostridium perfringens,Salmonella and Staphylococcus aureus. In addition, Listeria and E. coli cause a large number of hospitalizations from foodborne illness. See more about foodborne illnesses at the CDC's Foodborne Germs and Illnesses page

Chief factors contributing to microbial growth and possible food borne illness are temperature, time, food type and moisture. Microorganisms need all these factors to grow. If any one of these factors are missing, microorganisms will not increase as fast.

Temperatures between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit permit fast microbial growth. If food is kept for three or four hours in this temperature range, the number of microorganisms present could cause illness. Food type will affect the rate of microbial growth. Low-acid foods such as meat, cooked vegetables and egg dishes are particularly risky. The amount of moisture available will also affect microbial activity.

Refrigerator storage tips

  • Use foil, plastic wrap, plastic bags or airtight containers for packaging foods for refrigerator storage. Moisture- and vapor-proof materials are best.
  • Clean refrigerator regularly to reduce food odors. Remove spoiled foods immediately so decay cannot pass to other foods.
  • Store food at cool temperatures. From 34 degrees Fahrenheit to 40 degrees Fahrenheit is best. Foods stored at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit spoil rapidly and can cause foodborne illnesses. Check temperature with a refrigerator thermometer.
  • Use foods quickly. Don't depend on maximum storage time.

Preventing microbial growth

To prevent the growth of harmful organisms:

  • Don't handle food carelessly
  • Keep hands, utensils and cutting boards clean at all times. Cooked food can easily be re-contaminated.
  • Cook or serve food as soon as possible after removing it from storage.
  • Serve hot foods hot, serve cold foods cold
  • Refrigerate food in covered storage containers immediately after meal is over. Don't worry about your refrigerator staying cold. Today's appliances are made to handle immediate storage of hot food.
  • Don't depend on appearance, taste or smell of food to indicate it's unsafe. Contaminated foods which can cause food poisoning may look fine and have no off-flavor or odor.

Foods that need special care

Microorganisms can grow rapidly in low-acid foods such as meat, fish, poultry, milk, eggs and cooked vegetables.

Foods handled a great deal during chopping, slicing or deboning are more likely to become contaminated. The combination of low-acidity and a great deal of handling makes some foods more potentially risky than others. Potato salad, chicken pies and stuffings are prime examples.

For safety sake

For the health of you and your family, remember to:

  • Do not stuff your poultry, rather bake stuffing in a separate pan. If you do stuff your poultry, stuff just before roasting and do not stuff tightly. Check the temperature in the center of the stuffing with a calibrated cooking thermometer to be sure that it is at least 165F before eating.
  • Separate leftover meat, poultry, stuffing and gravy. Immediately refrigerate each in covered storage containers.
  • Refrigerate perishable foods at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below and use within the recommended time frame. See recommended storage time for different foods by visiting
    the Food Keeper App from USDA.


Original authors: Barbara Willenberg and Karla Hughes