Refrigerating food is an important component of food safety.
It keeps food out of the temperature danger zone, helping to slow the growth of harmful bacteria called pathogens that can cause foodborne illnesses.
While refrigeration is important so too is how you store items in the refrigerator.
This article explains everything you need to know about proper fridge storage for food safety.
Refrigeration slows bacterial growth
Refrigeration is a form of food preservation.
It keeps foods cold and out of the temperature danger zone, the temperature range in which bacteria multiply quickly.
The temperature danger zone range is 41ºF to 135ºF (5ºC to 57ºC).
You should keep your refrigerator at 41ºF (5ºC) or below to slow the growth of bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses.
Many refrigerators have a built-in digital or dial thermometer, allowing you to conveniently monitor the internal temperature from the outside.
However, it’s a good idea to keep one on the inside too.
Place the thermometer in the warmest part of the refrigerator, near the top of the door.
Monitor the temperature often, at least twice per day, once in the AM and again in the PM.
It’s also good practice to manually temp the foods in the refrigerator to ensure your built-in refrigerator thermometers are working correctly.
Don’t forget to regularly check the calibration of your thermometers and recalibrate them if needed.
If a food item is not at 41ºF (5ºC) or below, you must throw it out since you don’t know how long it has been at that temperature.
Keep frozen foods at a temperature that keeps them frozen — usually, 0ºF (-18ºC).
Similar to refrigerators, keep a thermometer in the freezer unit in the warmest part near the door and monitor the temperature regularly.
Foods that develop ice crystals may indicate that your freezer isn’t maintaining the proper temperature.
Refrigerating foods at 41ºF (5ºC) or below slows the growth of bacteria. Regularly monitor the temperature of your refrigeration and freezer units — as well as the food in them — to make sure they are keeping a safe temperature.
The hierarchy of proper fridge storage
Maintaining refrigerators at the proper temperature is important, but it’s not enough to keep food safe from hazards.
You must also store foods correctly to prevent cross-contamination, which occurs when pathogens are unintentionally transferred from one food to another.
The minimum internal temperature is the minimum temperature that foods must reach and maintain for a specific amount of time to kill off pathogens or reduce them to safe levels.
Poultry, for example, has the highest minimum internal cooking temperature and therefore should be stored on the bottom shelf.
Ready-to-eat (RTE) foods like salads or melon slices don’t need to be cooked and therefore should be stored on the top shelf so other foods cannot drip or spill on and contaminate them.
As a general rule, the more handling or processing a food receives, the higher its minimum internal temperature requirement.
Here are the foods and their minimum internal temperatures that you must know:
- 135ºF (57ºC): Plant foods that are cooked for hot-holding like rice or pasta.
- 145ºF (63ºC) for 15 seconds: Eggs served immediately and intact meats and seafood.
- 145ºF (63ºC) for 4 minutes: Roasts.
- 155ºF (68ºC) for 17 seconds: Cooked, ground, tenderized, or flavor-injected meats and hot-held eggs.
- 165ºF (74ºC) < 1 second (instantaneous): All poultry, stuffed meats, and stuffed pasta.
Based on the minimum internal cooking temperature, here is the proper storage order for refrigerated foods, in order of top to bottom:
- RTE foods and leftovers
- Whole cuts of beef and pork
- Ground meats and seafood
- Whole and ground poultry
Of course, there are always exceptions.
You can thaw ground meats above whole cuts of meat as long as the packaging is leakproof.
When it comes to the freezer, you can store raw foods over RTE foods if they are commercially packaged and unopened.
Never store food on the floor of the refrigerator or freezer.
Refrigeration storage chart
Here’s a chart to help you remember the proper refrigeration storage hierarchy order:
Download this refrigeration storage poster for FREE!
Store foods in order of their minimum internal cooking temperature, with those that require the highest on the bottom.
Other best practices to keep refrigerated food safe
Storing foods at the right temperature and in the right shelf order is key to keeping refrigerated food safe, but your work doesn’t end there.
Here are other best practices to keep refrigerated food safe:
Have you ever been shoulder-to-shoulder with people in a packed elevator or subway?
If so, you were probably uncomfortable and warm.
The same thing can happen to food if you pack a refrigerator too full — minus the uncomfortable part.
Avoid overloading the fridge or leaving the door open for extended periods as these actions make the fridge work harder to stay cold and can push the temperature above 41ºF (5ºC).
Also, allow the refrigerator shelving to breathe and cold air to circulate. Don’t line the shelving with sheet pans or aluminum foil.
Label and date
Refrigeration doesn’t halt bacteria growth, it only slows it.
Therefore, you must sell, use, or throw out that food that sits in the fridge for too long, usually seven days for most foods.
If you prepare TCS food that you don’t serve or sell in 24 hours, label it with a use-by date.
The date you prepared the item counts as the first day. So, if you prepared an item on Monday, you should sell, serve, or toss it by Sunday.
Labeling allows you to store food using the first in, first out (FIFO) method.
Don’t use refrigerators to cool foods
Just as you shouldn’t use a steam table to cook or reheat foods to their proper internal temperatures, you shouldn’t use a fridge to cool foods.
Refrigerators are designed to keep food cool, not cool them.
Using a refrigerator to cool hot-held time–temperature control for safety (TCS) foods may not move them through the temperature danger zone quickly enough.
Trying to cool hot-held foods in the refrigerator may also cause the internal temperature of the unit to rise to unsafe levels, putting other foods at risk.
Instead, cool food safely by:
- Setting up an ice-water bath. Divide food into smaller, stainless-steel containers and place them in a prep sink or large pot that is filled with ice water.
- Stir the food. Use an ice paddle — a hollow plastic paddle that can be filled with water and frozen — to stir the food frequently.
- Use cold water or ice as an ingredient. Make soups, stews, stocks, brines, and other liquid items with less water, and then add water or ice after it’s finished cooking to cool.
- Blast chiller. As the name suggests, a blast chiller blast food items with cold air to remove heat. Blast chillers are used less frequently due to their high price tag.
Keep them clean
Just as it’s important to keep your hands clean, you should also keep your refrigeration and freezer units clean — inside and outside.
This helps prevent dirt, grime, grease, and other contaminants from building up and potentially contaminating food.
It also helps keep pests like cockroaches and rodents away.
You should also wipe up any spills and clean them following power outages.
Allow air circulation, label and date foods, use refrigerators to keep foods cool rather than cool them, and keep them clean to keep refrigerated food safe.
The bottom line
Refrigerating food is a preservation technique that slows the growth of bacteria.
Keep your refrigerator at 41ºF (5ºC) or below, and store foods in order of their minimum internal cooking temperature, with those that require the highest on the bottom.
Allowing air circulation, labeling and dating food, using refrigerators to keep foods cool rather than cool them, and regularly cleaning the refrigerator — inside and out — are other best practices to keep refrigerated food safe.