Avoid These Refrigerator Food-Storage Mistakes to Lengthen the Life of Your Groceries

Photo: Stocksy/Jennifer Brister

Cleaning out the refrigerator is one of the most painful things I have to do every week. Sadly, I end up tossing food I didn't remember I had, fruits and veggies that have gone terribly bad, and those leftovers I knew I would never end up eating. 

Since I know I'm not the only one concerned with wasting food (and money), I asked a few chefs and dietitians how to keep my groceries fresher, longer. They shared some pretty surprising facts about the mistakes people make when it comes to food storage—and, as it turns out, there are a lot of ways we're sabotaging the taste, texture, and even safety of our produce and other perishables.

But luckily, these slip-ups are all easily fixed, ensuring that countless heads of lettuce and ripe mangos will avoid the fate of your dumpster going forward.

Keep reading for 9 common food-storage mistakes you're probably making—and how to correct them.

Food storage mistakes that everyone makes
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Mistake #1: Storing all of your produce in the fridge

This is a classic issue that can be easily avoided, according to celebrity dietitian Lisa DeFazio, RD, and Daily Burn trainer Nora Minno, RD.

They say certain types of produce can—and should!—be stored at room temperature. These include tomatoes, melons, potatoes, garlic, citrus, bananas, nectarines, pears, peaches, and onions. Chilling them can actually mess with their flavor and texture, according to Minno. 

What's more, storing certain fruits and vegetables in the close quarters of a fridge could be causing them to spoil sooner. That's because some produce emits ethylene gas while other items are sensitive to it. DeFazio says that onions and potatoes are one common example, but there are a slew of different fruits and veggies that should be kept separate.  

The solution? "It's best to store [these items] out of the fridge in a shaded area, so they don't get too hot and ripen or go bad too quickly," Minno says. And be sure you're checking to see which fruits and veggies can safely share a bowl—and keep the incompatible ones at a distance.

Mistake #2: Washing produce before refrigerating 

There is no doubt that you should be washing your produce before eating it—unless you want to be surprised by a creepy-crawly dinner guest—but don't do it as soon as you bring the goods home. 

"Washing fruits and veggies too early can leave excess moisture on the produce, which can lead to bacterial growth that could potentially cause illness," says Minno. "Waiting to wash your produce can also help preserve water-soluble vitamins found in it."

The takeaway: Hold off on rinsing your farmer's market bounty until you're ready to eat it. 

Mistake #3: Waiting too long to put your groceries away

Minno says that most people wait way too long to put their groceries away. It's especially important to refrigerate your meat, dairy, and other fridge staples within two hours of purchasing, she adds.

"Bacteria can multiply rapidly in what we call 'the danger zone' of 40º-140º [F]," she says. "Once food is in this temperature zone for more than two hours, the risk of bacteria growth increases and you put yourself and others at risk for foodborne illnesses. If the outdoor or room temperature is 90º [F] or higher, refrigerate foods within one hour."

When you do put your food away, be sure to put your meat on the bottom shelf so that any excess juices don't drip on other foods, DeFazio adds. It's also a good idea to separate cold cuts from other raw meat to prevent cross-contamination.

Food storage mistakes that everyone makes
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Mistake #4: Tossing food at the first sign of spoilage

The freezer is an underutilized part of the kitchen when it comes to food storage, but Minno knows how to make the most of it.

"Another great hack is freezing food that is about to go bad," she says. "I'll be honest, sometimes I over-buy fruits or veggies. But to ensure I don't completely waste them, I wash them and freeze them in Tupperware, then use them later in smoothies or stir-frys."

If you're freezing soups or sauces, DeFazio advises only filling the container three-quarters of the way. This will allow room for the liquids to expand in the freezer. "Store these [liquids] in small quantities so the food freezes more quickly, which gives it a fresher taste," she adds.

Mistake #5: Keeping perishables in the fridge door

Things like eggs, milk, dairy, and meat should never be stored in the fridge door, since that's where temperature fluctuates  the most. Instead, DeFazio recommends keeping eggs and milk on a shelf with dairy products at the back of the fridge, where it's coldest.

She also warns against over-filling your shelves or your fridge door, because air needs to circulate around the contents to keep them cold. (Time to KonMari your condiments, perhaps?) 

Mistake #6:  Improperly storing your greens

How many times have you grabbed a handful of spinach and found a slimy green bunch stuck to the sides of the plastic bag? DeFazio says there is a simple way to avoid this—stick paper towels inside the bag. This prevents that residue from accumulating, since the towel soaks up any excess moisture.

As for long-stemmed green veggies, DeFazio recommends treating them like fresh flowers. "Fresh herbs, asparagus, and green onions can all be stored upright in a tall glass of fresh water," she says. "Just trim the stems, cover them with a bit of plastic wrap, and place them in the fridge." Not only will it help them last longer, but they'll look pretty, too. 

Food storage mistakes that everyone makes
Photo: Stocksy/Suzanne Clements

Mistake #7: Not maintaining an organized fridge

Not everyone can afford a full set of brand-new glass storage vessels. But if you're still using the same plastic containers from your takeout order three years ago, then it might be time to start rotating some out. Minno says that it's important to store your food in a way that allows you to see it—and one that's visually appealing, as well.

"Invest in some nicer, clear containers that make food storage easy and fun," she says. "This way, you're more likely to eat the food you have and not over-buy [or] let food go bad."  

On a similar note, while bruised fruits are often just as tasty as their unblemished counterparts, their appearance can often be a turn-off that may lead to the trash can. To keep your favorite, delicate fruits looking pristine, DeFazio suggests putting bubble wrap on the bottom of the fruit drawer.

Mistake #8: Putting new groceries in the front of the fridge

Ali Webster, PhD, RD, follows the genius "first-in, first-out" method of grocery storage.

"When you put your groceries away, rotate the food in your refrigerator and cupboards so that the oldest food comes forward and the newest food—which will stay fresher for longer—is toward the back," says Webster, the associate director of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation. "This will ensure that the food that needs to be eaten first will be in your line of sight, which will cut down on forgotten food and make sure that you're getting the most out of your budget." 

Sure, it might tack a few extra minutes onto your grocery routine. But think about how many $5 açai bowls you can tack onto your Costco order with all the extra cash you'll be saving.

Mistake #9: Ignoring the shelf life of your favorite foods

Knowledge is power, and if you're a creature of habit who's always buying the same foods, it's good to know just how long they'll last. Alyssa Ardolino, RD, says this info will help you plan when to eat your produce, while preventing you from throwing away food that's still good.

"Understanding the shelf life of food can prevent the common fear that food has gone bad when it hasn't," says Ardolino, coordinator of nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation. "Sometimes, a food might be just fine a few days longer than expected." 

Food such as fresh basil, asparagus, kale, spinach, or tomatoes generally last about three to five days, according to Ardolino. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, and onions, however, keep for about two weeks. That said, she adds, you should always use your judgment. "If it's rotten, it's probably not a good idea to eat," she says. But armed with these tips, there won't likely be many moldy peaches or brown avocados in your fridge's future. 

Here are the six items you should always stock in your fridge, according to your zodiac sign. And did you know that the refrigerator is also great for storing your beauty products?  

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