How to Store Food in a Walk in Cooler

Congratulations! Your walk in cooler is up and running and your shelves are in place. It's time to store perishables inside your cooler.

You may be thinking "Oh, that's easy. Just throw everything in the walk in cooler any which way. As long as it's inside the cooler, all is good."

Not so fast, Speed Racer!

There's a right (and wrong) way to handle and store food in a walk in cooler.

→ Click here to download The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Walk-in Cooler in 2023

Follow these 3 steps when storing food in your cooler to help minimize waste, avoid foodborne outbreaks, and keep perishable items fresh and profitable:

  1. Avoid the Food Danger Zone
  2. Organize TCS Foods
  3. Follow the Walk in Cooler Storage Chart

Avoid the Food Danger Zone

As a small business owner in the foodservice industry, you understand how important online reviews are to your business's success.

An assortment of 5-star reviews builds the kind of trust that leads to a profitable business with never-ending lines of loyal patrons.

Conversely, a string of poor reviews creates the kind of doubt that can deliver a crushing blow to your business's earnings, or worse, put you out of business.

Avoiding foodborne outbreaks is a good way to steer clear of negative 1-star territory.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), leaving food out too long at room temperature can cause bacteria like Staphylococcus aureusSalmonella EnteritidisEscherichia coli O157:H7, and Campylobacter to grow to levels that cause foodborne illness.

Bacteria grows most rapidly between 40 °F and 140 °F. This is known as the Food Danger Zone.

food temperature danger zone

Maintaining the temperature of your perishables between 34 °F - 40 °F minimizes the possibility of bacteria growth, foodborne outbreaks, and 1-star reviews.

Most manufacturers include a thermometer attached to the inside of your walk in cooler door. We recommend you place a second thermometer towards the center of your cooler.

Check their temperatures periodically throughout the day and/or install a temperature alarm to monitor your cooler's temperature and alert you before it reaches dangerous levels.

🔥 Keep Hot Food Hot, Keep Cold Food Cold ❄️

These simple rules will help keep you out of the Food Temperature Danger Zone:

  • Don't leave food out of refrigeration for more than 2 hours; 1 hour if the temperature is above 90 °F

  • Keep cold food at or below 40 °F

  • Keep hot food at 140 °F or above

  • Store leftovers in shallow containers for quick cooling and refrigerate at 40 °F or below within 2 hours

Organize TCS Foods

Keep TCS foods separate from ready to eat foods to avoid cross-contamination.

TCS foods are foods that require Time and Temperature Control for Safety.

Examples include eggs, raw dairy, beef, pork, lamb, poultry, seafood, sliced fruits, cut tomatoes, cut leafy greens, cooked vegetables, potato dishes, and others.

tcs food

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) defines a ready to eat (RTE) food as "any food that is normally eaten in its raw state or any other food, including a processed food, for which it is reasonably foreseeable that the food will be eaten without further processing that would significantly minimize biological hazards".

Examples of ready to eat foods that aren't going to be cooked or cooked any further include dairy goods, whole produce and fruits, baked goods, and cold cut meats. 

ready to eat food
Food Storage Containers

According to the National Restaurant Association (the "other" NRA), there's no general rule for leaving TCS foods in their original shipping boxes, placing them in separate stainless steel containers, or storing them in NSF-certified clear plastic containers. 

While stainless steel containers and pans are considered more sterile, durable, and aesthetically-pleasing, clear plastic containers make it easy to identify its contents.

Always keep containers covered to avoid spillage. Lids are ideal, but you can use plastic wrap to cover open-top pans and containers if no lid is available.

Food Rotation Labels

food rotation labels

Identifying your containers with food rotation labels makes it easier to adhere to the First In First Out (FIFO) system.

FIFO is an inventory management system that prioritizes using food items before they move past their use-by dates. This system ensures food safety.

All containers stored inside your cooler should be clearly labeled with the following information:

  1. The product name (or item)
  2. The date and time it was prepared
  3. The use-by date (include calendar date and day sticker)
  4. The name of the person who prepared the item

Follow the Walk in Cooler Food Storage Chart

There's a right (and wrong) way to organize food on walk in cooler shelves.

Dedicating separate shelving units for ready to eat foods and TCS foods is ideal. However, space constraints may not allow you to organize this way.

Stocking a 5-rack shelf by cooking temperature with TCS foods requiring the highest cooking temperature on the bottom shelf and ready to eat foods on the top shelf is the most recommended solution.

This hierarchy prevents higher cooking temperature foods' purge from contaminating foods that will be cooked at lower temperatures.

walk in cooler food storage chart

Top Shelf

The top shelf is reserved for ready to eat (RTE) foods. Make sure to leave at least 12 inches between the top shelf and the ceiling.

2nd Shelf

The second shelf is reserved for fish, shellfish, crustaceans, and whole eggs to be cooked at 145 °F.

3rd Shelf 

The third shelf is reserved for whole cuts of beef, pork, lamb, and roasts to be cooked at 145 °F.

4th Shelf

The fourth shelf is reserved for foods cooked at 160 °F like ground meats, tenderized meats, and eggs to be hot held.

Bottom Shelf

The bottom shelf is reserved for foods requiring the highest cooking temperature (165 °F) like poultry, stuffing, casseroles, and leftovers. Make sure the bottom shelf is at least 6 inches above the floor.

Additional Pro Tips

Store meats, poultry, and dairy products in the back of your walk in cooler and produce like leafy greens towards the front, away from the evaporator coil, to prevent freezer burns.

When storing more of the same item, adhere to FIFO best practices by moving the oldest items to the front. The newest and freshest items go in the back.

Always leave 3 to 6 inches of space between items and walls to allow the cold air in your walk in cooler to circulate.

Start Collecting ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Reviews Today

Serving fresh food sets the foundation for collecting the 5-star online reviews you need to build trust, never-ending lines of loyal patrons, and a profitable business.

Buying the wrong walk in cooler can lead to waste, foodborne outbreaks, and the type of negative reviews that deliver a crushing blow to a business's success.

At Mr. Winter, we've been manufacturing walk in coolers and freezers to help restaurants, convenience stores, breweries, bakeries, ice creameries, flower shops, and many others keep perishables fresh and profitable since 1976.

When you buy a walk in cooler with us, you get:

  • A 10-yr warranty on panels and a 1-year warranty on refrigeration & hardware

  • Your walk in cooler delivered straight to its final location, ready to be assembled

  • To keep perishables fresh and profitable as early as next week

Find out which walk in cooler is right for you.

Talk to someone our sales team today and start keeping your valuable perishables fresh in as little as 2 weeks.

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At Mr. Winter, we are committed to ensuring anyone shopping for a walk in cooler is aware of all their options.

While we're confident that our walk in coolers are among the best in the industry, we compiled a list of the top walk in cooler manufacturers in the U.S. to provide a better understanding of the industry and help focus your search.

You can access the list in our next chapter - Top 12 Walk in Cooler Manufacturers.

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