The Canadian Food Inspection Agency works with food manufacturers, farmers, and grocery stores to make sure that our food supply is safe. Once you purchase the food, it is up to you to make sure that you handle and store it properly to prevent spoilage or contamination from bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Read on to learn some food storage tips.
Food safety at the grocery store
Food safety starts at the grocery store. Choose shelf stable items like canned goods first. Then move around the outside aisles of the store, starting with vegetables and fruit. Refrigerated items like milk products, frozen foods and hot deli items should be the last items you buy. Shopping in this way means that the cold foods will spend less time out of the refrigerator when they travel from the store to your home. Foods should never be kept in the “danger zone” for longer than two hours. The danger zone is when temperatures are between 4° and 60°C (40° and 140°F). Once home, put cold and frozen foods into the fridge or freezer immediately. Hot foods should be eaten right away.
Tip: Check eggs before buying to make sure that none are cracked or dirty.
Tip: Place meat and poultry in plastic bags to prevent juices from dripping onto fresh foods.
Tip: If you are not going straight home from the grocery store, place foods in an iced cooler.
Food safety - refrigerator foods
Your refrigerator temperature should be at 4°C (39°F). A thermometer in the fridge will help you keep track. Refrigerator temperatures do not kill spoilage bacteria. The cold will slow down their growth, but over time fresh foods will still begin to spoil.
Tip: Butter and eggs should be stored in their own container on the refrigerator shelf, where it’s coldest, not on the inside door.
Food safety - fresh produce (fruit)
It is safe to store fruit at room temperature. After fruit have ripened they will began to spoil and mold quickly. If foods start to ripen and you are not using them right away, put the ripe fruit into the fridge.
Fresh fruit can also be frozen. Depending on the fruit, most can be kept in the freezer for 6-12 months. Read this guide for the best ways to freeze fruit at home.
Tip: The best way to freeze fruit is to cut and peel if necessary; place pieces individually on a baking sheet and allow the pieces to freeze. Once frozen, they can be stored in a plastic freezer bag or container. Using this freezing method will prevent fruit pieces from clumping together as they freeze.
Food safety - fresh produce (vegetables)
Root vegetables such as potatoes and onions should be stored in a cool, dry place such as a cold cellar or cold room. Other vegetables should be refrigerated. Vegetables can also be frozen. Check this guide for storage times. Home frozen vegetables have a freezer life of about 10-12 months.
For more information on fruit and vegetable storing, see this guide by the Canadian Produce Marketing Association.
The Ripening Process
Some fruits, like apples, tomatoes and bananas, continue to ripen after they have been picked. This is because these fruits give off a gas called ethylene. Ethylene gas makes foods ripen faster. If vegetables are stored with fruits that give off ethylene, they will begin to ripen and may spoil faster. This is why fruits and vegetables should not be stored in the same part of the refrigerator.
Tip: Do you want some of your fruits to ripen faster? Place the fruit in a paper bag with an apple or banana and soon that fruit will be ripe enough to eat.
Food safety - meats
If not using right away, it is best to freeze meat, fish and poultry after purchasing. If storing in the fridge, keep foods in their original packaging and place on trays at the bottom of the fridge. This will prevent juices from the raw meats from coming in contact with other fresh foods. Check this guide for storage times.
Food safety - milk products
Store milk products like butter, cheese, milk, sour cream and yogurt in the coldest part of the fridge. The refrigerator door, where items like butter and eggs are often stored, is actually not the coldest part of the fridge.
Butter, cheese and cream can be frozen. Always thaw frozen milk products in the refrigerator. The quality of the items may be different once thawed (for example, hard cheeses are very crumbly after they have been frozen) but they should still be fine to cook with. Check this guide for storage times.
Food safety storage tips - frozen foods
Frozen foods should be stored at temperatures below -18°C (0°F). Keep a thermometer in your freezer to help you monitor the temperature. To defrost frozen foods, always thaw in the refrigerator, not at room temperature! You can also defrost in the microwave if you are going to cook the food right away, or defrost in a sink under cold running water.
See Freezing 101 for more tips.
Food safety storage tips - shelf stable foods
Shelf stable foods such as dry goods and canned items should be stored in a cool and dry place, such as your pantry. Once opened, check labels to see if the food needs refrigerating. Some canned goods (like tomato sauce for example) will need to be transferred to an air-tight plastic or glass container after opening to keep the food from spoiling. Never buy or use canned items that are dented, leaking or are bulging at the ends.
For more on canned foods see: Food Safety – Canned Foods
Food safety storage tips - leftovers
Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible after the foods have cooled. Cover with plastic wrap or store in a plastic container, with a label and date. Leftovers can also be frozen. For convenience you may want to freeze leftovers in small 4-6 portion sized containers. The shelf life of your leftovers will depend on the food.
For more information:
Food Safety Network, for food safety information call toll free 1-866-503-7638
Canadian Food Inspection Agency
Canadian Partnership For Consumer Food Safety Education
Last Update – May 11, 2023