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A little retraining: How to use your refrigerator properly

The refrigerator certainly isn't a new invention, but sometimes we forget how to use it correctly.

You know what?

One could say that the inside of a person’s refrigerator says a little something about them and is somewhat representative of a person’s day-to-day living style.

For example, the person who has all of their different flavored yogurts perfectly aligned by color probably shows that same level of organization in other areas of their life.

Then there's the person who jams everything into their fridge without rhyme or reason, regardless of the food type or the date it was purchased. That too says a little something about them. A head of broccoli leaning against the milk container on the top shelf of the fridge? Why not? Some might say.

Here’s why not, say groups like the FDA and the people at FoodSafety.gov --  because your refrigerator, everything in it and its temperature all have to work together, so you can get the most out of your dollar and keep you and your family healthy and well-nourished.

For starters, the government agencies along with the site Recipe.com, which released a visual presentation on food safety, say all refrigerators should be kept at 35 to 40 degrees, in order to maintain the quality of your food and to be energy-efficient.

Make some space

Experts say you should make space in your refrigerator to thaw frozen meats, instead of softening them on your countertop or sink, as many people do.

Allowing your meat to thaw outside of your fridge can allow the surface of it to eventually reach temperatures between 40° and 140° F, which the USDA calls the danger zone when it comes to foods developing bacteria.

In addition, it’s suggested that you don’t use hot water to thaw your food, as this too can bring the outside of the meat to dangerous temperatures, even if the center is still frozen.

And it’s not just your favorite cut of steak or that frozen chicken breast where bacteria can grow; nasty little things can spread on that fresh-looking piece of fruit or on those healthy-looking vegetables too, as most of us know.

Keep it clean

According to University of Maine researchers, it’s best to not only wash fruit after you buy it, you should wash your hands with hot water and soap before you even handle it. This will diminish the risk of your ingesting any bacteria or germs that live on your hands during the day until they’re eventually washed.  

Furthermore, it’s important to thoroughly wash anywhere that you’re chopping the produce, whether it be the countertop, the sink or on a cutting board, since this will eliminate germs and lower the risk of other foods in your fridge being contaminated.

Simply rinsing these surfaces or doing a quick wipe down just won’t cut it, experts say.

Additionally, health experts say you should use a vegetable brush to wash those fruits and vegetables that have thick skin, as simply running them under water may not remove all of the bacteria, so it’ll require a little elbow grease and some good scrubbing power on your part to stay healthy and safe.

And a thorough cleaning of fruits and vegetables is important, even if you peel the skin beforehand, experts say.

And when it comes to foods that are already cooked, it’s important that they are refrigerated within two hours of being prepared.


So if you get takeout or bring home restaurant food and like to eat half of it and let the other half sit for a few hours until you eat it, you’re really increasing the chances of getting yourself sick.

Likewise, if you happen to cook a meal and leave it out until others are able to eat it or until they finally get hungry, that’s another way of increasing the chances of passing on a foodborne illness, as bacteria can quickly develop on cooked dishes if they sit around for an extended period of time.

And for those folks who purchase foods, stick them in the fridge and forget all about them, you really want to be extra careful, since spoiled foods don’t always have a stench or a rotten appearance, which means it’s best to keep track of exactly when foods were purchased and refrigerated.

Celery and lettuce, for example, should be kept no longer than 10 days, while fresh spinach and mushrooms no longer than seven days, the experts say.

And when it comes to meats, hot dogs and bacon have a seven-day lifespan in the fridge, steaks and other raw meats five days and lunch meats have about a three to five day shelf life.  

Raw chicken shouldn’t be kept for more than two days in the fridge, along with ground meats and raw sausage, and raw fish shouldn’t be kept around for longer than two days either.

And it’s important to store meats on the bottom of your refrigerator, because you don’t want juices from the meat leaking down on your other food items.

Dairy products

Dairy products have a little bit longer shelf life than other foods, but you still have to keep a very close watch, food experts say.

No milk should be kept around longer than one week, yogurt no longer than two weeks, sticks of butter no longer than four and eggs should be thrown away after five weeks’ time, regardless of appearance or smell.

To be healthy and to get the most use out of the foods you buy, it’s best to either keep a mental or physical list of when items were bought and stored in your fridge. Don't rely on expiration dates, which really have nothing to do with spoilage, as David Wood explained in a ConsumerAffairs story a few years ago.

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