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  • Writer's pictureJolanta Nowobilski

How to Properly Cool Your Foods for Meal Prep

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

One of the biggest threats to food safety isn't thought about often: cooling foods improperly. It is talked about more often in foodservice operations, but rarely for the home. In this article, I will be explaining why this is so important and how you can reduce food safety risks.


Ok, that intro seems kind of scary. Think about how often you or people you know eat raw cookie dough or lick cake batter off their fingers and aren't rushed to the hospital because of Salmonella or E. coli contamination. This isn't an endorsement for eating those foods, but rather to show that risks in food safety can be sneaky but aren't guaranteed. Just because there is a chance that you will get something doesn't mean you will get it, but you may want to find ways reduce those chances.

There are six factors that affect bacteria growth that are in a neat, little acronym of FAT TOM. They stand for Food, Acidity, Time, Temperature, Oxygen, and Moisture. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on only four of these aspects: Food, Time, Temperature, and Moisture.


There are certain foods that are more at risk for foodborne illness than others:

- milk and dairy products

- red meats (beef, pork, and lamb)

- fish

- poultry

- shellfish and crustaceans

- shell eggs

- baked potatoes

- heat-treated plant foods (such as cooked rice, beans, and vegetables)

- tofu or other soy protein (including meat alternatives)

- sprouts and sprout seeds

- sliced melons, cut tomatoes, cut leafy greens

- untreated garlic-and-oil mixtures

That's a long list! It is important to note these foods because you will want to keep them in the fridge or freezer, where bacterial growth is inhibited, if not eaten immediately after cooking. [1}

Time & Temperature

These two are kind of one in the same because they are dependent on each other in terms of bacterial growth.

With temperature, we like to call the optimum range for growth the "temperature danger zone" in the food industry. This range is from 41F to 135F (5C to 57C). Keeping food in the danger zone for a long time will promote bacterial growth. [1]

For the home, the FDA recommends the "2-Hour Rule". This means that you have two hours after cooking or buying your food to put it in the fridge or freezer. It becomes the "1-Hour Rule" if it is 90F or hotter outside.

Even though you have two hours, it's a good idea to put your food in the fridge or freezer as soon as safely possible. [2}


Another factor for preventing bacterial growth is moisture. This is important when cooling because if you let your food cool with a tight-fitting lid or plastic wrap, you are trapping a lot of hot air and moisture. The condensation inside these containers is a sign that your food will not cool in time to be safe. You can safely prevent other contaminants (like pests) by loosely covering your container so you don't trap the moisture and hot air. [1]

Size Does Matter

It is easier for your food to get out of the danger zone while cooling when they are in smaller and thinner portions.

Often, the issue with meal prep is when all of a sudden, someone puts all their 21+ piping hot single serving containers in their fridge or freezer all in one area all of a sudden, causing the temperature of their fridge or freezer to rise to an optimal range for bacterial growth. (By the way, by someone, I mean that someone has definitely been me before I took my college coursework).

There most likely will not be issues if you have one or two smaller containers of food that you just heated up.

Especially for bigger batches, like soups and stews, your best bet is to cool your food in other ways before you put it in the fridge or freezer. [1]

Safe Ways To Cool Down Your Food

Now, that we've explored the why, let's talk about some practical tips for cooling your food at home. These ways are faster than if you were to let your food sit out.

  1. Create an ice water bath

  2. Use a makeshift ice paddle (fill a water bottle with water and leave in freezer to stir around in your food)

  3. Add cold water or ice to soups and stews (will thin it out)

  4. For small batches, put in fridge immediately [1]


Ok, that was a lot of information so here's a good procedure to follow if you want to cool your foods in ways to prevent bacterial growth.

  1. Put your foods into the fridge or freezer as soon as safely possible, but up to 2 hours (or 1 hour if it's 90F outside).

  2. If you have a large batch of food to cool, consider finding other ways to cool it before putting in the fridge.

  3. Cover food container loosely if cooling outside of refrigerator.

  4. Consider putting a large batch of food into smaller portions before putting in fridge or freezer.

  5. Keep TCS foods in the refrigerator or freezer, if not eaten immediately.


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