One of the great perks of planning, preparing, cooking, and enjoying a home-cooked meal is the leftovers. Knowing how to store cooked food is paramount for enjoying the surplus in the days, weeks, and months to come. Additionally, properly stored cooked food is an integral part of weekly food prep or stocking up for the future. No matter the reason, the goal is the same: utilize the best tools and methods to preserve food and maintain the freshness and integrity of each item.
There are three enemies of uneaten cooked food: air, moisture, and bacteria. Refrigerated leftovers typically last up to four or five days if sealed and stored correctly. Frozen food can last for months under constant below-freezing temps, though if not properly stored can succumb to freezer burn. To assist fighting these leftover enemies, prevent food waste, and mitigate spoilage, ensure there is ample room in the fridge and freezer to store everything correctly.
Ready to store your cooked food and leftovers? Follow along for the best tips to make your food after-party celebration a success.
Best Cooked Food Storage Practices
A handful of process and organizational tools are needed to make sure your leftover casserole doesn't turn into a breeding ground for bacteria and illness. It may be unpleasant to talk about foodborne illness, but improperly stored food is a leading cause. Before storing cooked food, here are the necessary steps to take:
- Ensure the food has been cooked properly and is safe to eat.
- Be sure to keep food out of the “danger zone” after cooking. According to the USDA, bacteria grows between temperatures of 40 F and 140 F. This means after food is cooked, it must be kept hot (140 F or warmer) to prevent bacteria from growing.
- Cool down (40 F or cooler) or store cooked food within two hours. Any food left out after this time is no longer safe. To help speed up the cooling process, spread the dish out in a thin layer on a baking sheet or tray so it cools rapidly or apportion larger quantities (big pot of chili, soup, stew) into smaller portions to cool. Place everything under refrigeration to chill before storing properly.
- Portion, wrap, and seal accordingly.
- Properly label the food item with its name and date the dish was made or stored. This will help eliminate doubt as to what the mysterious bag of brown chunks in the back of the freezer might be.
Essential Food Storage Tools
- Plastic Wrap: The MVP of food storage owes its clingy nature to an electrostatic charge. It keeps out moisture and its transparency makes a clear view of what lies underneath. An alternative to plastic wrap, but equally useful is Glad Press 'N' Seal. It differs from plastic as it can create an actual seal on a variety of surfaces, including wood, metal, foam, and glass.
- Wax Paper: An old-school method of food preservation made popular by butcher shops, wax paper is coated in a thin layer of paraffin or soy-based wax. This moisture-proof paper storage option works well when combined with plastic wrap or aluminum foil for long-term storage in the freezer to prevent freezer burn. The result means juicy foods stay moist and crunchy foods don’t get soggy when wrapped in wax paper.
- Aluminum Foil: Many people cover containers or plates with foil and stick it in the refrigerator for a temporary storage option, but it turns out foil does not prevent air from circulating around cooked food which can allow bacteria to grow. As ubiquitous as this kitchen item is, it is not recommended for food storage in the refrigerator. However, freezing food in aluminum foil is a safe way to store food for up to a year in a deep freezer, according to the USDA. Freezing food in aluminum foil properly can keep frozen foods fresh and free from freezer burn.
- Beeswax Wrap: An environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic wrap or aluminum foil, beeswax wrap is best used to cover bowls of leftover food. It is compostable, biodegradable, and reusable for up to a year, with proper care. Made of cloth coated in beeswax and jojoba oil or tree resin, it's a little sticky to the touch. The product adheres to the surface of bowls or to itself when wrapped around leftovers, all activated by the warmth of your hands.
- Plastic Bags: There are two kinds of plastic bags suitable for storing food. Zip-top bags come in different sizes from snack-sized up to a gallon. Many have coated labels right on the bag to help with labeling. There are also freezer-safe plastic bags made with thicker plastic.
- Tape and Markers: Many storage containers and bags have a strip to use to label or write directly on the surface. Just as you have seen in Hulu’s The Bear or with any professional chef, some form of tape (painters tape, good ol' duct tape, waterproof tape) and a permanent marker are the second best tools to have on hand for storage and prep.
What to Know About Storage Containers
Opting for eco-friendlier reusable containers made from glass, food-grade silicone, and multiple-use BPA-free plastic is the best way to go for food storage, especially if space is plentiful. Silicone covers and lids are sustainable alternatives that can be used over and over again. Food-grade silicone is dishwasher, microwave, and freezer safe. Silicone bowl covers and silicone tops can be stretched tightly over bowls and food items.
What to look for in a good storage containers
Plastic vs Glass Containers: Plastic containers are generally microwave-safe, easy for travel, and designed to keep out moisture and air. Over time, they can be more difficult to clean, hold odor, and break down much more quickly than other types of containers. Glass containers are leak proof, freezer safe, oven safe, and microwave safe but they are much heavier in weight and have a heftier price tag. Overall, to make your food preservation life easy, purchase containers with a uniform shape, so they can easily nest inside and stack on top of one another.
Chef Containers: The chef-approved storage solution can be found in professional kitchens and restaurants all over the world. They are simply deli containers, but they solve so many leftover cooked food problems–inexpensive, spill proof, stackable, dishwasher-safe, and can double as measuring cups in a time of need. With sizes ranging from 4 to 32 ounces, the containers are made of food-grade polypropylene.
Storage containers can be used until they show signs of wear, discoloring, or physical breakdown. With proper care, plastic containers can last over a year with repeated use. The biodegradable and sustainable options have a longer shelf-life to consider.
The 3 Things You Shouldn't Freeze
Technically, anything can be frozen—but just because you can freeze it, does not mean you should. The result after thawing is what is most important to consider. Water expands when frozen and the cellular structure of certain items will burst resulting in water-logged, soggy, and frankly, inedible foodstuffs. Use these tips as guidelines before thinking about putting these items in a deep-freeze.
- Fried foods: After cooling, the flavor of fried food changes. Once frozen, ice crystals permeate the food, locking in moisture. As the food defrosts, water and any extra oil seep into it which results in a soft, mushy texture instead of the crisp item it once was.
- Sauces and gravies thickened with starch: Cornstarch contains hydrophilic molecules that soak up any liquid it’s exposed to. The molecular structure of what went in the freezer will be completely different when it’s taken out. When frozen and then thawed, the resulting sauce or gravy will be a gelatinous, gloopy mess.
- Mayonnaise-based dishes: Oily emulsified sauces and condiments (like mayonnaise) will separate and break down in the freezer.
How to Store Common Dishes and Cooked Foods
Leafy Greens (kale, collards, mustard, chard)
- TOOL: plastic zip-top bags, storage containers.
- HOW & WHY: If freezing, separate the cooked greens from the potlikker or the pot's juices. Excess liquid can crystallize when freezing and promote freezer burn. Before adding greens to a zip-top bag, press the air out before sealing it. Add the liquid to a storage container. Greens should last in the freezer for 10-12 months. Under refrigeration, greens and the liquid may be stored together. A storage container with a lid works best.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, cooked leafy greens can be stored for three to four days. In the freezer, they can be stored for up to 12 months.
Composed Salads With Mayo (egg, chicken, ham, tuna, potato, and macaroni)
- TOOL: storage container
- HOW & WHY: Freezing is not recommended as the mayonnaise will break down and separate. A storage container with a lid works best when refrigerating.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, composed salads with mayo can be stored for three to five days.
Composed Salads Without Mayo (fruit, vegetable, leafy green, pasta)
- TOOL: storage container
- HOW & WHY: Storing a composed and dressed salad is not recommended as the acidity from vinaigrette and ingredients (cut tomatoes, pineapple) and added moisture will affect the cellular structure of the salads, making everything soggy and water-logged. A storage container with a lid works best.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, composed salads without mayo can be stored for three to four days. With the exception of pasta salads, they can be stored in the freezer for one to two months.
Vegetables (Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus)
- TOOL: plastic zip-top bags, plastic wrap, or storage container
- HOW & WHY: There are multiple options to preserve vegetables:
- After adding to a zip-top bag, press the air out before sealing.
- Tightly wrap vegetables in heavy-duty aluminum foil followed by a layer of plastic wrap and place them in the freezer.
- To refrigerate, place the leftover vegetables in a shallow airtight storage container.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, vegetables can be stored for three to five days. In the freezer, they can be stored for eight to nine months.
Soups, Stews, Gravies (thickened without starch), and Non-emulsified Sauces
- TOOL: zip-top freezer bags, storage containers
- HOW & WHY: Once cool, fill storage containers with soup and affix them with lids. Place in the refrigerator or freezer. For long-term storage, fill zip-top freezer bags and lie flat in the freezer to maximize space.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, soups and stews can be stored for three to four days. In the freezer, they can be stored for three to four months.
Casseroles (mac and cheese, lasagna, shepherd's pie)
- TOOL: plastic zip-top bags, storage containers
- HOW & WHY: For portion control and re-heating ease, slice leftovers into individual portions and place them in zip-top bags or freezer-safe storage containers.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, casseroles can be stored for three to four days. In the freezer, they can be stored for three to six months.
- TOOL: storage containers, plastic zip-top bags
- HOW & WHY: Use a measuring cup or an ice-cream scoop, to place cooled portions of mashed potatoes on a baking sheet lined with wax paper, then transfer the sheet to the freezer uncovered for 20 minutes. Transfer to zip-top plastic bags for storage.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, mashed potatoes can be stored for three to four days. In the freezer, they can be stored for up to two months.
Meat (beef, lamb, pork, poultry, roast)
- TOOL: plastic zip-top bags
- HOW & WHY: For refrigeration and freezer storage, use zip-top bags. Under refrigeration, store leftovers whole and slice within the next three to four days because cold meat slices easier than when hot. If freezing, slice it thin and pack it flat in a freezer bag. For poultry, legs and wings may be left whole.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, meat can be stored for three to four days. In the freezer, beef lamb and pork can be stored for two to three months. Poultry can be stored for four to six months.
- TOOL: plastic storage containers, zip-top bags, aluminum foil
- HOW & WHY: Cooked fish can be stored in the fridge for up to two to three days in a sealed container. If leftovers are not going to be used within this time, wrap tightly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil, and place in a zip-top freezer bag.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, fish can be stored for up to three days. In the freezer, it can be stored upwards from four to six months.
- TOOL: storage container, plastic zip-top bags
- HOW & WHY: Cooked shellfish is delicate and after a period of time, the quality begins to deteriorate and it will develop an unpleasant fishy odor. In order to preserve its fresh quality, consume or freeze it as soon as possible.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, shellfish can be stored for one to two days. In the freezer, it can be stored for up to three months.
Pasta, Rice, and Grain Dishes
- TOOL: storage container, plastic wrap, plastic zip-top bags
- HOW & WHY: Freezing is not recommended. However, undercooking pasta, rice, and grains will help them fare better once reheated from frozen. Under refrigeration, use storage containers. If freezing, wrap portions tightly in plastic wrap and place them in freezer-safe zip-top bags.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, these dishes can be stored for three to four days. In the freezer, pasta and grains can be stored for up to three months. Rice can be stored for up to six months.
Legumes (beans, lentils, pulses)
- TOOL: storage containers
- HOW & WHY: The storage container is great for storing legumes in the refrigerator or freezer. Be sure to leave room at the top of the container when freezing to allow for liquid expansion.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, legumes can be stored for three to four days. In the freezer, they can be stored for up to six months.
Bread and Baked Goods
- TOOL: wax paper, aluminum foil, zip-top bags
- HOW & WHY: Homemade bread does not contain the preservatives that help keep it from molding as fast as store-bought. The best option to keep bread that you will not eat within two days is freezing. To freeze, wrap in wax paper, tightly in plastic wrap, and place in zip-top bags.
- STORAGE TIME: Refrigeration is not recommended. In the freezer, it can be stored for up to six months.
- TOOL: wax paper, aluminum foil, plastic wrap
- HOW & WHY: Stack slices inside a zip-top bag and lay flat in the refrigerator. To freeze, place a layer of wax paper or aluminum foil between slices, alternating pizza and paper and wrap all of the slices tightly in one layer of plastic wrap, and one layer of aluminum foil and place in the freezer.
- STORAGE TIME: In the refrigerator, pizza can be stored for three days. In the freezer, it can be stored for one to two months.
With a little planning, some diligence, and organizational skills, you can conquer any leftover or food prep conundrum. After acquiring these new skills, your refrigerator and freezer will be bursting at the seams soon. Don’t forget to do a weekly sweep of the refrigerator to discard stored items past their prime. Do the same for the freezer on a monthly basis.