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Exactly How to Stock Your Fridge If You Want Your Food to Last

In these days of social distancing, stretching your grocery haul is more important than ever. Here's how the pros do it.

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Welcome to grocery shopping 2.0

Given the many anxiety-inducing precautions shoppers must take during the coronavirus pandemic, you hardly need health experts to urge you to keep food shopping trips to a minimum. Buy wisely, and take steps to make the food you get last longer.

One of the most fundamental ground rules for keeping refrigerated items fresh: "The colder the fridge, the longer things will last," says Jonathan Deutsch, PhD, a professor of food and hospitality management and director of the Drexel Food Lab at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "Refrigerators should be between 35 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit for both safety and quality—even a degree can make a difference for products like milk." Everyone is home all day due to various states implementing shelter-in-place orders, which means there's likely a lot more opening and shutting of the refrigerator door. This likely means that the food in the front and on the side of the refrigerator door may be well above 40 degrees, he says. So make sure your fridge is set cool enough and push things as far back from the door as possible.

Beyond that, Deutsch says, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the best way to store each food item. So, we rounded up all the expert tips we could find to help you make sure your food lasts longer and save you from having to make unwanted grocery store trips. You'll also want to make sure you're not doing any of these 7 things that shorten the life of your fridge.

Note: Prices listed were accurate as of press time; pricing fluctuations may occur.

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Choose foods with staying power

"Never before has processed food become more important for health," says Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., a food scientist and principal of Corvus Blue LLC, a food science and research firm. It's important to remember that not all processed food is bad—sometimes the processing that's done is to help make it shelf-stable. Organic milk, for instance, will last much longer than conventional because of the ultra pasteurization it undergoes. Some other long-lasting picks, according to Shelke: apples, winter squash, eggs (they're good up to five weeks, and it's easy to know when one's gone bad), citrus, onions, hard cheeses (avoid low-sodium cheese which won't last as long), tofu, pickles, cream cheese, sour cream, heavy cream, and bacon.

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Socially isolate your produce

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All fruits and vegetables are not created equal, and tossing them all into the same crisper drawer can significantly shorten the lifespan of some food items. Apples, tomatoes, potatoes, melon, and peaches, among others, produce a lot of ethylene gas, a plant hormone that speeds up the ripening process. Asparagus, garlic, onion, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, peppers, and strawberries are among the produce items most sensitive to the effects of ethylene. If you must refrigerate these items, store high ethylene producers in its own drawer, and use a device like this greensaver crisper unit that absorbs the gas to make them last even longer. Potatoes, tomatoes, onions, and avocados last longer at room temp, Deutsch says. These are more foods that shouldn't go in your fridge.

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Scalp it

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Spoilage can be caused by several factors, including moisture and oxidation (exposure to air), says Shelke. But with produce, time is usually the killer. "Some enzymes in fruits and vegetables continue to be active and cause deterioration in their quality and safety," she says. That's why, for root vegetables like carrots, parsnips, turnips, and beets, removing its leafy tops can extend its life in storage by months. For other produce items, these crisper bags can help. Keeping your fridge organized will also help you make sure nothing goes to waste.

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Wait to wash things

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Not your hands, definitely wash those as much as possible. But moisture leads to mold, so washing a whole carton of strawberries at once is a ticket to spoiler city. Instead, only wash the amount you're going to eat in one sitting immediately before eating it and leave the rest dry, says Deutsch. You can also find refrigerator bins that reduce humidity to keep produce fresh and crisp. Find out how long different types of meat last in the fridge.

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Bag your herbs

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Ingredients like fresh herbs make a big impact but those delicate greens never last long. Growing your own is always a good option, as is using dried. The best way to extend the life of cut leafy herbs like cilantro and parsley is to stick it in a jar of water and place a plastic bag loosely over the top. That helps maintain proper moisture levels. Remember to change the water regularly. You can also invest in an herb keeper for the same purpose. Here's more on how to store your herbs properly.

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Halve your losses

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Sometimes you only need half an onion, tomato, or lime, and that's OK. Since exposure to oxygen is one of the fastest ways to spoil food, you want to minimize your cut surfaces (i.e. don't chop the rest of that onion) and cover it tightly with plastic wrap or something specifically designed to do the job. Bonus: This will prevent odors from stinkier items like onions from permeating surrounding foods, says Deutsch.

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Don't smother your cheese

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Cheese, especially good cheese, is a living thing. And plastic wrap, the standard way to store an open wedge, doesn't let it breathe. Instead, it traps moisture inside, which is why cheese can start to feel slick and slimy before sprouting mold (the bad kind). A better option: If you didn't save the fancy paper it came in, wrap it in parchment or wax paper and pop it in a small Tupperware container with a tight-fitting lid. If you're really serious about cheese, you might want a cheese vault. Find out 10 foods you didn't know you could freeze.

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Wrap right

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Ideally, you want to treat the food in your refrigerator and freezer like you'd treat yourself on a sub-zero day: Layer up. Start by wrapping leftovers in plastic wrap, foil, or both, before popping then in a Tupperware container. This can be especially important for preventing freezer burn on foods you're planning to keep for longer times. If you're waste-conscious, check out this multipurpose beeswax-infused organic cotton wrap, which can be used (and then reused) for everything from leftover casseroles to that sourdough loaf you're working on. These are more reusable versions of things you use every day that will help you save money in the long run.

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Vacuum pack it

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When you don't want to take any chances with food going bad before it's time, pumping the air out of the container your leftovers are in is the only solution. Proponents claim that vacuum sealing can keep food fresh for five times as long as other storage methods. This vacuum sealer starter set makes it easy. This is how to store every type of leftover.

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Label everything

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One of the reasons food goes bad is because people forget to eat it. That's why transparent storage containers are so important: So you can see what's ready to be consumed at a glance. Tagging each dish or item with the date you put it in there takes seconds, but can save you countless meals. These nifty labels make it easy (and almost kind of fun) to go label crazy. Find out about 7 types of food containers you've been using all wrong.

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Practice self-preservation

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Preserving foods through pickling or fermenting can extend its shelf life several times over. Pickles, salt-preserved lemons, kimchi, and sweet or savory jams are all great options to make at home. "I'm a huge fan of canning applesauce and tomatoes," says Marisa McClellan, author of The Food in Jars Kitchen. "They are things that my family uses in abundance and the homemade versions are both cheaper and better." When it comes to storage containers, you want them to be squeaky clean, have the ability to seal tightly, and, if you are making something for the freezer, you want sturdy straight-sided glass jars. This preserver and canning starter set has everything you need. If you find any of these 13 items in your kitchen, toss them ASAP.

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Put a lid on it

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It's time to institute a no open containers policy in your refrigerator. Everything goes into storage. No Tupperware? No problem. Stretchable lids fit right over the top of the serving bowls and containers you already own. And some of them look really good, too. What could be easier? Next, read on for 12 biggest pantry mistakes the Container Store thinks you're making.

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