Are the Meals You Prep Safe to Eat?

In order to get healthy food on the table meal after meal, day after day, week after week, you need to manage your time wisely. Inevitably, there will be those days where a last-minute meeting, errand or that parent-teacher conference your kid completely forgot to remind you about get in the way of an evening spent whipping up a healthy dinner for you and your family. It's times like these where healthy meal prep comes in handy. Putting in the time to research and plan for healthy meals and then preparing them in advance can save you precious time during busy weeknights, leaving less time feeling frenzied—or worse waiting in the drive-thru line—and more time to enjoy with family and friends.

In addition to the prepping and cooking, though, it's also important to know how to pack and store food in the fridge or freezer, and how to defrost and reheat your weekly meals. There is also a lot of confusion as to how long foods can be in the fridge and freezer. After years of teaching food safety in universities and culinary schools and in releasing "The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook," I've learned that there are simple guidelines that many people simply forget that can potentially make you and your family sick.

Stick to these five tips and you'll be well on your way to creating meals while keeping loved ones both healthy and safe.

1. Store groceries immediately: Let’s start with the basics: You make a shopping list for your Sunday meal prep and head to the supermarket to purchase the necessary ingredients. Although you may be tempted to leave everything on the counter, all perishable items should go in the fridge. Perishable foods like milk, cheese, tofu, raw fish, and raw meat and poultry are the perfect place for disease-causing bacteria to grow. Instead of giving them the opportunity to flourish, slow them down by placing the food in the fridge the minute you walk in the door.

2.  Defrost meat safely: Although you may be tempted to defrost your meat on the countertop, you’re actually creating an environment where bacteria thrive. Plus, once the meat starts defrosting you can have a mighty messy countertop from all the juices dripping down. To defrost safely, move the frozen meat, poultry, and fish to the fridge the night before you plan to cook. If it’s still a little frozen before you need it, you can continue thawing under cool, running water in your sink.

3.  Cool food properly: Once the food has been cooked, it's important to get those meals you've prepped or any leftovers you plan to eat later into the refrigerator within two hours. To cool food properly, divide a large batch of soup or stew into small containers. Once the food is cooled a bit—I aim for about 70-degrees Fahrenheit—you can cover it and place in the fridge or freezer.

4. Store food for the proper length of time: Most food can be stored in the fridge for up to three to four days. Foods like fish are best stored for only up to three days. Salads tend to get soggy and the produce moldy, so those can be stored for up to three days as well. Parfaits and other such foods can also lose flavor over time so for the best flavor, enjoy within two days. Foods stored in the freezer can last up to two months if they were properly cooled and stored in a freezer-safe container. Label your food with the date it was packed so you can use it within that two-month time frame.

5. Reheat food properly: Food should be reheated to an internal temperature of 165-degrees Fahrenheit. You can reheat food in several ways: Foods like soups and stews can be reheated stovetop, or smaller, single-serve portions can be reheated in the microwave. Other foods like bread or baked goods can be reheated in the oven.

Prepping your meals is the best insurance against last-minute food mistakes that detail your ultimate goals. With these safety tips, you can be sure that your belly will be happy and full no matter what catastrophes threaten to ruin your routine.