Spring-Clean Your Refrigerator and Freezer
Tips for keeping foods fresh, safe, and tasty
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
Hopeful signs of spring are everywhere, with birds chirping, tulips and daffodils showing off their colors, and plenty of activity on the tennis courts and baseball fields. For many of us, all these things are also a sign that it's time to get started on the annual spring cleaning.
This year, along with the yard work and baseboards, resolve to add the refrigerator and freezer to your spring-cleaning list. Lurking deep inside them could be a scary "science experiment" or an ice-encrusted mess begging to be thrown away. And cleaning out your freezer and fridge means more than just a tidier-looking kitchen. Food kept too long or at improper temperatures can become contaminated with bacteria, which can cause illness.
Most people, it turns out, don't understand the dangers of improper food storage. The American Dietetic Association found that only 40% of consumers knew that eating food that has been stored in refrigerators warmer than 40 degrees Fahrenheit can increase the risk of food-borne illness.
Indeed, food poisoning and other food-borne illnesses are very common. Last year, there were an estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness in the United States, according to the CDC.
When in Doubt, Throw It Out
You can't always tell if a food has spoiled by its smell or appearance. Don't take chances with your health. The advice from the FDA: When it doubt, throw it out.
If food looks or smells strange, don't even risk tasting it -- just toss it. Mold you can see on the surface is just the tip of the iceberg; there could be poisons under the surface of the food that aren't detectable by the naked eye.
With a few foods -- such as hard cheeses, salami, and firm fruits -- you can cut the mold away, but be sure to remove a large section around any mold you can see. In general, food with mold should be tossed.
You already know that you need to throw out those containers of "mystery food" found in the bowels of your fridge.
But what about those jars of condiments that have been open and around for years? Most will stay fresh for two months on the door of the refrigerator. That part of the fridge is designed for storing condiments, because their acidic content tends to make them more resistant to bacterial contamination than other foods. Still, their quality is likely to decrease with time.
Prevent Food-Borne Illness
Your role in food safety starts as soon as you leave the grocery store. Go straight home and immediately stow your groceries. Check the labels of foods to determine the best way to store them.
Make sure your refrigerators is at 40 degrees or less and your freezer 0 degrees or less. The only sure way to check the temperature is by putting a clearly visible thermometer inside each compartment (but not on the door). Check it often as temperatures can fluctuate, especially in warm weather. If temperatures get too high, adjust the controls.
It's also important to keep your refrigerator and freezer clean. Wipe up any spills immediately. And once a week, wipe down the interior walls, shelves, and rubber gaskets with a weak cleaning solution to sanitize.
Food Storage Dos and Don'ts
Here are some tips to remember when storing and using foods:
How Long Can I Freeze It?
Food kept in the freezer so long that ice crystals dominate its appearance is safe to eat, since no organisms can live in subzero temperatures. And the nutritional quality remains intact. Still, you probably don't want to eat it -- the quality of this frozen tundra will certainly be less than ideal.
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