Before the refrigerator was invented, people used a variety of food storage methods. Some collected ice from mountains, others placed food in brine or salt water, and still others would dig holes in the ground to access the cooler temperatures. Lowering the temperatures of foods prevents or slows the growth of bacteria and ultimately extends the life of the foods.

Interestingly, the first refrigerating system was not used for food but by Dr. John Gorrie in the 1800s to treat his patients who suffered from yellow fever. Early household refrigerators used gases that were later deemed toxic; refrigerators are now safer than before and are used as the primary method of food storage. Additionally, there are a variety of food storage options that secure food from a few hours to 25 years, and for some foods…indefinitely.

Why would food storage be so important? Uripah Khadijah Samikun, an Indonesian native living in Durham, North Carolina, describes how she didn’t grow up with a refrigerator or any other method for food storage: “We raised goats, chickens, and ducks and grew some of our own food. Sometimes we made a trip to the market to purchase the food we needed for the day. We cooked and ate the food the same day and covered it with a plastic net to protect it from ants and flies.” As for dairy, she states, “We hardly drank cow’s milk. Mostly coconut and soy milk, which we made on our own as needed.”

We learn from Samikun that survival is not contingent on ice boxes, storage bags, or mason jars. However, at optimal temperatures and with certain packaging methods, food storage facilitates food security by reducing microbial risk and contamination (from air, moisture, and insects). There is less foraging, less food waste, longer shelf life, and probably most desired in today’s fast paced lifestyle—convenience.

There are many forms of food storage for different types of foods. I have already resigned myself that if the zombie apocalypse happened in my lifetime, I would busy myself with prayer and reflection before being torn to shreds. But there is a movement of people who are preparing for emergency disasters by using long term food storage. Nitrogen, dry freezing, dry ice, oxygen absorbers, food saver machines, Mylar bags, and canneries are being used by people who want a long term food source in the event of a catastrophe. For the rest of us who just want to ensure our food doesn’t spoil too quickly, there are other everyday options. Freezer bags, storage containers (glass, metal, and plastic), aluminum foil, and vacuum seals are commonly used.

With so many varieties, instead of deciphering what to use, let’s rule out what not to use. BPA (Bisphenol A) is a chemical that many plastics are made from and metal cans are lined with. The negative attention it has received is due to its tendency to leach the chemical into the food it houses. When heating foods in a microwave or placing the containers in the dishwasher, the protective coating on the container degenerates and ultimately allows BPA to leach, potentially causing damage to the brain and elevating blood pressure. Plastics marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 and most cans are made with the polycarbonate plastic or resin. Although BPA-free containers are becoming more common, catering to today’s health-conscious consumers, many people are favoring stainless steel, porcelain, and glass containers.

Danielle Bujan, Pyrex brand lead with World Kitchen, states that heating food in a glass container eliminates health risks. Also, their plastic lids have always been BPA-free. However, Bujan advises removing the lid completely while cooking in an oven, allowing some venting when microwaving foods by leaving the lid loosely on, and washing lids on the top rack of the dishwasher to prevent warping.

Clearly no matter how well food is stored, over time it will spoil. There are many foods that don’t require refrigeration at all: pantry foods like sauce, pasta, and rice. The table on the left shows different storage methods for a variety of foods.

As illustrated in the table, there is no clear cut winner on the food storage front since all foods denature at different rates. However, to maximize freshness one factor remains consistent in all methods—foods require a tight seal. Tight seals prevent food dry-out and also keep moisture, air, and insects out, all which accelerate food spoilage. Food storage and security should not be a gateway to extravagance or wastefulness. Food is to be treated as sustenance and the blessing it is. It is to be protected and eaten, not hoarded or wasted. If you find you have excess food, consider donating it to family, friends, or neighbors and, of course, buying less.



Optimal Temperature

Packaging upon purchase: What to look for

After opening: Home storage

Refrigeration advised?

Can it be frozen?


Use Within


39° to 86°F depending on type Unpenetrated packaging; free from mold (in non-moldy varieties) Plastic wrap or metal foil to reduce drying out, contamination, or odors Y Y in 1lb. or 1” thickness If mold occurs on hard cheese, you can safely cut it off and eat the remaining cheese; if on soft cheese- discard it. 1 week


65° to 70°F Completely sealed; on dry, room-temperature shelf Dry container limiting temperature fluctuations or moisture N N Extreme temperatures and moisture can cause bloom (grayish spot) and lumping By expiration date


40°F **Vacuum-sealed wrapper and tightly sealed container Tightly sealed after opening with minimal air or moisture exposure Y up to 40° maximum N Freshly ground and roasted is best 3 weeks to avoid staling and rancidity


≤45°F Refrigerated paper carton; clean with no cracks Wash before use Y Y Egg whites N Egg yolks Failed storage methods or foods with raw eggs can cause salmonella 3-5 weeks from purchase

Fresh Fruit

Berries/ Cherries

32°F to 34°F Breathable container with no mold growth Spread out on a flat surface and only wash before use Y N Colder temperatures slow the aging of the fruit 1 day

Citrus (except lemon)

55° to 58°F Free from mold with peel intact Cover to avoid drying out Y N Container is not required— these fruits can be purchased individually and left at room temperature to ripen (applies to citrus, bananas and avocados) 2 days after ripening

Avocados & Bananas

40°F (after ripening) Unbruised with peel intact Use immediately if ripe; if not ripe, store at room temp for later use N N 2 days from opening

Apples/Pears (and others)

≤40°F Unbruised with peel intact; plastic bag with perforations Y (crisper) drawer N Frozen temperatures deteriorate product Up to 30 days


40°F Dull and waxy skin; heavy for its size Wrap cut up melon in plastic wrap Y Y Melon continues to ripen if not refrigerated upon purchase 3-5 days

Canned Fruit & Vegetables

≤72°F Non-punctured, undented can Once opened, remove from can and store in air tight container N (loses flavor & nutrient) N Do not leave in can once opened; the moisture content can proliferate bacteria 3 days after opening

Frozen Fruit & Vegetables

≤0°F Keep in original packaging Do not leave in can once opened; the moisture content can proliferate bacteria N Y Do not thaw before use Up to 3 months

Dried Fruits

Room Temp. **Vacuum-sealed (removing all moisture from the fruit) Tight plastic, metal, or glass container to prevent insect infestation N *Freeze-drying for taste and nutrients Low moisture content makes them resistant to microbial spoilage Up to 2 weeks before starting to turn gritty



40°F Rich pink color In butcher’s wrapping paper Freezer bags loosely wrapped Y Y Fresh meats should be used or frozen same day 2 days in fridge; up to 3 months in freezer


0°F Plastic bag or plastic wrap with butcher’s tray and no perforations In original store packaging Y (for thawing) Y Look at expiration dates; avoid brown, gray, or green colored meats Up to 6 months in freezer



32°F On bed of flaked ice and wrapped in butcher wrap Keep in coldest part of refrigerator in butcher wrap until cooked Y Y Fish are extremely perishable and spoil rapidly 2 days after purchase or place in freezer for later use


Completely frozen, in sealed packaging Freeze immediately in store packaging N Y


≤41° F Covered with clean, non-punctured seals Replace cap and return to refrigerator after use Y N Opaque container preserves flavor 5 days after “sell by” date

Nonfat Dry Milk

Room Temp. Moisture-proof packaging Once opened, treat as fluid milk Y N Lumpy/stale when exposed to light 5 days

Evaporated Milk

Room Temp. Unopened, undented, flat top seal can Y N Turn over to avoid milk solid formation


Fresh vegetables Covered containers or plastic bags Keep dry and wrap with paper towel Y N Respiration continues after harvest leading to shortened storage time Short storage life, use immediately

Moisture-Rich Beans

40°F Keep beans in pods Put in storage bag once opened Y N Waxy coating helps to slow respiration 2 days


59°F to 75°F Unwrapped and not ripe Allow to ripen before use then wrap and refrigerate remainder Y N Tomatoes are better used when ripe

Onions, Garlic, & Potatoes

45°F to 55°F Cool dry place Best stored in open area Y N Keep bulbs out of direct sunlight and away from moisture-releasing vegetables Up to 30 days

Suha Najjar is a registered and licensed dietitian and nutritionist in North Carolina. She is an advocate of and works in public health and wellness. Currently, Suha is pursuing her master’s in nutritional sciences.