Storage tips to reduce food waste

Where and how you store your food makes a huge difference in how much food waste leaves your kitchen


The global food system creates a lot of waste. Food gets lost during harvest and shipping, grub spoils before it can be eaten, and leftovers languish in our refrigerators. But just because that’s the current state of our system, doesn’t mean we can’t all work towards lowering the amount of food that ends up in the bin—and, ultimately, the landfill. 

In the U.S., the majority of food waste happens in our homes, and cutting those losses takes a multi-pronged approach. In addition to smarter shopping and creative cooking, knowing how to store food properly can make sure more good grub gets eaten. Here are some useful tips for reassessing how you store food. 

Storage tips to reduce food waste

Keeping all the food we bring home out of the bin requires a suite of tactics that address how we track, sort, package, and salvage vittles before they can become food waste. 

Keep a food waste inventory

We can’t always eat 100% of what we buy, but there’s a better way to track what foods are favorites, and which ones are the last ones sitting in your pantry or fridge. It’s not realistic for everyone to maintain a detailed log of everything in their kitchen, but maintaining a tally of what goes to waste most-often can send helpful signals. 

You can either jot down what you chuck as it happens, or start with a broader list to keep yourself in check. Keep a notepad, whiteboard, or chalkboard on the fridge with a list of what’s typically in the icebox and pantry. When an item spoils, underline or circle it. That mark can make you more likely to remember to use it in the future—or act as a signal to stop buying that particular thing (or so much of it) in the future.

Refrigerator tips for reducing food waste

Sometimes lowering food waste means changing your habits when handling the food at your disposal—specifically storage and management. Here’s a range of tips to keep your fridge prepared for optimal snacking and minimal waste. 

  1. Create an “eat me first” zone. Keep the most perishable items in eyesight towards the front of the fridge to ensure they aren’t forgotten. Make a designated place for any items that have spoiled quickly in the past. “This encourages everyone at home to prioritize consuming those items first, minimizing food waste,” says Stacy Savage, a zero waste specialist and the founder of consulting firm Zero Waste Strategies
  2. Try the “First In, First Out” rule. When you restock the fridge, think of it like a grocery-store shelf: The newest stuff goes in the back. This will help you keep track what’s in there and consume it in the order it arrived—more or less. If you’re keeping an inventory, you can also do this by writing down when an item went in. This way, you don’t get a surprise container of molded strawberries way in the back. 
  3. Seal leftovers tight. Make sure food-storage containers seal correctly so that any items will last longer. Some older containers and lids become warped over time, so it’s important to take stock of how well your food containers are holding up.
  4. Let things breathe. Home and business refrigerators are often overpacked, Savage says, which can keep cold air from circulating correctly. If your fridge is starting to look like a subway car at rush hour, it’s a clear signal to inventory what you’ve got—and what rarely gets used. 
  5. Label everything. Label all your food containers–and don’t forget dates. “Use blue painters tape and Sharpie,” suggests Alison Mountford, a chef who runs the website and meal planning service Ends+Stems. “Often we toss out items when we can’t recall their age and that can be prevented with labeling.”

Freezer tips for reducing food waste

Think of a freezer like a food time machine. With proper packaging, labeling, and organizing techniques, it’s a vessel to extend the life of fresh food—and leftovers—that might go bad before you get a chance to eat them. 

  1. Label everything. We said it with the fridge, and we’ll say it again: Get a roll of masking tape and a Sharpie and record the contents and dates of everything you put in cold storage. This ensures that you’re not playing a guessing game with how long it has been since you had first stored those ingredients or that meal. 
  2. Create regular shapes. Freezers get packed easily, so Tetris-ing frozen foods in the same kinds of containers helps everything fit. For best and even freezing, use your containers that are square or rectangles—or consider freezing things like soups and stews flat in gallon-sized bags. Any of these shapes are easy to stack and help ensure you’re storing food in an organized way. 
  3. Wrap tightly. Air is a primary culprit for foods developing off-putting textures in the freezer, so however you package food, make sure to push out as much as possible. If you’re using freezer paper or foil, wrap it as tight as you can; if you’re using freezer bags, push out any excess oxygen before sealing. 
  4. Understand freezer burn. It might be unappealing, but freezer burn isn’t necessarily dangerous. Those ashy, discolored pieces happen because of inconsistent temperatures and too much air getting to grub. If only a small part of the food is affected, you can just slice it off. 
  5. Embrace the ice cube tray. Use ice cube trays to portion out usable amounts of half-stuff you have leftover. This is especially great for things like cookie dough, pancake batter, seasonings, broth, and extra bits and bobs ingredients for larger recipes—stuff like extra garlic, tomato paste, herbs, or chopped onions.
  6. Separate by spoilage potential. Put things least likely to spoil on the door. This includes nuts, extra herbs, breads and baked goods, and butter. Out of sight and out of mind sadly creates more food waste. 
  7. Put meat on the bottom—just in case. The chance that you experience some sort of power outage, meat will spread a lot of bacteria and ruin whatever’s underneath it. So keep it at the bottom of the chiller so that germs and meat sludge doesn’t drip down on your other food. 
  8. Thaw safely. Freezing food puts any baddies that might make you sick on ice, and incorrect thawing can help them thrive. Don’t leave food on the counter to thaw; this could let it come between 40 and 140 degrees, which is what the USDA considers the danger zone. Thaw overnight in the fridge, or, if you’re in a rush, toss food in the microwave.

How to store produce to avoid food waste

Fresh fruits and veggies are the most commonly tossed foods in U.S. homes, according to ReFED, a nonprofit focused on food waste solutions.1 Issue is: Extending the life of produce isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. Different grub requires different moisture levels and airflow to avoid spoilage and bacteria. A cucumber, for example, needs to hang out in the crisper drawer a towel to wick away excess water, while a tomato prefers the airflow of a countertop. 

A gaseous plant hormone called ethylene also impacts how quickly fruits ripen. Some produce emit more than others, so storing those heavy emitters nearer to grub that’s more sensitive to the gas can accidentally cause some fruits to spoil faster than they would otherwise. “Bananas emit ethylene and will cause all other fruits to ripen faster, so store them separately,” says meal planner Mountford. Apples and avocados fall into the same category as bananas, so they need their own storage as well. But when it comes to berries, grapes, and cherries, they don’t release ethylene as much post-harvest and can bunk with other fruits. 

If this seems like a lot to keep track of, Savage of Zero-Waste Strategies has a simple suggestion: “Display informative posters in kitchens outlining proper storage practices.” These should help get you started: 

Storage tips for spring produce

Many of spring’s delicious offerings—leeks, arugula, strawberries—are more delicate than their cold-weather counterparts. Moisture and microbes are the real baddies, but a good amount of items in the season’s vibrant crop also ripen quickly when ethylene gas is around. Asparagus, artichokes, peas, and soft leafy greens need to maintain their own quarters to maximize freshness.

how to store spring produce chart
Ethylene statusWashStoreWill lastFreezePast their prime?
Emitter & sensitiveWhen ready to useOn the counter until ripe, then in the fridge3–5 daysWashed, blanched, slicedMake poached apricots
SensitiveWhen ready to useIn the fridge, bottom ends trimmed, upright in a glass in an inch of water10-14 daysWashed, trimmed, blanched, driedMake a frittata
SensitiveWhen ready to useIn the fridge, in a perforated bag1 weekHearts only, blanchedMake spring veggie cassoulet
Green beans
NeutralWhen ready to useIn the fridge, in a perforated bag1-2 weeksTrimmed, washed, blanched, driedMake tempura
SensitiveWhen ready to useShelled or unshelled, in a sealed bag5-10 daysShelled (except snap peas), blanched, driedMake pea soup
NeutralBefore storing, greens trimmedIn the fridge in a perforated bagUp to 2 months; greens 2-3 daysSliced, blanched, driedRoast ‘em
SensitiveWhen ready to useIn the fridge, wrapped loosely, leaves discarded2-3 weeksRaw or blanched, cut into piecesMake compote
Scallions, leeks, spring onions
Emitter & sensitiveWhen ready to useIn the fridge, upright in a glass in an inch of water, covered loosely with a produce bagUp to 1 weekTrimmed and slicedMake scallion pancakes
Soft leafy greens (e.g., spinach & arugula)
SensitiveRinse and spin dryIn the fridge, wrapped in kitchen towel in unsealed or perforated bagUp to 5 daysWashed, blanched, dried, choppedSauté or add to stews and soups
NeutralRinse in a 1:3 mixture of vinegar to waterIn the fridge, in a partially open container lined with paper towelUp to 1 weekWashedMake jam

Storage tips for summer produce

Summer’s produce bounty includes a range of fruits and veggies that require different types of care. Many stone fruits and tomatoes are ethylene emitters, for example, and need to be kept away from other soft fruits and veggies that go bad easily. Delicate herbs and summer greens like lettuce should be kept away from these emitting fruits and should be stored after being cleaned and patted dry. 

Jason Reed
Ethylene statusWashStoreWill lastFreezePast their prime?
EmitterWhen ready to eatOn the counter in an open container2 days to 2 weeksPuréedBlend into gazpacho; roast with garlic and oil
NeutralRinse in a 1:3 mix of vinegar and water, or submerge in hot water for 30 secondsIn the fridge in a partially opened container lined with paper towelUp to a week for strawberries and raspberries; up to 2 weeks for blueberriesIn a single layer and transfer to a containerMake preserves
Stone fruit
Emitter and sensitiveWhen ready to eatOn the counter until ripe, then in the fridge in a bowlUp to a weekSlicedMake compote
NeutralWhen ready to eatIn the fridge in a perforated bag or vented container1-2 weeksPittedMake clafoutis
SensitiveWhen ready to eatIn the crisper drawer rolled in a towel1-2 weeksDon’tBlend into soup; make quick pickles
Squash & Eggplant
SensitiveWhen ready to eatIn the fridge in a perforated bag or vented container1-2 weeksCookedMake zucchini butter
NeutralDon’tOn the cob, loose in the fridgeFor best flavor, eat ASAPKernels onlyAdd to soup or bean salad
SensitiveRinse and spin dryRolled in a dish towel in a container or bag in the fridge1-2 weeksDon’tGrill or braise hearty varieties like romaine
SensitiveRinse and spin or pat drySnip the ends, place upright in a glass with a little water in the fridge1-2 weeksRosemary, thymeMake pesto

Storage tips for fall and winter produce

A lot of fall and winter produce can emit ethylene and spoil the rest of your seasonal goodies. The ones to store separately are pears and potatoes. Keep those away from other sensitive fall and winter produce like celery and onions, which ensures that buying some seasonal produce in bulk won’t backfire on you. 

Jason Reed
Ethylene statusWashStoreWill lastFreezePast their prime?
Sensitive & emitterRinse when ready to eatIn the fridge, in an unsealed or perforated bagUp to 3 monthsSliced, blanched, cooled in ice water, and driedMake applesauce

Broccoli & cauliflower
SensitiveRinse when ready to eatIn the fridge, in an unsealed or perforated bagUp to 5 daysCut into florets, blanched, cooled in ice water, and driedMake creamy vegan broccoli soup or roasted cauliflower soup
Brussels sprouts & cabbage
SensitiveRinse when ready to eatIn the fridge, in an unsealed or perforated bag; uncut cabbage can be looseSprouts up to 10 days; cabbage up to 2 monthsSprouts trimmed, steamed for 3–5 minutes, cooled in ice water, and dried; cabbage cookedRoast, or make melted cabbage
SensitiveRinse when ready to eatIn the fridge, wrapped tightly in aluminum foilUp to 4 weeksWashed, dried, and choppedBraise it
NeutralRinse when ready to eatIn the fridge, in a sealed bagUp to 2 monthsWashed and driedMake cranberry sauce
Dark leafy greens
Sensitive (they turn yellow)Rinse when ready to eatIn the fridge, wrapped in a kitchen towel, in an unsealed or perforated bagUp to 5 daysWashed, blanched, dried, and choppedSauté them
SensitiveRinse when ready to eatIn the fridge, in an unsealed or perforated bagUp to 2 weeksWashed and dried, off the stemMake grape compote
SensitiveNoIn a cool, dry place, separate from potatoesUp to 6 weeksPeeled and choppedSalvage for parts
Sensitive & emitterRinse when ready to eatOn the counter until ripe, then in the fridge in an unsealed or perforated bag5–7 daysDon’tMake a pear crisp
Potatoes & sweet potatoes
Sensitive, potatoes also emitScrub when ready to eatIn a cool, dry place, separate from onionsUp to 2 weeksPotatoes peeled, parboiled 3–7 minutes, cooled, and cut; sweets cookedRemove any eyes and mash potatoes; make sweet potato pie
Pumpkins & winter squash
SensitiveScrub when ready to eatIn a cool, dry placeUp to 3 monthsCookedMake a gratin
Root veggies (carrots, parsnips, & turnips)
Sensitive (they get bitter)Scrub when ready to eatIn the fridge, in an unsealed or perforated bag, green tops removedUp to 1 month (shorter for baby carrots)Peeled, blanched, and driedMake carrot-ginger soup

How to store scraps to avoid food waste

Kitchen scraps don’t all have to go straight to the trash. So many will make for great additions to other meals, recipes, or even as compost. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Make a smoothie bag: Use extra or fast-spoiling produce as an opportunity to add more veggies and fruit to your drink. If you have greens or fruits (we’re looking at you bananas and berries) that are starting to go bad, gather them up in a freezer bag and toss them into the blender as needed. 
  2. Save end and stems for stock: So many ends, peels and stems of veggies can make for a great homemade vegetable stock. Gather all these up in a big freezer bag to form the basis of a flavorful homemade stock. Dump the scraps in a big pot, cover with water, add in some seasonings like peppercorns and a bay leaf, and let it simmer for a couple hours. Some experts recommend avoiding bitter greens like kale if you want a smoother tasting broth that will be great for making all sorts of stews and soups. For extra credit: You can char or bake the scraps in a little oil to deepen the umami-ness of the flavor. 
  3. Gather up compost. Depending on where you live, you can turn extra bits into compost in your own yard—or see if your city has a composting program. You can collect your inedible scraps in a dedicated bucket or container. (Even a repurposed takeout container could work, but you may want to keep it in the fridge or freezer to avoid attracting pests.) To see if you have any composting programs near you, check out this website

Understand expiration dates

Confusion over “expiration dates” is a leading cause of household food waste, according to ReFED.2 In reality, though, the dates stamped on food packaging are more an indicator of when the manufacturer thinks food is at its best, as opposed to a deadline about food safety. (Baby formula is an exception to this rule.) Check out our guide to what expiration dates actually mean, including a quick-glance guide to the lifespans of commonly tossed grub in plant-based kitchens.

Consider packaging

Part of food waste is not simply the food itself being thrown away. Food comes in wrappings and containers that are single use and discarded after we bring groceries home. If your food comes in glass containers and jars, those can be reused to store portions of food in the fridge. That being said, make sure that those containers are safe for storing your food. Thoroughly clean the glass and the lid to ensure that it’s good to use. 

More communities now have package free stores that allow you to bring in any clean container that you’d like to buy food in bulk. Many of these stores carry other household goods including detergent, dishwashing soap, and shampoo. These are great for getting your bulk dry goods like nuts, cereals, rice, and other kitchen staples. Google “zero-waste grocery store near me” or “refill store near me,” to find a location, or consult this database

Cooking and shopping tips to avoid food waste

Cutting down on the amount of food you throw out starts with how you plan out what your household is going to eat. That starts with a strategy for how you navigate the grocery store so that you don’t buy more than you need, and ends with some creative approaches to cooking to use up what you have on hand. 

Environmental impact of food waste

Food waste creates hundreds of millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions every year. The environmental impact of food waste, in fact, is greater than that of 40 coal-fired power plants. While this food is being thrown away and contributing to emissions, food insecurity is on the rise in the U.S. and globally: About one in eight U.S. households struggles to readily access healthful food. 

Portions of this story were adapted from Cool Beans, a newsletter from one5c focused on sustainable eating. Additional reporting credit: Liza Schoenfein

  1. ReFed Insights Engine (2023), ReFED, Nov. 2023 ↩︎
  2. Ibid ↩︎