The goal of home food storage is to provide food that is both safe and of high-quality. A food may have good quality in terms of appearance and taste but have a high bacterial count and be unsafe to eat. Thus it is important to follow safe handling and storage practices. Storage does not improve the quality of any food, nor will it cause a significant decrease as long as the food is stored properly and used within the recommended time. Since bacteria frequently get into food through careless food handling, it is important to keep everything — hands, refrigerator, freezer and storage containers — clean. Follow these tips for purchasing and storing top-quality foods that have been handled safely.
- Look for packages of food that are not torn or broken.
- Refrigerated food should feel cold (40 °F or less), and frozen food should be frozen solid. Purchase these foods last.
- When shopping, place packaged raw meat, poultry and fish in plastic bags and keep from contact with other foods. (The raw juices may contain bacteria that could contaminate other foods.)
- Take perishable foods home quickly to refrigerate. If travel time will exceed an hour, pack fresh meats in a cooler with ice and keep in the passenger area of the car in warm weather.
- At home, refrigerate perishable food immediately. The “DANGER ZONE” for most food is between 40 °F to 140 °F. Bacteria grow most rapidly in this range of temperatures, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes.
- Keep the refrigerator temperature between 32 °F to 38 °F; the freezer at 0 °F or colder.
- Plan to use meats within three to five days after purchase, ground meats or seafood within one to two days, or freeze them.
Refrigerating Meat & Seafood
- Place meats and seafood immediately in the coldest part of the refrigerator or freezer when you get home from the grocery store or seafood market.
- Keep raw meats and seafood separate from cooked or ready-to-eat foods to prevent cross-contamination.
- Store fresh meat or fish in airtight containers or wrap in cling wrap and place on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator on a plate or tray to prevent leakage.
Store shrimp, squid and shucked shellfish in a leak-proof bag, plastic container or covered jar.
Storing Live Shellfish: Special precautions need to be made in storing live shellfish and preventing cross-contamination with other foods. Refrigerate live clams, oysters, mussels, crabs, lobsters and crayfish in well-ventilated containers. Cover the container with a damp cloth or paper towel. Do not store live shellfish in water or in airtight bags or containers where they could suffocate and die. Storing live shellfish in salt water shortens their shelf life. Storing them in fresh water kills them. Keep live shellfish alive.
Do not cook or eat shellfish that have died during storage. Live clams, oysters and mussels have tightly closed shells, or the shells will close when tapped. Live crabs, lobsters and crayfish move their legs. Dead shellfish spoil rapidly and develop off-flavors and off-odors.
Recommended Times for Refrigerator & Freezer Food Storage
|Beef roasts, steaks||3-5 days||6-12|
|Chicken or turkey, pieces||1-2 days||9-12 months|
|Chicken or turkey, whole||1-2 days||1 year|
|Duck or goose, game birds||1-2 days||6 months|
|Giblets||1-2 days||3-4 months|
|Ground meat or stew||1-2 days||3-4 months|
|Lamb, roasts or chops||3-5 days||6-9 months|
|Pork roasts, chops||3-5 days||4-6 months|
|Pre-stuffed pork and lamb chops or chicken breasts||1 day||*|
|Sausage||1-2 days||1-2 months|
|Variety meats: heart, liver, tongue, etc.||1-2 days||3-4 months|
|Venison, roasts, steaks, chops||3-5 days||6-12 months|
|Smoked breakfast sausage||7 days||1-2 months|
|Whole ham (fully cooked)||7 Days||1-2 months|
|Half ham (fully cooked)||3-5 days||1-2 months|
|Ham slices||3-5 days||1-2 months|
|Canned ham (“keep refrigerated” label)||6-9 months||*|
|Hotdogs, luncheon meats (unopened)||2 weeks||1-2 months|
|Hotdogs, luncheon meats (opened)||3-7 days||1-2 months|
|Leftover meat||2-3 days||2-3 months|
|Leftover gravy and meat broth||1-2 days||2-3 months|
|Leftover poultry||2-3 days||4-6 months|
|Leftover chicken nuggets or patties||1-2 days||1-3 months|
|Fresh lean fish: cod, flounder, trout, haddock, halibut, pollack, perch||1-2 days||4-6 months|
|Fresh fatty fish: mullet, smelt, salmon, mackerel, bluefish, tuna, swordfish||1-2 days||2-3 months|
|Live crabs and lobster||same day purchased||*|
|Live mussels and clams||2-3 days||*|
|Freshly shucked mussels and clams||1-2 days||3-4 months|
|Freshly shucked oysters||5-7 days||3-4 months|
|Shrimp||2-3 days||4 months|
|Squid, whole||2-3 days||1-2 months|
|Squid, cleaned||3-4 days||3-4 months|
|Scallops||2-3 Days||3 months|
|Smoked herring||3-4 Days||2 months|
|Smoked salmon, whiting||5-8 days||2 months|
|Crab, lobster, shrimp||2-3 days||2-3 months|
|Fish sticks, commercial||*||18 months|
|Breaded shrimp, commercial||*||1 year|
|Home-cooked fish portions||2-3 days||3 months|
|*Storage not recommended due to safety or quality issues.|
Store frozen meat and seafood products immediately in the freezer when you get them home. Store them in their original moisture- and vapor-proof packages at 0 °F or below.
It is safe to freeze fresh meat, poultry or fish directly in over-wrapped supermarket trays, but this type of wrap is permeable to air. For long-term storage, overwrap the packages with airtight heavy-duty foil or freezer wrap using either the drugstore wrap or the butcher wrap. This will help prevent freezer burn in which the surface of the meat becomes light colored and dried out, resulting in a tough, dry and less flavorful product. Be sure to press the air out of the package before freezing, and label for ease in selection for later use.
1. Center meat on paper.
2. Bring two sides of paper together at top.
3. Fold down about ½ to ¾ inch.
4. Roll folded edge down until snug against meat.
5. Turn package over. Press out air from sides.
6. Fold ends into triangles.
7. Bring to center and tape to secure.
8. Label and date.
1. Place meat at one corner of paper.
2. Roll up tightly towards opposite corner.
3. Tuck sides in.
4. Roll to end of paper.
5. Seal open edges with freezer tape.
Never defrost foods in a garage, basement, car, plastic garbage bag, out on the kitchen counter, outdoors or on the porch. These methods can leave your foods unsafe to eat. There are three safe ways to defrost food: in the refrigerator, in cold water or in the microwave. It’s best to plan ahead for slow, safe thawing in the refrigerator. Small items may defrost overnight; most foods require a day or two. For large items like turkeys allow 24 hours for each 5 pounds of weight.
For faster defrosting, place food in a leak-proof plastic bag and immerse it in cold water. (If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. Tissues can also absorb water like a sponge, resulting in a watery product.) Check the water frequently to be sure it stays cold. Change the water every 30 minutes. After thawing, cook immediately.
When microwave-defrosting food, plan to cook it immediately after thawing because some areas of the food may become warm and begin to cook during microwaving. Holding partially cooked food is not recommended because any bacteria present wouldn’t have been destroyed.
Once food is thawed in the refrigerator, it is safe to refreeze it without cooking, although there may be a loss of quality due to the moisture lost through defrosting. After cooking raw foods that were previously frozen, it is safe to freeze the cooked foods. And if previously cooked foods are thawed in the refrigerator, you may refreeze the unused portion. If you purchase previously frozen meat, poultry or fish at a retail store, you can refreeze if it has been handled properly.
Cooking Frozen Foods
Raw or cooked meat, poultry or casseroles can be cooked or reheated from the frozen state. However, it will take approximately one and a half times the usual cooking time for food which has been thawed. Remember to discard any wrapping or absorbent paper from meat or poultry. Some frozen meat and poultry products such as pre-stuffed whole birds, MUST be cooked from the frozen state to ensure a safely cooked product.
Often Asked Freezing Questions
Can Frozen Food Be Stored in Refrigerator-Freezer Combinations? Refrigerator-freezer combinations can be used for storing frozen food if the freezer is a true freezer (will maintain 0 °F or less) and not just a freezing compartment. A better quality product will be maintained at 0 °F or less. If a freezer compartment is used, store food for only one to two weeks.
How Long Will Food Remain Frozen if the Power Goes Off? Foods stay frozen longer if the freezer remains unopened, is full, is in a cool place and is well-insulated. Usually food in a loaded freezer will stay frozen for two to four days, depending on the size of the freezer. A half-filled freezer will keep food frozen only about 24 hours. Cover the freezer with blankets, keeping them away from the compressor, to help hold the cold.
Can Food Be Refrozen If It Has Thawed? Foods that have only partially thawed and still have ice crystals in the package can be safely refrozen, though quality will be poorer. Meat, fish, poultry and prepared foods can be refrozen if they have been kept at a temperature of 40 °F or below and if their color and odor are good. However, quality will be lower.
Basic Tips: Always use clean utensils and storage containers for safe storage. Divide large amounts of leftovers into small, shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator. Use refrigerated cooked meats within two to three days, cooked ground meats within one to two days. For frozen storage, wrap meats and seafood in heavy foil or freezer wrap or place in freezer container. For optimum taste, use seafood within a month. When reheating leftovers, make sure that they have been cooked to 165 °F. If you may have kept the food refrigerated for too long, throw it out. Never taste food that looks or smells strange to see if you can still use it.
For more specific information on handling of safe, quality meats or seafood, request: HGIC 3064, Freezing Meats & Seafood; HGIC 3504, Safe Handling of Beef; HGIC 3512, Safe Handling of Poultry; or HGIC 3482, Safe Handling of Seafood.
- The National Food Safety Database Consumer Tips for Handling Seafood Safely. (January 2022). https://www.foodsafety.gov/food-safety-charts/cold-food-storage-charts
- Minch, Daryl L. Home Storage of Foods Part I: Refrigerator and Freezer. New Jersey State University Cooperative Extension Service.
Originally published 10/99