“If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
As any realtor will tell you, at least those who recite the cliché, the three most important factors in real estate are location, location, location. The three most important factors in effective and economical food storage might just be rotation, rotation, and rotation. Of course, there are other considerations, but rotation is often overlooked, and it can have consequences for both your budget and your body; spoiled food is not only costly economically, but it can make you and your family sick, or it can even be lethal, in some cases. It is worth your while, in more ways than one, to implement a rotation system, and it really doesn’t take much, if any, additional effort with a little forethought and a disciplined attitude toward applying common sense best practices.
Any perishables– food, beverages, fuel, pharmaceutical drugs, or any other commodity with a finite shelf life– need to be rotated and replenished regularly and systematically in any viable storage program. Rotation works for tires and soil nutrients for growing specific crops, too, but we’ll focus on food rotation, in the refrigerator, in the freezer, and of course in the pantry in this article.
Electrical engineers that have used digital signal buffers for delaying signals will be familiar with the term FIFO (First In, First Out), but we can all benefit from a more macroscopic application of the FIFO principle in our pantries and fridges; ideally, the first item bought should be the first item eaten, not only within a specific type of food item but across one’s entire pantry and food storage system as well. By devising a method to systematically rotate perishable items, benefits will accrue to your budget and your family’s health and longevity. Another acronym many are familiar with is GIGO– Garbage In, Garbage Out. It goes without saying that storing sub-standard, tainted, marginal, or spoiled food or food with negligible nutritional value is not only silly but potentially dangerous as well. It’s essential to store the highest quality food AND to rotate those stores using the FIFO method. A maxim you can use if you’re not an engineer, or you just prefer something other than FIFO, is “Buy it first, eat it first.”
Another vital aspect of an effective rotation system is knowing the shelf life of the foods you are storing. A few items, when stored properly, have such a long shelf life that they may be considered relatively exempt from the best practice of rotation (although it’s still a good idea), or at least their shelf life is measured in decades rather than years; among them, you will find such things as water (depending on the container), honey, salt, wheat berries, rice, sugar, maple syrup, corn starch, distilled white vinegar, pure vanilla extract, liquor, and wine. Here’s a list of eight of these items and another list of nine items with long shelf life and tips on their storage.
As for most everything else not explicitly mentioned in the paragraph above, consuming any purchased item that is used past the printed “use by” or expiration date is ill-advised. It’s an exercise in mediocre nutrition and often in mediocre enjoyment as well, since the flavor usually declines along with the nutritional value, at best; it’s a game of culinary Russian roulette, at worst. If an item is properly stored under optimum conditions, it might be okay to “push it” just a little, occasionally, but you should always do a visual examination and a “sniff” test, and use both your common sense and intuition to make the final determination, along with the maxim, “better safe than sorry” if there’s any significant doubt. Why take chances with your health? If the food has a funky or “off” odor, appearance, or texture, it’s best to toss it. Medical (or funeral) expenses are far more costly than replacing a spoiled item. Here’s a guide to 77 expiration dates, a chart with the shelf life of common foods, a table with the Shelf Life of Pantry Foods, and Good Housekeeping’s advice on the subject. If you plan to stock up on a particular perishable item, do a web search and study the storage and shelf life best practices beforehand, particularly from those who have first-hand experience (e.g. seasoned growers) as well as other authoritative sources. Don’t buy significantly more than your family is likely to eat of an item within its shelf life, even assuming perfectly disciplined rotation habits. If you do happen to over-buy (or your garden or orchard produces) more than you can consume and store, given your anticipated usage, make sure you barter, donate, or sell the excess ASAP, and definitely well before the expiration date is looming nigh. Also, don’t forget to make regular inspections, just as if you ran a restaurant and had an independent inspector; why not make an annual calendar item for your household food inspection in early autumn and perhaps another in the spring?
Having a simple, easy-to-follow process for both unloading store-bought groceries or bulk food items, either from one’s own kitchen, garden, grower’s market, or elsewhere is essential, as is having a simple, easy-to-follow process for using items for consumption from one’s inventory. Both “ends” of the process need to be addressed to make your food storage system work and keep it both viable and vibrant, in terms of the health benefits to your family. Remember to keep it simple and make sure everyone in the household (including guests) knows the process and is committed to following it; this shared willingness will make it work. A well-thought out AND implemented (that means ROUTINELY PRACTICED) rotation system will minimize waste.
With the proliferation of barcode scanning apps on smart phones, it would seem like there’s some great potential here for automating and optimizing home food inventory systems. Here are some examples that have varying capabilities, such as barcode scanning, nutritional and/or dietary analysis, integrated food inventory (specific items, food categories, quantity added, quantity on hand, quantity removed), location data (pantry, refrigerator, freezer), expiration warnings, etc. You could use Grocery Shopping List – out of milk; Rotation Diet Assistant; Fooducate – Healthy Weight Loss, Diet Tracker & Food Scanner; OurGroceries; Pantry Manager; Prep & Pantry; Fridge Pal; FreshBox; Best Before; GroceryHero; ShopWell – Healthy Diet & Grocery Food Scanner; Kezeen; Whaz in the fridge; and there’s undoubtedly many more and more to come. A quick google search while researching “home food inventory app” showed over 7.2 million results at the time this article was written.
For optimum longevity most foods, depending on the biochemistry of each particular item, have an optimum temperature range, humidity range, and usually do best with minimum oxygen, sunlight, and vermin. Here’s a rhetorical question: Do midnight snackers fall into the latter category? 🙂 Here’s an article that addresses these five parameters. Here are the FDA’s recommendations on Safely Storing Food, a related article: “Food Storage 101: Where and How Long to Keep Your Favorite Foods” and “7 Simple Rules for Effective and Hygienic Dry Goods Storage” from Food Safety Magazine. A quick summary of these rules are:
1) Rotation: Of course! Most foods don’t improve with age; keep ‘em rotated.
2) Temperature: 50 degrees (or cooler) is optimum for dry goods; the shelf life is cut in half by every 18°F (10° C) increase. This would recommend root cellars or other cool, dry locations, particularly in warm climates.
3) Humidity: 15% or less is ideal. Moisture impervious packaging can be helpful, too.
4) Sunlight: Avoid direct sunlight, which promotes oxidation and spoilage. This goes doubly for locating refrigerators and freezers, since refrigeration systems work harder to remove solar heat gain that could be avoided by analyzing seasonal sun patterns through windows, skylights, and so forth. If you have the luxury of designing (or remodeling) your home, don’t neglect this consideration, especially if you use an off-grid and/or alternative energy system to power your refrigerator and/or freezer. If you don’t have the aforementioned luxury, there are plenty of ways you can position furniture, close drapes and blinds, or make other changes on a seasonal and/or daily basis to minimize the direct sunlight that falls on freezers, fridges, and pantries. Here’s a related article on energy efficiency.
5) Store to reduce risk: If possible, store in the most interior spaces– those furthest away from exterior walls– to minimize heat, humidity, and exposure to infestations; those areas at least 6” off the floor, 2’ from the ceiling (to avoid hot spots), and 18” from external walls is recommended.
6) Vermin: Make doors and windows rodent- and insect-proof and keep them closed whenever possible. If culinary discipline is an issue with desserts and snacks intended for longer-term storage, putting them under lock and key might work for “human vermin”, but this only works if the key-holder(s) exercise restraint themselves! 🙂
7) Size: Pre-packaged foods (rather than bulk items) typically require significantly more space and have correspondingly greater impact on both your budget and the environment, due to the higher packaging to usable content ratio. Use smaller containers for actively used items in the fridge and pantry, and use larger containers for longer-term storage to optimize efficient use of space.
The impetus for this article arose recently when visiting a friend and discovering their food storage and water storage had been seriously compromised, rendering almost all of their garage-stored food and water useless, and in fact, potentially quite hazardous. It actually provided an optimum rodent sanctuary for several years! Water– hundreds of bottles for this home storage system– was stored in (mostly) plastic 1-liter soda bottles that rats had no problem gnawing through (their water problem solved), and other food stuffs (powdered milk, mashed potatoes, dried grains, etc.) stored in gnawed-through plastic 5-gallon storage bins provided their essential food reserves for what it was– evidently for several years– a burgeoning rat population and infestation. The remaining metal and glass containers of food, which otherwise might have been suitable containers, were heavily soiled with rodent feces and urine. These garage provisions were also mostly decades past safe expiration dates and, therefore, unsafe and completely unusable. The intention, naturally, was good, but the neglect for a disciplined inspection and rotation program turned what could have been a successful food and water storage program into a possible rodent-related disaster waiting to happen. Fortunately, the cause of the problem in this particular instance was addressed, the massive cleanup completed, and that particular hazard removed. Here is some advice about cleaning up after rodents.
Variety being the “spice of life”, don’t neglect another aspect of rotation– cuisine choices. This will obviously vary tremendously from person to person, family to family, and year to year, as tastes and dietary needs, family size, ages, and preferences change. There are plenty of other excellent articles on this site that address this issue, such as this one entitled Lessons Learned the Hard Way About Food Storage, so we’ll just mention this in passing.
Keeping items in plain sight helps usage and rotation; it allows you to quickly assess your inventory– what you have and what you need to restock. There are numerous approaches, gadgets, shelving systems, and more that can assist with your particular storage system. For example, there are “Lazy Susan” or carousel-type rotating shelves, often employed in more active usage areas, such as in kitchen cabinets and pantries rather than in longer-term storage locations. There are also full circle types, such as this example, and 3/4 circle types that allow doors to close when oriented properly, and corner drawers that roll out at 45 degrees to their neighbors. These latter types are commonly employed in corner cabinet areas that otherwise would have significant wasted space where it’s hard to reach. Here’s an example of a decorative pantry that maximizes storage and access and leaves space in the middle for the fridge, and more compact designs that optimize efficient use of space with movable shelves within a pantry.
For medium and longer storage durations, where you store more than a few items of a given size and shape container, there are a variety of systems available as well. Thrive Life has free-standing and shelf-by-shelf food-rotation systems in varying widths that provide loading and unloading from the same side, by loading cans (or other cylindrical containers) from the top and unloading (the oldest item) from the shelf immediately below that. For most pantries that don’t have the luxury of enough room to allow walking around to the back of the shelf (think grocery store refrigerated deli shelves with glass doors) this idea seems to offer practical advantages. Their “Cansolidator Pantry Plus” system is modular by shelf and could be added incrementally, if needed. If you have access on the sides of shelves but not necessarily from the back, here’s a slanted shelf system that might be a viable solution for some items and locations.
If you aren’t sure how old an item is, even the best food storage system isn’t going to work with rotation, and therefore won’t ensure that you’re using up the oldest item first, and getting the best economy by wasting the least amount of food.
You might want to consider using a date format that can’t be easily misinterpreted. For example, if you put 07-07-07, it’s a fairly safe guess that your can of whatever was marked on July 7, 2007 (unless it’s really ancient and is from 1907). However, it gets a bit less obvious if you use 01-05-12; is this from Jan 5, 2012, or Dec. 5, 2001, or some other date? I recommend using an unambiguous date system, such as an ISO 8601 European date format, (YYYY-MM-DD); it’s also Y3K-safe! 🙂 or perhaps better yet, a variation that uses a 3-letter abbreviation for the month, e.g. JAN, FEB … DEC. I use this for just about any place a date is needed. So when I write 24Jun2014 or 2014-Jun-24, either way, it’s not likely to be misunderstood. If you want to leave off the day of the month, then the format written as 2014-Jun, for example, gets you in the ballpark for when something was stored, without excessive detail. In any case, date and label the contents, if it’s not obvious what is inside, of every container. There are lessons one can learn and simplify from more industrial food storage systems, such as pre-printed labels and your home office computer and printer might suffice nicely for dating and labeling bulk items. Just make sure that label adhesives have good shelf life, too; otherwise, an indelible black marker might win out over the long haul.
In summary, keep in mind that there is a shelf life of specific foods, regardless of what you store, where and how you store it, so rotating it is just as important, and a little forethought and ongoing effort will pay handsomely for your food rotation system.