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Spring Clean Your Freezer, Refrigerator and Pantry

April 28, 2010

Registered Dietitian Shares Tips for Safe Food Storage

Have you ever searched through your freezer or refrigerator for something to prepare for dinner, only to find something forgotten and you had to toss it in the trash? While a frozen chicken breast with a really bad case of "freezer burn" or a refrigerated container of sour cream with a coating of mold on the top might be an obvious candidate for disposal, there may be other items in your freezer, refrigerator – or even your pantry – that you should consider throwing out, too.

"Storing food in your freezer or refrigerator is a necessary way to keep it safe to eat, but even frozen foods can deteriorate over time," says Lorie Roffelsen, R.D., a registered dietitian at Washington Hospital. "That’s why it’s important to go through your food supplies from time to time and discard anything that’s suspicious for spoilage."

You should use extra caution if any members of your family are more susceptible to food-borne illnesses – elderly people, young children, women who are pregnant or anyone with a compromised immune system."

The Big Chill

Roffelsen notes that while freezing can keep many foods safe to eat for long periods of time, the quality and flavor can decline if food is improperly wrapped or stored for too long. To avoid unwelcome discoveries in the back of the freezer, she offers several suggestions:

· Use proper packagingWhen freezing fresh or cooked fruits and vegetables – or dividing large packages of meat into smaller portions – use a heavyweight plastic freezer bag and squeeze out as much air as possible before sealing, or use freezer-safe containers that closely fit the amount of food you are freezing.

· Double-wrap pre-packaged itemsFoods (including meats) that come prepackaged from the store can stay in their wrappings, but it’s a good idea to double-wrap them in aluminum foil, plastic wrap or heavyweight plastic freezer bags to prevent air from seeping in through the supermarket packaging, causing freezer burn or formation of ice crystals.

· Create labels Use a marker pen to note the package contents and date the food was put in the freezer. Follow the "FIFO" rule (first in, first out), using the oldest items first.

· Don’t freeze your cansCanned food or food in glass jars should be transferred to a freezer bag or freezer-safe container before freezing.

"You can thaw baked goods like muffins and bread at room temperature, but you should not thaw potentially hazardous foods such as meat, poultry or fish on the kitchen counter because bacteria are likely to grow," says Roffelsen. "The best method of thawing for both quality and safety is to thaw the food slowly in the refrigerator or you can put a frozen package in a larger watertight plastic bag and submerge it in cold water in the sink."

Take Your Temperature

The temperature setting for your freezer should be 0°F or below, and the refrigerator should be set to 40°F or below, Roffelsen advises. "Bacteria grows rapidly above 40°F, especially in protein foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products," she explains.

You may want to keep a refrigerator thermometer on one of the shelves or check the temperature every month or so, adjusting the controls according to the season. Leaving the control at the same setting year-round may result in a refrigerator or freezer that is too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer.

Time Guidelines for Freezing and Refrigerating

To help consumers maintain the best quality and safety of their perishable food supplies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued guidelines for how long certain types of foods can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer, Roffelsen notes. The following table lists the guidelines for several common perishable foods:

FOOD

REFRIGERATOR

FREEZER

Steaks

3 – 5 days

6 – 12 months

Chops

3 – 5 days

4 – 6 months

Roasts

3 – 5 days

4 – 12 months

Whole Chicken/Turkey

1 – 2 days

Up to 12 months

Chicken/Turkey Pieces

1 – 2 days

Up to 9 months

Hot dogs

2 weeks unopened,

discard 1 week after opening

1 – 2 months

Lunch meats

2 weeks unopened,

discard 3 days after opening

1 – 2 months

Hamburger/ground meat

1 – 2 days

3 – 4 months

Bacon

1 week

1 month

Sausage (raw)

1 – 2 days

1 – 2 months

For Your Reading and Eating Pleasure

Is that canned food in your cupboard expired? In general, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple can be stored on the shelf 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will keep 2 to 5 years — if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place. Most packaged foods from the supermarket now carry coding or clear expiration dates to indicate after what date a packaged food should be discarded. Since the labels aren’t all standardized, Roffelsen recommends reading them carefully.

"Be sure to check the foods stored in your pantry for various expiration dates, too," Roffelsen advises. "And, last but not least, when you are cleaning out your freezer, refrigerator and pantry, take that opportunity to wash down the shelves to get rid of any potential bacteria or mold that might be growing there."

For more information regarding food safety, visit www.fda.gov and www.usda.gov. To learn more about Washington Hospital’s Outpatient Nutrition Counseling program visit www.whhs.com/nutrition