A 3-Step Guide to the Best Food Storage Containers

Mixed food storage containers (meal prep containers, glass container, jar, tin box) with different colors on black background

No matter if you’re looking for pantry storage containers, a place to store leftovers or meal prep containers to bring your lunch to work. To find the best food storage containers, we guide you through three simple steps.

What Food Storage Containers Do You Need – And How Many!

First of all you have to know what food storage containers you really need. Actually you need neither particular plastic container sets, labelled meal prep containers nor glass storage containers or any other product. You need a storage solution for your particular use case!

So ask yourself: What do I primarily want to store? And: Do I want to carry it with me or keep it at home? Please read on at the appropriate section, or, if you know already, go on with the second step.

Meal Prep Containers

The main use case for meal preppers like us is the need to store our preparations, be it chopped raw veggies, salad dressings or a complete meal for the freezer. In this case you have multiple demands, also depending if you dish at home in the evening or want to carry your preps along to work.

  • Chef puts beans into a meal prep container for freezing
    Plastic containers are one possibility to store your preps.

    Raw prepared veggies and salads (without dressings) need to retain their moisture. A plastic container is fine, or a bowl / plate covered with a damp paper towel if you just keep them in the fridge.

  • Dressings and sauces (if it’s not suitable to mix them directly with your main dish at home) are best addressed with small and tightly sealing (no leakage) plastic containers. But still you need to be able to open them without much force, or you’ll spill everything around.
  • Cooked staples like pasta, rice or millet require containers of moderate size (in the fridge, you can keep it in the pot). Rectangular shaped containers are best to aid the organization of your containers. The lids should hold well (not fall of easily) when you carry a pound of cooked pasta with you, even if it’s without sauce. If it contains liquid, the lids should also seal tight.
  • Freezing meals is quite easy, since every quality plastic container is also freezable.

Taken together, you are well off with a set of plastic storage containers with lids that seal tight and hold well onto the container (if you are not dishing at home). So first of all, don’t re-use old margarine boxes, yoghurt pots and other thin and flexible containers that were designed for a different purpose.

A Container Set For Meal Prepping

You don’t need dozens – except you are prepping for a big family. A common pitfall is wanting to be prepared for every possible shape and amount of food you might ever encounter in your life. You are not doing yourself a favor.

A one person meal prep container set that gets you through the whole week and is still flexible to use could be:

  • 4 big containers (~5 cups) for your main dishes. (If you’re on a diet or generally not eating much, a 3-cup-volume may suffice).
  • 4 medium containers (~3 cups) for salads, other side dishes or smaller meals.
  • 2 small containers (1/2 to 1 cup) for dressings and sauces (wrap them in a plastic bag, just in case)

You will typically rarely use the small containers. And in case you really need more vessels with a small volume for other snacks, nuts etc., consider using small jars.

If You Dish At Home

Then you won’t need special containers. Keep your stuff in bowls and pots. If you need to seal a bowl or pot and have no fitting lid, there are really neat lids-only solutions available (affiliate link).

However, if it’s generally hard to find a free spot in your fridge, consider to store everything in rectangular containers anyway. In this case you should see if you find some with suitable dimensions in length, width and height.

Storing Fruits and Vegetables

On The Way

ripe bananas
Store them between hardcover books and pointy objects to get bananarama in your backpack 😉

Yes, there are banana shaped plastic boxes and similar stuff out there. That’s a waste of money and resources. Just don’t put the banana in the middle of a tightly packed backpack between sharp edged, rigid objects and your fine.

Of course fragile fruits and veggies like berries or ripe tomatoes need a container. Either use your meal prep containers, or reuse jars from bought spreads or pickles. That’s also an ecologic solution.

At Home

Fruits and vegetables start becoming stale from the moment of harvest. However, a low temperature slows down the degradation. So most important: Keep them cool.

Especially green leafy vegetables also require humid air, otherwise they desiccate quickly. Most fridges have a vegetable drawer, sometimes with moisture control. This is the best storage option.

Root veggies should be stored dark to prevent sprouting. If you have a cool and dry cellar, that’s also a suitable storage room. If it’s too damp, you’ll get a mold problem. A big cardbox or a basket is sufficient.

However the most import rule is: Don’t store ethylene sensitive fruits and vegetables together with ethylene producing (ethylene is the ripening agent in the plant realm). You find more detailed information on the storage of fruits and vegetables in our beautiful vegpins.

Pantry Storage

cupboard with filled glass food storage containers
A well sorted pantry is comfortable to use – and decorative

This means dry goods like grains, nuts, tea, spices or dried herbs. All of them should be kept dry to prevent mold and sealed to keep food moths away. If you have opened large bags of grain (also cereals), flour, rice, millet, nuts or seeds, you should seal them really tight or fill them into containers.

Big plastic containers with lids that seal tight are an inexpensive solution, as are ziploc bags. Also possible are tin boxes as well as glass storage containers, but they are more expensive and not needed in this case.

Opaque containers are needed for nuts and seeds to store them dark. Nuts and seeds contain a lot of light-sensitive unsaturated fatty acids that can go rancid faster when exposed to light. Also, keep them cool for the same reason.

The same goes for tea and herbs. UV-light can break down the organic molecules that are responsible for the smell and taste. Try to find a dark vessel like a tin box or tinged glass jar.

A Good Container Must…

…be rainbow colored and unicorn-shaped? That’s fine – if you need to store unicorns. But which criteria do we need to look at when we say “good”? They might weigh differently for each individual, but I’ll start with what I consider most important.

…Be Safe

Plastic Containers

I’ve written much about plastic storage containers for meal prepping. If you take your lunch to work, there is no real alternative for portable meal prep containers. Please consider that there can be health concerns, depending on how harsh you treat plastic.

danger symbols warning of BPA and PVC
Plastic may contain hazardous substances. Heat leaches them out into your food!

To make it short: Plastic can leach harmful additives, BPA being the most prominent. This is especially true at elevated temperatures and radiation exposure (microwaving). So even if a container is BPA free and claims being microwavable, I still would desist from putting any plastic dish into the microwave. It’s safer to just put your food into a glass dish or onto a dinner plate for microwaving.

You also need to be careful with hot dish washer programs. The combination of heat and moisture also tends to mobilize additives, leaching them out of the plastic. It’s better to use a lower temperature or wash by hand.

In general, if you buy containers that have such claims like “microwavable” or “dishwasher-safe”, you’re on the safer side, since these materials were at least designed and (supposedly) tested for these uses. If you additionally treat them with care, you don’t need to worry much.

Alternatives

Your best pick regarding safety are always glass dishes. Glass is a really inert material (as long as you don’t heat it above ~1000 °F; I bet your oven can’t 😉 ). The only risk is breakage – especially when the glass is exposed to rapid heating (boiling water into cool glass) or cooling (putting a hot baking dish on a cool surface).

Just for storage purposes, reuse jars of different sizes that you get from jam jars, spreads or pickles.

Tin boxes are also a safe option. Metal is an inert material as long as it doesn’t corrode. If a tin box gets rusty, line it with a paper or plastic bag to prevent rust getting onto your food.

…Be Environmentally Sustainable

No need to say that we live in a plastic world. Plastic is everywhere. Especially plastic packaging is a big ecological problem. So if you buy brand new plastic storage containers, be aware that someday they will be waste. Avoiding is better than recycling, so if alternatives are feasible to you, use them.

Glass is harmless. It requires more energy in the production, but the potential lifetime of glass is also much longer. And what is good for your health (the inert chemistry of glass) is in this case also good for the environment when it comes to disposal and recycling.

Metal cans and tin boxes are ecologically intermediate between plastic and glass. Their production requires way more energy than glass. Corroded metals are also not fully harmless when they end up on a landfill.

…Be Easy to Clean

That’s mainly an issue with plastic storage containers. There are containers that claim to be stain free, but if you put tomato sauce, curcuma, beets or other intensely coloring ingredients into the container, be assured it will stain sooner or later.

And What Is Now Best?

6-container set of Rubbermaid Premier, our best food storage containers
Rubbermaid Premier containers (affiliate link)

For those who carry around their prepped meals: Selectively pick a few plastic storage containers that seal tight like the Rubbermaid Premier Containers (with the gray lids). They have varieties with sizes of 5 cups, 3 cups and 1/2 cup (affiliate links).

The Premier variant is the one that has least claims of leakage among Amazon customers. The material “Tritan” is also one of the kind that stains later instead of sooner. Be aware that it’s necessarily a dense and brittle container. And not the cheapest. But, really, it looks like these are the best food storage containers for meal prepping.

For those who store their prepped meals at home to eat them in the evening: Don’t buy additional containers if you have enough pots and bowls (and enough space in your fridge). Or rather try to find jars of appropriate sizes than plastic containers.

At your next shopping tour, decide what to buy also depending on the size of the jar. If it’s a jar that suits your fridge well, maybe you can also get along with the content 😉

How to Organize Empty Food Storage Containers and Lids

unsorted plastic storage containers with lids (separate) spread on a stove
8-part puzzle for children and adults 🙂

This chapter is rather short if you read the above section about meal prep containers. Then you will already only have 3 different sizes of containers. And for each size you have only identical containers, so the lids are interchangeable.

If you still have a huge amount of different food storage containers around and need tips how to organize them, here’s how to do it:

  • Take your time for stocktaking. Spread the containers before you. Then puzzle each lid to the right container.
  • Examine every container/lid pair. If it’s in a bad condition, throw it away.
  • Take a permanent marker and number each remaining container/lid pair. Lid “1” fits container “1” and so on. (If you have groups of identical containers, give each one the same number.)
  • Test the containers. Fill each one with water and close it. Does it seal tight? If not, mark with an additional “L” for leakage.

Congratulations, you’ve done the crucial part of the work! Every new container you will get can be integrated into this system. If a previously non-leaking container starts to leak someday, add the “L”. You can still use them for dry contents.

Now it’s up to you where you store them. I advise splitting them into two groups, one of which you think you might need more often, and one for rare occasions. Of course, which container you assign to which group may change over time if your habits change.