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Food storage best practices: How to extend the life of your food

By Robb White, CEC CCA AAC; Executive Chef & Food Waste Prevention Catalyst  ///  April 9, 2020


Getting the longest life out of the food you purchase is always a concern in a food operation. It is essential to make sure that foods are stored properly to extend shelf life and avoid unnecessary waste and cut back on frequent orders and deliveries.

Food spoils and shelf life decreases for a variety of reasons. Time, temperature, light, air, moisture, enzymes, and microorganisms all play a part in how long food will last. The goal is to know what environment to store food in to keep it lasting as long and as safe as possible until it is used.

Dry storage best practices

When storing items in the dry storage, the key is organization and easy access. The ability to locate and visually inspect the items makes it easier to identify foods that need to be utilized right away.

  • Remove produce from boxes and store in clear bins. Some produce needs air flow to increase shelf life.
  • Make sure to store items in separate bins. Produce like apples give off ethylene gases that will shorten the life of other items they are stored near.
  • Make sure the temperature of the dry store room is between 45-55 °F (7-13 °C) , with very low humidity to get the longest life from the produce.
  • Produce such as tomatoes, potatoes, lemons, limes and squashes should be stored in very cool, dry areas.
  • Be sure to label all items with "received" date and "use by" date.
  • Keep a “To Use” list in the kitchen to help facilitate the utilization of product on hand.
  • Be sure to physically check items in the store room before you place an order with vendors to avoid over-ordering.
  • Make sure all products (produce and canned) are rotated through and follow FIFO (first-in, first-out) practices.

Chilled storage best practices

Chilled storage is vital to retain as much freshness and nutrients as possible in all meats, fish, dairy and produce.  Each of these foods need to be stored in very specific ways to maintain quality and extend shelf life. A solid practice is to have the chilled storage divided up for each food category. This helps keep everything organized and avoids any potential cross contamination of foods.

Excess humidity can sometimes be an issue in a walk-in or reach-in cooler. It is vital that you do your best to reduce the humidity and moisture in the coolers by either adjusting the humidity level or by purchasing commercial products that help reduce the moisture in these environments.

  • The ideal chilled storage temperature is between 32-35 °F (0-2 °C).
  • Similar to dry storage, keep produce in clear bins to help identify and for ease of ordering and inventory.
  • Treat most herbs as you would cut flowers - snip the ends and keep them stem down in a container with water. Change the water daily and remove any leaves that are starting to rot. Keeping rotting leaves in with the herbs will cause the rest of the bunch to go bad quickly.
  • If you have to cut or trim any produce, refrigerate them as quickly as possible in a clear, airtight container.
  • Store cooked meats over raw, and all raw meats on the bottom shelf.
  • When storing fish, remove from the shipping container and place in a perforated drip tray before icing.  Cover fish to prevent ice from contacting the flesh. Be sure to drain and re-ice fish daily.
  • Label everything with "received" date and to "use by" date.
  • Keep a “To Use” sheet to help with the utilization of the product before it goes bad.
  • Be mindful of cheeses that stink as the odor could taint other foods. Keep them away from other foods if possible.
  • Use vacuum sealing to store product if possible.  Keep cryovac items sealed until you really need them.
  • Avoid cramming too many items on a shelf to help with air circulation and to maintain a constant, cool temperature.
  • Chill hot items quickly (use a blast chiller if possible), and then cover, label and date.
  • Go through the walk-in and reach-in coolers daily to check all food items for freshness.

Frozen storage best practices

Freezing food is one of the best solutions for items that cannot be utilized right away. Many of the same rules apply to freezing as well as dry or chilled storage. Proper wrapping, labeling, dating and organization are the best ways to maintain food quality while it sits in long-term storage.

  • Maintain your freezer temperature between -10 and -20 °F (-24 and -29 °C) to maximize the length of storage.
  • Freezer burn can be prevented by vacuum-sealing or by minimizing the amount of air trapped within the packaging.
  • Split stock and soups into smaller batches prior to freezing. Be sure to leave room in the container to allow for expansion of the product.
  • Dairy products like butter, hard cheeses, milk and yogurt freeze well. Dairy products with at least 40% fat content freeze best.  
  • Most animal proteins freeze very well and can be held frozen for months if properly wrapped.
  • Most produce items freeze well, but depending on the item they may only be suitable to be used in cooked items, soups, sauces or dressings after they have thawed. Produce freezes best when it is ripe.
  • Herbs can be frozen in water and used in cooked products after they thaw.
  • As in any type of storage, make sure you don't overcrowd the freezer to help with air circulation.

Working with vendors for purchasing and storage

The process of extending shelf life of all foods starts with ordering and delivery. Making sure the product is stored properly during the delivery and receipt of goods can go a long way to maximize the time you get with the food.  

  • Set up a delivery window with your vendor to receive the products at a slower time in your kitchen. You don't want a delivery in the middle of a rush and have it sit there for hours before you can store it properly.
  • Check the temperature of all foods (refrigerated and frozen) to make sure it is still within the safe temperature before you accept it.
  • Reject any delivery if it is out of temperature, frozen foods aren’t frozen, or any product has shown signs of temperature abuse.
  • Assign a team member or two to visually inspect all foods, check all temperatures, and immediately store product to your receiving standards.
  • Order only the amount of food you need, and in the pack sizes that fit the needs of your operation.

The keys to extending the shelf life of food in your operation is organization, ordering and diligence. Making sure you order what you need and storing it properly can lead to extended shelf life and less food waste.


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Topics: Food Waste Strategies