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Properly Store Your Leftovers to Stop Wasting Food and Money

From meat to dairy, make sure you're properly storing your leftover groceries.

Macy Meyer Editor I
Macy Meyer is a N.C. native who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2021 with a B.A. in English and Journalism. She currently resides in Charlotte, N.C., where she has been working as an Editor I, covering a variety of topics across CNET's Home and Wellness teams, including home security, fitness and nutrition, smart home tech and more. Prior to her time at CNET, Macy was featured in The News & Observer, The Charlotte Observer, INDY Week, and other state and national publications. In each article, Macy helps readers get the most out of their home and wellness. When Macy isn't writing, she's volunteering, exploring the town or watching sports.
Expertise Macy covers a variety of topics across CNET's Home and Wellness teams, including home security, smart home tech, fitness, nutrition, travel, lifestyle and more. Credentials
  • Macy has been working for CNET for coming on 2 years. Prior to CNET, Macy received a North Carolina College Media Association award in sports writing.
Macy Meyer
4 min read
Food leftovers packaged in boxes inside a home fridge with dates written on.

Don't let your leftovers get gross in the fridge.

vgajic/Getty Images

Leftovers can be a contentious topic -- you either love them or hate them. With prices of just about every grocery skyrocketing, I am a firm believer in leftovers now more than ever. I can certainly appreciate the opportunity to nourish my body at my own convenience with little to no effort, but limiting food waste in the process is the icing on the cake.

In the US, an estimated 30% to 40% of the total food supply is wasted across production, retail and consumer chains, according to the Department of Agriculture. One way to help limit that food waste is to store leftovers properly to extend their shelf life. 

So what's my secret? I crafted this guide of everything you need to know to properly store your leftovers or fresh groceries, limit food waste and ultimately save you money. Keep your favorite produce, dairy, meat and other products fresher for longer by following these storage tips. For more, read about the best way to reheat every kind of food and how to clean out your fridge.

Basic food storage tips

For starters, there are some basic rules for storing any kind of food to prevent contamination, bacteria or spoiling. It's important to remember that even if foods look fine and don't have any visible mold, they could be unsafe to eat, potentially causing foodborne illnesses or sickness. Here are some quick storage tips to get started:

  • Make sure all perishable items and leftovers are stored in the fridge or freezer to prevent bacteria. 
  • Don't leave leftovers outside of the fridge for more than 2 hours after the food was made.
  • Toss your leftovers after four days (or sooner depending on how they look).
  • Keep your fridge below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and your freezer below 0 degrees for longest lasting results. According to the USDA, bacteria thrives in temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Wrap your food airtight to preserve moisture, prevent odor and keep out bacteria.
  • Store your leftovers in small portions in shallow containers or reuseable bags or with food wrap. 

How to store every kind of food

Here's how to organize each kind of food so you can enjoy your groceries for longer. 


Few things churn my stomach like the smell and taste of spoiled dairy. Milk, yogurt and other dairy products typically expire within a few short days, but we found tips to extend their longevity.

  • Keep dairy products cold, ideally between 32 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Dairy products expire 50% faster for every 5 degree increase over 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Don't keep dairy products out of the fridge for more than a few minutes.
  • Don't store dairy products, especially milk, in the fridge door, since that's the warmest part of the fridge. 
  • Leave dairy products in the original store packaging they came in. 
  • Keep hard cheeses in the store wrapping. Wrap leftovers in airtight foil or plastic wrap. (Find out more about proper cheese storage here.)
  • Don't allow ice cream to soften and re-freeze too many times, and always keep it in the main part of the freezer rather than the door. 
Open refrigerator with chocolate and white milk.

Store milk in the main part of the fridge -- not in the fridge doors. 

DonNichols/Getty Images

Meat, seafood and poultry

It's important to store meat products correctly considering the risk of foodborne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli. The USDA recommends that all meat products be eaten within four days of being in the fridge -- though meat can be frozen for several months safely. When storing, you should follow these tips:

  • Store meat products in their own drawer to prevent cross-contamination. 
  • Keep meat products in the lowest drawer in the fridge to prevent any drippings on other groceries. 
  • Store the meat in the coldest part of the fridge. Ideally, set the drawer to 29 degrees Fahrenheit. 
  • Keep the meat in the original store wrapping and secure it in a plastic bag or leakproof container to avoid spillage. 
  • Don't refreeze raw meat that has already been defrosted. 
Close-Up Of Raw Meat In Plastic Packages

It's important to store meat products correctly considering the risk of foodborne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli. 

Dorota Szymczyk/EyeEm/Getty Images

Fresh produce 

Fruits and vegetables are often stored incorrectly. Here's a quick guide for reference:

  • Store fruits and vegetables separately or spaced away from each other. This is because you want to minimize build-up of ethylene gas, a compound released by some fruits and vegetables that causes produce to ripen faster.
  • Fruits and vegetables stored outside of the fridge -- like tomatoes, potatoes, onions and avocados -- should be removed from the store wrapping and left in cool, dry and dark areas in your kitchen. 
  • Leave all other fruits and vegetables in their original store packaging, or cut in stored in airtight containers.
  • Avoid washing your fresh produce before putting in the fridge. The moisture can speed up the process for rot and mold. 
  • Keep citrus, tomatoes and avocados at room temperature, but refrigerate them once they're past prime ripeness. 
  • Store all fruits and vegetables out of direct sunlight. 
close up of hands preparing plastic food boxes

Store fruits and vegetables separately. 

lithiumcloud/Getty Images

For more money-saving tips, see how much you'll pocket buying store-brand grocerieshow much you can save shopping at Trader Joe's and how to tell if a cheap wine is actually good.

For more ways to become an expert in the kitchen, explore CNET's latest cooking tips: