Freezing meat, produce and dry goods is the best way to make your groceries last for the long haul. But if those foods are packaged or stored incorrectly, it means a trip to the garbage can.
Most people know the basics of freezer and pantry storage, but it’s always good to brush up on helpful tips. When freezing meat, for instance, the key is to remove as much air as possible from the storage bag to prevent freezer burn.
“You want to take as much air out as you can because air in the bag is what causes freezer burn,” Ed Wiebe, meat manager at St. Joseph Hy-Vee, says.
If you have one, he recommends using a vacuum sealer to package chicken, pork and steaks before freezing them. If not, use heavy-duty plastic storage bags meant for the freezer and try to press out as much air as you can.
Mr. Wiebe says frozen meat generally lasts about three to six months, or up to a year if vacuum sealed. If there is an ice glaze directly on the meat, then it has succumbed to freezer burn and is no longer fit for consumption.
If you plan on eating meat soon after purchase, Mr. Wiebe says the time it can last in the refrigerator depends on the fridge’s temperature and how often the door is opened. The meat cases at Hy-Vee run at about 29 degrees, while home fridges can only get down to about 34 degrees, so the meat won’t last as long. To be safe, he says most raw meat should be cooked and eaten within two days, otherwise you should freeze it. Be sure to check for signs of spoilage before cooking.
“Beef gets greenish, chicken gets slimy and starts to smell. ... Chicken is the easiest thing to go bad the fastest, so you have to be careful,” he says.
Hy-Vee dietitian Sheri Caldwell says besides meat, fruits and vegetables are the other most commonly frozen items. She recommends cleaning and cutting produce beforehand so it’s ready to use right after thawing. For things like berries, freeze them individually by spreading them out on a sheet before storing them in a freezer bag. This method prevents them from sticking together in one big brick. In some cases, vegetables last better in the freezer if blanched first, so research which methods work best for certain varieties.
Even though most are shelf stable for several months or even years, dry goods need the same care and attention as other items so they have a long pantry life. Rice, flour, pasta, crackers and chips sometimes can attract bugs if left partially opened, so make sure the boxes and bags are sealed properly.
“Storing it in an airtight, sealed container is probably the best. Some people do freeze flour, too,” Ms. Caldwell says.
If you grow fresh herbs and can’t use them all before they go bad, they can be chopped and frozen in water, butter or oil in ice cube trays and then stored in labeled freezer bags.
Ms. Caldwell says the University of Nebraska-Lincoln provides extensive information about recommended times and temperatures to store many different foods, which can serve as a helpful reminder. Access it at food.unl.edu/safety/chart. For more in-depth freezing tips, visit food.unl.edu/preservation/freezing.
While proper food storage keeps food safe in the long term, don’t forget about short-term food safety. Each picnic, barbecue and pool party this summer probably will have its fair share of meat and mayonnaise-based salads, which can spoil quickly in the sun. To avoid potential food poisoning incidents, Heartland Wellness Connections has a release reminding people to pay close attention.
“With food being carried and prepared away from home, there’s an increased risk for catching foodborne illnesses,” the release states.
Additionally, it says cooked foods should be eaten or refrigerated within an hour of cooking. If you’re eating outside, bring coolers and ice packs to keep food chilled and out of the sun, especially if planning on staying out longer than an hour. And it’s always important to cook meat until the internal temperature reaches recommended health guidelines. According to the release, this means 165 degrees for poultry, 160 degrees for hamburger and medium steaks and 145 degrees for pork and medium-rare steaks.