Prevent waste, keep foods fresh and protect against food-borne illnesses by avoiding these top food storage mistakes.

Did the strawberries you bought on sale go bad (again) before you could use them all? And the party package of chicken breasts you remembered to freeze before its use-by date: Is it now covered with undesirable ice crystals?

Despite our best efforts to ‘waste not, want not’, we still throw out a lot of food. In fact, a typical North American family throws out up to a third of the food they buy at the grocery store, costing consumers thousands of dollars each year.

One way to prevent waste, keep foods fresher longer and protect against food-borne illnesses is to practice better habits when it comes to storing food. Here are some of the most common food storage mistakes, according to Consumer Reports.

Mistake #1: Sloppy Wrapping

If food isn’t wrapped properly air and moisture — food’s worst enemies — can seep in and cause food to spoil more quickly.

The Fix: When storing your food, be sure all lids and caps are on tight. If you’re using a resealable bag, squeeze out as much air as possible and make sure the bag is properly sealed. When wrapping food in foil or freezer wrap, overlap the seams and tape down the ends to form a tight package. If your plastic wrap doesn’t cling well to a plastic, ceramic or metal bowl, secure it with a rubber band.

Mistake #2: Not Removing Store Wrap

It may look like the original plastic wrap is secured tightly, but there could be holes you can’t see or a slightly lose flap that exposes food to air.

The Fix: Rewrap any meat, poultry, and cold cuts that come in flimsy wrapping, especially if you’ll be storing them a few days before using them. Before freezing, remove meats from foam trays and clingy wrap and place them in resealable freezer bags and/or wrap tightly in heavy-duty foil or freezer paper.

Mistake #3: Storing in Oversized Containers

Leaving too much space at the top of the container can speed up spoilage and freezer burn.

The Fix: Match the size of your container as closely as possible to the contents. There should be a minimum amount of ‘headroom’, or air, between the food and the lid. The same rule also applies to plastic bags. (Note: If you’re storing sauce or soup, be sure to keep a small amount of room at the top of the container for expansion of the liquid.)

Mistake #4: Incorrect Fridge Temperature

Even a few degrees can make a big difference to food spoilage if your refrigerator or freezer temperatures are too warm. Signs your temperatures might be off? Look for soft ice cream or milk that sours before the sell-by date.

The Fix: Keep the fridge set at 4ºC (40ºF) or lower, and the freezer at -18°C (0°F) or below. To verify your temperatures are at appropriate levels, use a thermometer to check each compartment.

Mistake #5: Storing Wrong Foods in the Fridge Door

Fridge-door compartments can be 3 to 5 degrees warmer than the shelves inside, causing food stored there to spoil faster.

The Fix: Keep perishables such as eggs, milk, and fresh deli condiments like salsa and pesto in the back of the fridge, where it’s colder. Hardier foods such as mustard, relish, and ketchup can be stored on the door.

Mistake #6: Refrigerating Hot Leftovers

If you place piping hot food in the fridge, it can warm the food around it and increase the rate of bacterial growth.

The Fix: It’s best to allow hot foods to cool before refrigerating. So what to do with that big pot of soup or chili? Plunge it into a sink filled with ice water — or transfer to smaller containers. To prevent bacteria growth, however, be sure to get leftovers into the fridge within two hours.

Mistake #7: Relying on the Sniff Test

A bad odour can indeed be an indication that a food has spoiled – but food that doesn’t smell can still make you sick. Foods that are contaminated with Listeria, for example, look, smell and taste normal.

The Fix: Pay close attention to ‘use-by’ or ‘best-before’ dates on packaging. A few general rules: An opened package of luncheon meat can be safely stored in the fridge three to five days. (Once a package is opened the best-before date no longer applies.) Deli or homemade egg, chicken, ham, tuna or pasta salads can also be stored safely for 3-5 days. Cooked or uncooked fish needs to be tossed after only one to two days, and the same goes for uncooked ground beef and fresh sausage.

You can also check for spoilage by looking for a change in food colour or texture. When it comes to cold cuts and meats, the general rule is if it feels slimy, throw it out.

Mistake #8: Losing Track of Leftovers

If you eat leftovers that have been stored in the fridge for too long, you could be eating spoiled food.

The Fix: Label and date your containers so you’ll know when to throw out what’s in them. Leftovers should not be kept in the fridge for more than 3-4 days. Take inventory regularly, and that goes for your frozen items too. What to do about freezer burn? It doesn’t mean that food has spoiled, but that it has dried out and probably won’t taste good. If the ice crystals have affected only part of the food, you can cut it off either before or after cooking — but heavily freezer-burned foods probably have to be discarded for reasons of quality. And if you notice that a package has accidentally been opened or torn while in the freezer, the food is still safe to use — you just need to rewrap it.

Mistake #9: Not Repackaging Large Quantities of Food

You may have gotten a great deal on that club pack of steak, but if it goes bad before you can use it, you’re throwing money away.

The Fix: Repackage food into meal-size packages and freeze what you can’t use immediately. (This is especially true for poultry and meats that, generally, should be eaten within one to two days.) Other items that can be frozen include most fruits, some vegetables, bread, nuts, whole grains, butter, and even flour.

Mistake #10: Reusing Inappropriate Food Containers

Plastic take-out cartons, margarine tubs, or yogurt containers may not hold up to wear and tear or freezer temperatures. And when it comes time to reheating leftovers, plastic containers may not be safe in microwaves since the plastic can migrate into the food.

The Fix: When heating food in a microwave, only use microwave-safe cookware. Also, if you’re recycling plastic take-out cartons or food containers to store pantry items, watch for any wear and tear that can let in air and moisture and allow food to spoil.