I often get asked, how do I meal prep without food going bad, and many other questions in regards to storing and reheating food, which is why I have created this guide.
To reassure you, the majority of the meal prep recipes are fine to refrigerate up to 3-4 days. Just ensure your ingredients are fresh and use airtight containers.
This guide is split into two parts: storing food and reheating food.
I have written this specifically for meal preparation because there are many misconceptions and I get asked tons of questions about the safety of storing and reheating food.
It is likely that you will be using a variety of ingredients and as a result, you will need to manually determine your use by and best before dates if you are creating your own meal prep or following specific recipes.
However, this is also a handy and useful guide, if you want to generally learn about storing and reheating your food safely.
It is important to follow these methods correctly, which can protect food against contamination, and to give you more knowledge on how to handle high-risk foods.
Guide to Storing Food
1) The two-hour rule
How long should you wait for your food to cool down and store in your fridge or freezer?
If you have leftovers or cooking a make-ahead meal, we are advised to follow the 2-hour / 4-hour rule, where you allow it to cool down as quickly as possible, and within two hours.
By digging a little deeper, this makes sense once you understand the temperature zones:
- When we cook our food (in the hot food zone – 60°C to 100°C), bacteria are destroyed.
- Bacteria can start to grow in the danger zone (in room temperature – between 5°C to 60°C) and we need to store it in the safe zone once it has cooled down.
This is where the two-hour rule comes in handy because it allows food to cool down in a safe zone before you either store the food in your fridge (the cold zone) or freezer (frozen food zone).
Bacteria does not grow in the storage zone but they are not destroyed either, hence the two hour rule.
However, what if after two hours, your leftovers still feel warm?
In this is the case, you should still follow the two hour rule even if your food is warm or lukewarm.
To reassure you, if you have been told “storing warm food in the fridge is dangerous”, this is a myth.
Just ensure you leave enough room in your fridge and it will be fine to store, and even after two hours of letting your food stand, it will not be piping hot to dramatically change the temperature in your fridge and freezer.
It is good to get into this habit of following the two hour rule, especially with meal preparation because it is easy to lose track of time with the number of recipes you are simultaneously cooking and allowing to stand.
It is simply an efficient way of managing your time and getting into a good habit.
2) What temperature should you set your fridge?
It is advised that you set your fridge at 4°C / 40°F as this temperature is ideal to stop or prevent the growth of bacteria.
This also helps preserve food for a longer time and will keep it fresh for days.
This is the whole point of meal prep because the objective is to cook make-ahead meals which you can reheat during the week ahead and will still taste fresh.
Depending on the type of meals you want to cook, storing them in the fridge can still taste fresh taste and most cooked meals will be fine to reheat after 3-4 days.
Of course, there are particular ingredients that will not keep as well but recipes on this blog are tried-and-tested.
This is why I meal prep every week because I trust these methods and it helps automate my meal plan from Monday to Thursday, giving me the flexibility for Friday and the weekend to test and cook fresh recipes.
However, what if you only want to cook once a week, or even once a month?
In this case, your best alternative will be freezing your food which can help take your meal prep to the next level.
3) Freezing food
The best temperature for the freezer is -18°C / 0°F and it is important to know how to store food correctly in the freezer.
This includes the foods you should and should not freeze.
Generally speaking, storing your meals in the freezer is ideal for increased longevity which is popular with once a month batch cooking.
This takes meal prep to another level because rather than cooking make-ahead meals for the week, you are doing it for the month, which ultimately helps you free up your time and save tons of money.
But, is frozen food bad for you? In short, the answer is no and it can be a smart way to diversify your meal prep.
While some foods will freeze much better than others, with little change to the texture, taste and nutrient content, other foods are negatively impacted and should not be frozen.
However, freezing your food will not reduce nutrients, and in fact, it will preserve them which you can imagine is great for meats and vegetables.
One of the main advantages of freezing food is that you can dramatically prevent food wastage by storing leftovers in your freezer and maximizing the use out of your ingredients which are due to go out of date.
In the UK, it is reported that households waste 4.5m tonnes of food each year, but imagine how much they can be saved by freezing food?
Even when I meal prep for Monday to Thursday, I have the flexibility to freeze meals in case I decide to change my plans.
When you buy frozen foods from the supermarkets, the instructions will be easy to follow on the packaging, but doing it yourself requires you to dig a little deeper, which is why this infographic is so great.
Although you can freeze your food a long time, and at times, longer than the packaging suggests, the quality will begin to deteriorate the longer you keep it stored.
Yes, it will always stay frozen but once defrosted, you will know when it is bad.
So, how do you freeze your food properly?
Again, you should follow the two hour rule which ensures your food is cooked and safe to freeze.
If you carry on reading, you can learn how meal prep containers help with proper storage.
What about freezer burn?
When food is not stored correctly or has been frozen for too long, you might experience freezer burn, which is when food loses its moisture due to air exposure.
It is still safe to eat but the quality of the food will be diminished.
If you see parts of your food victim to freezer burn, cut off the affected areas and cook the rest.
This is partly why keeping it stored in an air tight container, such as meal prep container and freezer plastic bags are very handy.
4) How to store dry food products?
It is likely you will have a large amount of dry food products and ingredients in your pantry such as pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, beans, flour, chia seeds, etc.
They are sold in plastic or paper packaging, however once they are open, it is essential to use an airtight food storage container which is generally highly beneficial.
One of the main reasons is because dried foods are susceptible to insect contamination and moisture reabsorption, which can be prevented with proper storage.
Also, air tight food containers is a way to keep your ingredients fresh for longer because it keeps air and moisture out of the food, which is a way to reduce food wastage.
It is also a neat way to organize your pantry and keeping the space around it clean.
For example, in one of my cupboards, I have a containers full of lentils, rice and pasta, which is a convenient way to quickly use on the cooking days.
Most food storage containers you see sold online or in shops are made from plastic. It should be labelled BPA-free too.
But is it safe?
For dry storage, yes.
BPA-free sounds great at first and could help you make a decision to buy the product, but new research adds onto growing evidence that BPA-free alternatives may not be as safe as consumers think, and the chemical can get into the food with excessive microwaving.
In this instance, for storing dry food, you should be okay because these are dry ingredients which you will be using for cooking.
However, if you can, choose a glass food storage container which may seem expensive at first sight, but this is the ultimate long-term winner in terms of quality material that is free of odours and is more durable.
5) The truth about use by and best before dates
When you purchase a food product and read the label, there are two types of information that will advise you about the expiration date; they are use by and best before dates.
Food producers and manufacturers are legally obliged to include their use by and best before labels on their products, and it also tested in various ways to help them determine these dates.
The use by date is more strict and is directly informing you that this product must be consumed within the given date, and is most commonly associated with meat products, dairy and generally fresh food.
This is because it is all about the safety and the use by date can include the number days you need to consume the food product after opening.
Therefore, you are advised to follow these rules accordingly to the labelling and it is deemed unsafe if you ignore these instructions.
However, by following the label instructions accordingly, you can freeze the product before the use by date and save it for a later date, rather than throwing away the food.
Best before dates is more about the quality rather than the safety, which is why people are more relaxed and can get away with exceeding the BBE date.
These types of foods include frozen foods, dried foods and tinned foods which you buy from the supermarket.
This also includes eggs which is important to know because you do not need to throw away an egg because the label says so.
Instead do this:
- Fill up a bowl with water and add your eggs
- If it floats it is bad, while if it sinks it is good.
You do not need to go to this extreme but you can be relaxed with best before dates.
6) How long to store food for meal prep?
For meal prep, food labelling works differently because you are cooking make-ahead meals and it can be confusing at first recording your own use by dates.
It is the same as guessing how long it is safe to eat leftovers.
Firstly, you need to determine whether you are going to store your meals in the fridge or freezer.
Labelling is essential if you are going to freeze your own cooked meals which can depend on the frequency of meals, date range, and not to mention, it can be easy to lose track of the dates.
Nevertheless, you need to write down the date when the meal was cooked and follow the information, from the manufacturers label, of the food products you have used.
For example, if you are cooking chicken breasts for your meal prep, then it is essential to know the use by date recorded on the packaging.
The good news is that most meal prep recipes are safe to eat within 3-4 days, if stored in the refrigerator. and up to many months in the freezer.
Below is a handy guide to determine your own use by dates for your meal prep.
7) The best meal prep containers
I have written a complete meal prep container guide which covers glass and plastic containers.
In my opinion, if you are going to meal prep then definitely invest in quality meal prep containers because they are designed to help you control portions and keep food fresh.
There is doubt that glass meal prep containers are the best and are well worth the investment.
Guide to Reheating Food
1) Is it safe to microwave?
Microwaving food is one of the most common methods to reheat food for your meal prep, but is it bad for your health?
The answer is a no.
If you are worried about the radiation or ruined nutrients, you might have been reading false or misleading information.
It may not be the most desirable cooking method, compared to grilling or frying, but in terms of meal prep, using the microwave helps you enjoy a tasty lunch at work and reheating leftovers to save time in evenings.
It is safe to use and will not ruin your food.
However, it is important to point out that you should totally avoid using plastic containers which are not BPA-free.
BPA stands for Bisphenol A, and this is a chemical used to make certain plastics, such as polycarbonate plastics which are commonly used in food containers.
The problem is that this chemical can seep into your food which contains health effects, particularly pregnant women and infants.
Should you trust the newer plastic models which are labelled BPA-free? Research has found that chemicals that almost all leached chemicals that imitate estrogen.
If you do have a plastic meal prep container and plan to use the microwave to reheat your food, place it on a plate and reheat instead, which is also good for evenly reheating food.
Otherwise, reheating your food in a glass meal prep container is completely fine.
2) How to defrost food?
Always plan ahead if you are going to thaw your food because it should be done in preparation rather than last minute.
For best results, you should thaw in the refrigerator from the beginning of the day or night before, because this will keep it safe in terms of the temperature and will defrost slowly.
The other great alternative is cold water thawing because it works faster but only if you are at home during the day to keep an eye on the food.
The cold water needs to refilled every 30 minutes because it must stay cold and you should never use hot water.
Have you ever allowed it to thaw outside of the fridge and on your counter top? This is dangerous because temperatures could end up reach the danger zone to allow bacteria grow again.
How about defrosting your food in the microwave? It has the function for it?
Although you technically can defrost food in the microwave, it is not always the great idea to defrost meat this way and you should follow the manufacturing instructions carefully.
Here is a useful infographic:
3) Learn how to meal prep
If you had concerns about meal prep before reading this post, I hope all this information helps, and that you can begin your meal prep journey today!
If you want to learn more about meal prep and want to get started, check out my meal prep guide below.
I also post recipes which are designed to help keep your diet on autopilot and help give you fresh ideas for your next work lunch or dinner.
Most recipes I post are designed to be balanced, and although I do not follow a specific diet, there is enough variety to filter low-carb recipes or vegetarian recipes.
If you are new to meal prep, my advice is to focus on your own goal, pick recipes for the week ahead, write a shopping list of the ingredients you need, buy some meal prep containers and start cooking!
I hope this meal prep food storage guide helps because it is a major concern when it comes to cooking make-ahead meals for the week.
Please let me know what else you like to see in this guide and I will add it.
When I first started meal prepping, I was skeptical and there was not enough information online to help me.
Therefore, I have been researching this topic over the years and from experience I advise the best storage times for each recipe.
Any questions? Hit me up in the comments below!