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Americans discard about 25% of the food in their homes, amounting to over 20 pounds of food per person each month. About two-thirds of this food gets thrown out because it was not used in time and went bad. Food conservation is becoming an increasingly urgent issue for the planet and everyone’s budget.

Refrigeration is effective for preserving perishable items if done properly. Tweaking how you store a few items can help you maximize your grocery dollars and get the most out of your fridge contents. Prep your food to last longer in the refrigerator with these tips.

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Watch the Temperature

Pathogenic bacteria can cause foodborne illness without affecting the appearance, taste, or smell of food, so their presence largely goes undetected. These organisms make 1 in 6 Americans sick and lead to 3,000 deaths every year. Spoilage bacteria can continue growing at low temperatures and eventually cause food to develop bad tastes and smells. However, they do not typically make people sick.

Bacteria grow fastest in the “Danger Zone”, the range of temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F. Refrigeration slows bacterial growth. Federal food safety guidelines recommend keeping refrigerator temperatures at 40 degrees or lower. Few refrigerators show actual temperatures, but an inexpensive appliance thermometer can help you make sure your fridge is keeping its cool. Place one in the freezer as well, and check them regularly.

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Give Your Food Elbow Room

Cold air needs to flow freely around refrigerated foods to keep them at a safe temperature. Overstuffing the fridge restricts air circulation and reduces energy efficiency. It also creates warmth pockets that could accelerate food spoilage. Purge the fridge regularly to keep it moderately full. Be careful not to block the air vents. Even without overfilling the refrigerator, placing items in front of the passageway can affect the appliance’s cooling function and prevent it from maintaining the proper temperature.

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Space Fruits and Veggies Apart

Certain fruits, including apples, pears, avocados, and apricots, emit ethylene gas, which speeds ripening and spoilage. Keep these away from ethylene-sensitive produce such as broccoli, carrots, lettuce, and apples. Store the gas-producing foods in a separate section with airflow. Veggies need to breathe as well. Poke holes in their plastic bags or place them in reusable mesh bags. Avoid packing them tightly together to give them space for air circulation. Veggies require higher humidity than fruits, so adjust the drawer’s humidity levels accordingly if your fridge is so equipped.

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Cover Up

Store cooked items in sealed bags or securely covered containers to protect foods and drinks from spills and exposure to bacteria. This also helps preserve freshness and flavor, and keeps foods from picking up odors from other foods. Wipe up spills, especially from raw meats, right away to help deter the growth of bacteria and prevent cross-contamination.

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Can’t Stay Out Long

Put away perishable groceries, leftovers, and take-out within two hours. If the air temperature is over 90 degrees F, foods should be refrigerated or frozen within one hour. Don’t leave perishables in a vehicle longer than necessary, and never over a couple of hours or one hour in a hot climate. The FDA says that placing covered warm foods in the fridge does not harm the food nor the appliance, contrary to popular belief.

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How Long Can It Go?

Become familiar with the lifetimes of the foods you use often. Tape a date label on products that you’ve opened to remind you to use them before they go bad. The USDA has compiled a handy chart of refrigerator and freezer storage times for refrigerated foods. The agency also has a hotline at 888-674-6854 for questions about meat, poultry, and dairy products.

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Put Dairy and Eggs Back

It’s common to keep milk and eggs in the door of the fridge, but the items get constantly exposed to warm air every time the fridge is opened. This is why dairy products often go bad before their expiration dates. Place these and other perishables in the back of the fridge to help them maintain a consistently cool temperature and stay fresh longer.

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Wrap Up Your Greens

Grocery stores often spray raw greens such as spinach, lettuce, and herbs with water mist to keep them fresh in the store. At home, this moisture sets up the produce for mold growth. Wrap a paper towel around them to take up excess water. Layer paper towels throughout plastic containers of salad greens.

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Block Out Browning

When the flesh of many foods is exposed to air, oxygen causes a reaction that promotes oxidation, the cause of browning. This doesn’t make the food inedible, but it can diminish the appearance, taste, and nutritive value. Cover cut avocado and apples halves or slices with plastic wrap, applying smoothly against the surface of the food to block out air.

Citrus fruits contain antioxidants that can slow down browning in some foods. Brush or spray a bit of lemon or lime juice across a cut avocado or apple and seal the food in an airtight container to delay browning. A light spray of cooking oil can help keep avocado looking bright longer, too.

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Prepare for Disaster

If you know that you may lose power soon, freeze water in quart size storage or freezer bags and place them in your fridge and freezer when the power goes out. During an outage, keep the fridge and freezer doors closed as much as possible. Check your refrigerator and freezer thermometers before using food. If the fridge is at or below 40 degrees F, or if the food has been above 40 degrees F for less than two hours, it is likely safe to consume.

Frozen items with ice crystals or at a maximum of 40 degrees may be cooked or refrozen safely. If you don’t know how long the temperature has been over 40 degrees F, discard the food.

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