Professional kitchens and retailers live by the acronym FIFO - First In, First Out. The pros know that there is no simpler way to keep track of their food storage.
FIFO simply means that you use your oldest stored foods first. The first foods to come into your kitchen should be the first ones to go out of it through use. By using the FIFO system in your own kitchen, you can easily keep track of what you have and how fresh everything is.
First In, First Out is a simple concept, but how can you apply it in your own kitchen? By using the same tricks the professionals use every day, you can keep track of your food storage almost effortlessly. Rotating your supplies, dating your foods, and regularly checking your storage will make sure that the first foods you buy are the first ones you take out of your cupboard when it’s time to cook.
The techniques that I learned to manage a professional kitchen are the same ones I use every day in my own home. Whether you’re storing food for three people or three hundred, these simple tricks will help you stay more organized and know exactly what’s in your pantry.
How to Rotate Food in Your Pantry
The next time you’re in the grocery store, pay attention to employees that are restocking the shelves. Whether they’re working in the produce section or with canned goods, they always put new items behind the things that are already on display.
This is called rotating stock. This ensures that the items in front, the first ones customers like you and I reach for, are the oldest. Rotating stock is the number one way that grocery stores follow the principle of FIFO.
You can take the same idea home and apply it to your pantry, refrigerator, and freezer. Keeping track of your food storage starts with how you take care of things as soon as you get them.
If you’re like me, the last thing you want to do after a trip to the grocery store is spend even more time putting everything away. You want it done as quickly as possible so you can move on to your next task. But rotating the items in your pantry barely takes any extra time at all.
The next time you take care of your groceries, just take an extra minute to put the new items in the back. Pull what’s already in your pantry and fridge forward and tuck what you just brought into the house behind it.
When you use those items, take them from the front. This way, you know you’re using up the older items first without having to take the time to check every label. The extra couple of minutes you spend taking care of things when you buy them will save you a lot of time and uncertainty later!
Keep Track of When Food Was Made
We’ve all had the experience of pulling something out of the fridge and not being entirely sure if it’s still good to eat. Whether it’s the pack of meat you meant to cook for dinner or the leftover takeout you ordered instead, sometimes you just can’t remember quite how long you’ve had something.
Packaged foods have clear use by dates printed on them, but how do you keep track of food that doesn’t come with a barcode? The simplest way to organize things like the pros is to put dates on your food.
In every kitchen I’ve worked in, writing a date on perishable foods was a requirement. Part of my job as a manager was to make sure that everything that went into the refrigerators had a date on it, even if we were planning on pulling it back out for use just a couple of hours later.
The reason I was so strict about writing dates on food was because we didn’t always end up using things when we thought we would. Just like that package of chicken that you meant to cook for dinner but forgot about, sometimes plans changed.
Putting dates on everything made sure that we didn’t use ingredients that were no longer fresh. It also meant that when there was more than one container of something we could follow FIFO every time.
The easiest way to write a date on almost anything was to keep a permanent marker on hand. When you’re wrapping something in plastic wrap or using a disposable storage container, it’s easy to write the date on it before you put it away.
You don’t want to ruin your reusable containers with a black marker, though. Stickers not only let you reuse your storage, but they also make it even easier to read the dates on your food.
I use pre-printed stickers to keep my food storage uniform and organized. These are easy to make at home with blank mailing labels and give you room to write both the date and the name of the item.
If you run out of labels or just don’t have the time to print your own, a simple piece of tape is an easy solution. Either way, it’s easy to remove your label when you wash the container so you can reuse it later.
Getting in the habit of putting a date on everything in your refrigerator and freezer takes the guesswork out of tracking your food storage. Whether it’s a complete meal or basic ingredients, you know you’re getting fresh food and using older items first.
Do a Regular Inventory of Your Food Storage
In spite of all the stock rotation and dated labels, every professional kitchen ends up getting a bit disorganized over time. Just like at home, when people are in a hurry or tired they don’t always put things away perfectly or keep track of everything they should.
That’s why one of the most important parts of a chef’s job is managing inventory. The best professional kitchens keep detailed records of what they order, what they use, and what they have in storage.
You probably already do this to some extent in your own life. Before you take a trip to the grocery store or place an order to be delivered, you check to see how much of your most commonly-used items you already have on hand.
The secret to keeping track of your food storage like a pro, though, is to take what you’re already doing to the next level. Making inventory a part of your routine will ensure that you’re always on top of your supplies and your needs.
On top of the quick check I do before my weekly shopping, about once a month I do a more thorough check of my food storage. This is part of my basic housekeeping routine, just like washing the windows or checking the smoke alarms.
A thorough inventory means more than just rummaging through the pantry to add to the grocery list. It’s the time when I take stock of everything I have and how well it’s organized.
I pull everything out of my pantry, freezer, and refrigerator. I set everything out on the counters and table in the order that I removed it to maintain my FIFO organization.
While the shelves are empty, I take the opportunity to wipe up any spills and clean off the dust. Then, I get to work doing a full inventory of my food supplies.
With everything out of the cupboards and clearly visible, it’s easy to see what might be running low or what I’ve accidentally bought too much of. I can plan meals and make my shopping list more accurately.
Doing this kind of inventory is also a good time to check expiration dates and make sure that no packaging has been torn or broken over the last month. I never have to worry about food being out of date because I check this every month when I do my inventory.
Once everything is checked over and any out of date items are disposed of it can all be put away again. Pulling everything out for this monthly inventory means that it can all be neatly organized when it’s put back.
This type of inventory helps you keep track of things you use often, but it can be helpful even with food supplies that you don’t go through as often. Pulling out emergency supplies on a regular basis gives you a chance to keep your shelves clean, check expiration dates, and refresh your memory of what you have in stock.
About THE AUTHOR
I have over a decade of experience in food and beverage management, including a ServSafe food safety qualification. As part of this qualification, I have been professionally trained in safe food storage.Read More About Mark Walker