When it’s time to put away your fresh foods, leftovers or condiments, you may not be sure whether to refrigerate or freeze them. What can you leave on the counter?
To limit food waste, and extend the life — and optimal flavor of your food — follow our simple guidelines for storage.
Ketchup/mustard: Because of their high vinegar (acidy) content, these can be stored safely at room temperature for a few weeks. To extend the shelf life and flavor of these condiments, put them in the fridge, where they’ll be good for several months.
Cheese: Because cheese remains flavorful and fresh for several months in the fridge, avoid freezing sliced or block cheese to extend life. When thawed, the texture changes, making it crumbly and losing flavor.
Fresh pasta (like tortellini): Store in the fridge and buy what you’ll use in a few days, because frozen fresh pasta can become very chewy after thawing. Low temperatures change the texture.
Vacuum-sealed smoked fish/deli meats: These are meant to be stored in the fridge for extended periods — with a suggested “use by” date of several months. That’s the date until you open them. Once the package is opened, it’s good for up to five days in the fridge.
Fried chicken: Avoid freezing, as the crust tends to fall off and crumble when thawed. It’s best to prepare what you can eat within three to five days. If frozen, the chicken is safe to eat, but flavor, texture, and appearance will be reduced.
Lemon meringue pie: This is one pie that does not freeze well and will separate when thawed. The result won’t be a creamy pie with a puffy egg white cover, but can be runny and with a deflated top.
Brown rice: The whole grain shell of the brown rice can spoil in your pantry at room temperature, so it’s best to keep in the fridge for longer term storage. But white rice can be stored in the pantry safely.
Coffee: An airtight container is the key to keeping coffee fresh. While freshness is maintained with a small amount kept at room temperature and used quickly, it’s best to freeze larger amounts of ground coffee to optimize freshness. Add a recloseable bag before freezing if you’re not sure your container is air tight. It’s good for months with optimal flavor.
Nuts: With such a high fat content, nuts can lose flavor and freshness, and even become rancid if kept at room temperature for too long. Keep your nuts in an airtight container or recloseable bag before freezing to keep them fresh and tasty for up to a year.
Bacon: While the suggested “use by” date for bacon can be several months, once the package is opened, it should be consumed within the next seven days for food safety. To avoid spoilage and waste, freeze your bacon after opening. Divide into single serving sizes for convenience, and thaw in the fridge or microwave prior to cooking using whatever method you prefer.
PANTRY (room temperature):
Tomatoes: Considered “fruits,” tomatoes should not be refrigerated because they’ll lose flavor rapidly. They will continue to ripen at room temperature, developing additional umami taste.
White flour: While white flour is stable in your pantry (keep the opened bag in a recloseable bag or separate container), whole wheat flour does need to be refrigerated. The whole grain parts can easily become spoiled at room temperature.
Whole fruit: A bowl of whole fresh fruit on your table is a healthful reminder for daily eating. Fresh fruit will continue to ripen at room temperature, so plan to leave it out for no more than about five days. To avoid spoilage, keep extra fruit in the fridge where it will not ripen at cooler temperatures.
Madelyn Fernstrom is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor. Follow her @drfernstrom.