This is no time to let good food go bad.
Food storage becomes all the more important in a tight economy. If you don't pack items properly, the result is spoiled food.
So grab a marker and some tape (to date and label your food containers), and check your refrigerator and freezer temperatures. (The fridge should be 40 degrees or colder, while the freezer should be at zero degrees).
After that, follow these guidelines:
Dairy and eggs
Try not to consume eggs beyond the expiration date on the carton. Store whole eggs in their carton in the refrigerator; do not freeze. Organic Valley Family of Farms, a dairy cooperative based in LaFarge, Wisc., says the best way to check whether an egg is bad is to crack it into a bowl and sniff it. A fresh egg should have no odor.
If your refrigerator has one of those built-in racks in the door, skip it. The eggs get jostled every time the door is opened and closed and they're exposed to temperature fluctuations. Both of those can shorten the shelf life and quality.
In your refrigerator, try to find a place that has a steady, cold temperature. Some refrigerators can have cold spots, especially on the very top shelf, where the eggs can freeze.
Keep the eggs in a closed carton, away from smelly things such as unwrapped cut onions. Eggs can absorb off-tastes through the shell, another good reason to keep them in the carton.
When storing dairy products, consult the "Cold Storage Chart" at www.foodsafety. gov. It lists appropriate refrigerator and freezer storage times for different cheeses, creams, milk, butter and margarine.
Though the chart advises shoppers to freeze milk for up to three months, some dairies don't recommend freezing liquids. That's because the texture of milk, half-and-half and cream can change after freezing, says Mike Spencer, a consumer relations representative for Organic Valley Family of Farms.
Liquid products with a higher fat content, such as heavy cream, are especially prone to this problem, Spencer says.
"Heavy cream does get lumpy, and it will not go back into whipped form," he says. To freeze heavy cream, he advises whipping it, then spoon dollops of the whipped cream onto wax paper. Freeze the dollops, then wrap them in a zipper-lock plastic bag. Defrost and use as needed.
Defrost dairy products in the refrigerator.
Flours and baked goods
Bakers who stockpile flour should transfer it to airtight containers.
Other storage tips depend on the type of grain. In their original state, grains have three components: the bran, germ and endosperm.
When making refined grains, such as all-purpose flour, the bran and the germ are removed, resulting in a shelf-stable product.
Store refined grains in the pantry, but add a dried bay leaf to the airtight container.
"It will discourage insects without imparting any flavor," says Allison Furbish, a spokeswoman for the King Arthur Flour Co.
In cool and dry conditions, refined flours will last indefinitely.
Whole-grain flours, such as whole-wheat flour, are not shelf stable.
They "include the oily germ," Furbish writes. " ... When that is ruptured it oxidizes, or slowly becomes rancid."
Keep the airtight container of whole-grain flour in the refrigerator for about six months. Or freeze it to keep the flour several months longer, Furbish writes.
Once you've finished your baking projects, it's best to eat them quickly. Left too long at room temperature, some products turn dry.
But if left in the refrigerator for too long, some can turn moist, says Patrick Bourrel, owner of La Boulangerie in Fresno.
Because there are so many different types of baked goods, it's hard to offer general guidelines, Bourrel says.
Keep shelf-stable foods, such as sugar cookies, stored in a box in a cool, dry place. Eat them within about three days for optimal quality.
Perishable pastries and cakes, such as ones with custards and buttercream frosting, should be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, then kept in the refrigerator for several days.
And well-wrapped, low-fat breads will keep for about two weeks in the freezer, while high-fat items, such as brioche, can keep up to a month or so, Bourrel says.
To thaw, place them in the refrigerator or on the kitchen counter.
And be sure not to re-freeze them.
Storage tips differ according to the type of fruit or vegetable.
Ask your grocer for the best methods. Also consult books that contain vegetable buying guides with specialized advice.
Buy good-quality products.
Beef should look red, while pork should be pink. Avoid packages with brownish products.
Poultry should have no tears in its skin and no discoloration.
And avoid any package with meat or poultry sitting in a pool of blood.
To keep meat, follow the guidelines from www.food safety.gov's storage chart.
Refrigerated meat and poultry should be stored in its original packaging; to avoid drips, place the food on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator in a glass bowl.
To defrost frozen meat, it's best to let it thaw out slowly in the refrigerator.
But if you need a quick method, the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggests putting the meat in an airtight plastic bag, and covering it in cold water.
Change the water every 30 minutes until the meat is thawed.
According to the cold storage chart at www.foodsafety.gov, lean fish (such as cod, flounder, haddock, and sole) will keep in the freezer for six months, while fatty fish (such as bluefish, mackerel and salmon) will keep for only two to three months.
As for shellfish, the shrimp available locally is mostly frozen, says James Lanter general manager of Central Fish in Fresno.
Like meat, the best way to thaw seafood is in its original packaging in the refrigerator.
Cooked, perishable food
Since bacteria thrives between 40-140 degrees, cooked food should be refrigerated within two hours, the USDA advises.
That doesn't mean you should place a large pot of steaming food directly into the refrigerator or freezer, says Bruce Staebler, a certified executive chef and former head of the kitchen at Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno.
Instead, spread the food onto a shallow pan to help it cool faster.
Refrigerate after the steam disperses.
To freeze, transfer cooled food to smaller containers. Label the containers with the date and contents, then store and eat within three to six months (or sooner, if a recipe tells you to).
Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator. But if you're in a pinch, thaw a container under cold, running water, Staebler says.
Once you've thawed the food, eat it within three days for optimum safety. The same goes for refrigerated leftovers.
Kathleen purvis of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this report.