Meal Planning Basics: How to Store Prepped Food

It just might be time for an apron—the full-body type that chefs proudly wear in their kitchen.

You're not just getting the hang of food prep; you're becoming a diligent student of the kitchen, having read previous articles from our “recipe book” such as “Five Food Prep Tips for Beginners,” “Meal Planning Basics: How Long Does Prepped Food Last” and “Glass vs. Plastic: Choosing the Best Meal Prep Containers.”

As your food prep learning curve continues to glide and arc in new directions, you know you must learn to properly store your prepped food to preserve its quality, nutrients and flavor and extend your valuable food dollar by preventing spoilage. Another goal of smart prepped food storage: preventing food-borne illnesses that stem from the growth of bacteria.

While common sense underscores many food prep protocols, other tips for storing food in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer just might enlighten and surprise you.

So go ahead: reward your studious efforts with a chef's apron—and be sure to tie up the package with a practical meal planning tool at your side.

Sensible pantry tips

Don't let the word “pantry” set you off stride. You might store canned goods and fresh fruits and vegetables in a cabinet, cupboard or closet, or on a shelf. These tips pertain to any form of food storage that doesn't require refrigeration or freezing:

  • Storage conditions should be dry, dark and cool, with temperatures ranging between 50 and 70 degrees. Warmth and heat accelerates food deterioration, so take care to store food far away from heat sources such as your range, oven, dishwasher and hot pipes.
  • High-acid canned food—think tomatoes, tomato sauce and other tomato-based products as well as grapefruit and pineapple—can last between 12 and 18 months on a shelf. But check the date stamped on the bottom to be certain.
  • Low-acid canned food—think tuna and crab meat and most vegetables—can last between two and five years. Again, check the date to be sure.
  • Prolong the lifespan of prepped foods by storing them in glass or plastic meal prep containers.

Sensible fridge tips

Keeping perishable food chilled is your best defense against being sickened by salmonella, E. coli, or C. botulinum, which causes botulism and listeria, a bacterium that causes food-borne illness. Think of your fridge as a short-term storage solution for your meal prep containers:

  • Set your refrigerator temperature at or below 40 degrees.
  • Remain vigilant about the so-called “two-hour rule,” or not leaving items that require refrigeration—chicken, meat, eggs, dairy products and fresh seafood—to sit at room temperature for more than two hours before refrigerating them. Revert to the “one-hour rule” if your indoor temperature is 90 degrees or higher.
  • Follow expiration dates. A “use by” date is just that; the food should be consumed by the date specified. Beyond that time, food can change in texture, color and taste. A “best buy” date indicates when food may begin to diminish in quality.
  • Keep prepped food covered, either in glass or plastic meal prep containers or with plastic wrap or aluminum foil.
  • Stay on high alert for spoiled food by subjecting it to visual and nasal inspection. “Anything that looks or smells suspicious should be thrown out,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says. “Mold is a sign of spoilage. It can grow even under refrigeration." Always heed another FDA admonition: “If in doubt, throw it out.” You might hate the thought of wasting food—it's expensive—but you'll hate a bout of food poisoning even more.

Sensible freezer tips

Freezing does not kill bacteria, but it does stop bacteria from growing. Most food can last indefinitely in the freezer, though as you might have noticed, the tenderness, flavor and color of food can be affected the longer food is stored there. Still, think of your freezer as a long-term storage solution for your meal prep containers.

  • Set your freezer temperature at or below 0 degrees.
  • Proper wrapping is the key to successful freezer storage. Use airtight storage containers or freezer-grade foil, plastic wrap or bags.
  • Label each package with the date, the food type and any other information that might guide your meal prep efforts, such as the weight of the contents or the number of servings.
  • Don't be spooked by freezer burn, which occurs when food is not properly wrapped. As the FDA says, freezer burn is a “food quality issue, not a food safety issue.”
  • Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator and then use it within two days. No matter how proficient you become in the kitchen, you're likely to encounter another form of “freezer burn”: the “brain freeze” that sneaks up on all cooks as they struggle to remember just how long food will stay fresh. For moments like these, consult a comprehensive guide to pantry, refrigerator and freezer storage, produced by the detail-oriented researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Keep a copy alongside another invaluable kitchen resource: Meal Plan Magic, a fresh meal planning tool that can bring your culinary excursions full circle, from writing a shopping list to creating delicious snacks and meals. Along the way, it factors in your nutritional goals and proper caloric intake. And, if you wish, it can guide you to fat loss and muscle gain—worthwhile goals no matter what your age.

Meal Plan Magic takes the mystery out of meal planning and preparation and will fortify your kitchen confidence—much like that new apron.