How to store food safely

Proper storage of food reduces the risk of food poisoning. Follow these tips to ensure your food is always safe to eat.

Fridge storage

Some foods need to be kept in the fridge to help stop bacteria growing. These include foods with a "use-by" date, cooked foods and ready-to-eat foods, such as desserts and cooked meats.

Here's how to prevent bacteria from growing:

  • Keep your fridge temperature at 5C or below. Most fridges are warmer than you think. 
  • When preparing food, keep it out of the fridge for the shortest time possible.
  • If you're having a buffet, keep the food refrigerated until you're ready to serve it.
  • Cool down leftovers as quickly as possible (ideally within 90 minutes), store them in the fridge and eat them within two days.
  • Store eggs in their box in the fridge.
  • Never put open cans in the fridge, as the metal may transfer to the can's contents – place the contents in a storage container or covered bowl instead.

"Make sure food has cooled down before you put it in the fridge," says Philippa Hudson, senior lecturer in food safety at Bournemouth University.

"If the food is still hot, it will raise the temperature in the fridge, especially older models, which isn't safe as it can promote bacterial growth."

It is safe to let food cool completely before storing it in the fridge, so long as basic food hygiene is applied to avoid cross-contamination. When re-heating food, make sure to cook until steaming hot.

Clean your fridge regularly to ensure it remains hygienic and in good working condition.

"Food debris accumulates over time and can increase the risk of cross-contamination," says Hudson.


'Best before' and 'use-by'

  • Food with a "use-by" date goes off quite quickly and it can be dangerous to eat after this date. 
  • Food with a "best before" date is longer-lasting. It should be safe to eat but may not be at its best quality after this date.

'Use-by' dates

No food lasts forever, however well it is stored. Most pre-packed foods carry either a "use-by" or a "best before" date.

  • "Use-by" dates appear on foods that go off quite quickly. It can be dangerous to eat foods past this date.
  • "Best before" dates are for foods with a longer life. They show how long the food will be at its best quality.

"Food can look and smell fine even after its use-by date," says Hudson. "But that doesn't mean it's safe to eat. It could still be contaminated."

Storing meat

It's particularly important to store meat safely in the fridge to stop bacteria from spreading and avoid food poisoning.

  • Store raw meat and poultry in clean, sealed containers on the bottom shelf of the fridge, so they can't touch or drip onto other food.
  • Follow any storage instructions on the label and don't eat meat after its use-by date.
  • Keep cooked meat separate from raw meat.

Freezing and defrosting

It's safe to freeze meat and fish as long as you:

  • freeze it before the use-by date
  • defrost meat and fish thoroughly before cooking  lots of liquid will come out as meat thaws, so stand it in a bowl to stop bacteria in the juice spreading to other things
  • defrost meat and fish in a microwave if you intend to cook it straight away, or put it in the fridge to thaw so it doesn't get too warm
  • cook food until it's piping hot all the way through

"Make sure the meat is properly wrapped in the freezer or it might get freezer burn, which will make it tough and inedible," says Hudson.

"Date and label meat in the freezer and eat it within 24 hours of defrosting. Don't keep food in a freezer indefinitely. Always have a good idea of what's in your fridge and freezer."


Never re-freeze raw meat (including poultry) or fish that has been defrosted. It is possible to re-freeze cooked meat once, as long as it has been cooled before going into the freezer. If in doubt, don't re-freeze.

Frozen raw foods can be defrosted once and stored in the fridge for up to two days before they need to be cooked or thrown away. To reduce wastage, divide the meal into portions before freezing and then just defrost what you need.

Cooked food that has been frozen and removed from the freezer must be reheated and eaten immediately once fully defrosted. When defrosted, food should be reheated only once, because the more times you cool and reheat food, the higher the risk of food poisoning. Bacteria can grow and multiply when food is cooled too slowly, and might survive if food isn't reheated properly. 

When reheating food, make sure it is heated until it reaches a temperature of 70C for two minutes, so that it is steaming hot throughout.

Foods stored in the freezer, such as ice cream and frozen desserts, should not be returned to the freezer once they have started to thaw. Only take out of the freezer what you intend to use for that meal.

Re-using bags

With more and more people re-using carrier bags, whether for environmental reasons or to avoid paying for new ones, the following tips will help prevent bacteria spreading to ready-to-eat food: 

  • Keep raw meat and fish separate from ready-to-eat foods in separate bags. 
  • If you use re-useable bags, keep one or two just for use with raw meat and fish and don't use the same bags for ready-to-eat foods.
  • Re-useable bags (and single-use carrier bags) should be disposed of if there are spillages of raw meat juices.

Page last reviewed: 28/11/2014

Next review due: 28/11/2016


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The 4 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

3drom said on 13 October 2013

I really do not understand why people do this. It is the common sense not to leave hot food in a fridge. My flatmate, 1st year undergraduate and a social worker both leave burning hot food in the fridge. I really wonder it is because of their poor education or because all the bills have been covered in the rent and they do not bother at all!

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Aaaarrrrrgh said on 01 July 2011

No mention is made about re-freezing frozen food which has defrosted.

All in all a pretty poor effort as the ratings show.

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Food Standards Agency said on 29 June 2011

It is estimated that each year in the UK there are about a million people who suffer a foodborne illness, of which 20,000 receive hospital treatment and there are 500 deaths. It is important that everyone do what they can to reduce these risks.

Food allergy can develop at any point in one’s life and there is no strong evidence it is caused by people being too clean. Food allergy is often associated with Westernised society and there are clear differences in levels of food allergy reported in urban and rural areas. The Agency is currently investigating various risk factors that may affect the development of food allergy such as when solid foods are introduced and when allergens are introduced into the infant diet, the outcomes from these studies will help inform advice to parents on infant feeding.

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devoted husband said on 19 December 2010

I ended up leaving care work, got OCD with stuff around food hygiene... If we kill off the good bacteria as well, where is that gonna leave us?
I have a bag of frozen chicken portions in the freezer. Can I return the opened, half-empty bag to the freezer? I guess not, as bacteria from the bag will get on other things... So I'll cook it all to be on the safe time...
I'm sorry... But we have to allow ourselves to come into contact with bacteria, so we can build up an immunity...
Otherwise, tha bacteria will become superbugs, and kill us all anyway...
The paranoia is everywhere now... Killing 99.9% of germs, is good and bad germs... we need them both!
Good germs to protect us, and bad, for the good to strengthen themselves on...
When are we gonna stop washing our hands til they bleed?
It is said that the onset of allergies is largely due to the amount of ant-bacterial stuff we use...
This is a time bomb for our children and grandchildren...
When do we stop?
When do we stop?

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