Every time I use a food storage container, I'm reminded of how hard they can be to clean. When I reach for one to pack up leftovers or store my meal prep in, I'm confronted by the stains (and sometimes even smells) of meals past. Even if I give the container another quick scrub with a sponge and soap, it's usually not enough to return it to its original, pristine state. And no matter what I'm using, whether it's a plastic sandwich box or a metal soup container, I always seem to have the same problem. What gives?
According to Kirsten Horton, creator of the home and cleaning blog Organized Charm, there are a couple reasons why my food storage containers are in such a state. "[Food storage] absorbs bad smells and stains because it is mostly made of plastic, and plastic is porous," she explains. Because of its porousness, plastic becomes even more vulnerable to stains and odors when heated, which is why you should generally avoid microwaving plastic food storage units or transferring hot food directly into them. Instead, give the food time to cool before you pack it up, and transfer it to a microwave-safe dish before you heat it up. Though they aren't as susceptible to stains, smells cling to metal containers in a similar way, she says, especially when they've been sealed for extended periods of time.
Here, you'll find everything you need to know to prevent your food storage containers from a stinky, stained fate. From the best ways to store them, to exactly how they should be cleaned, these are all the tips and tricks popular cleaning bloggers swear by.
To keep them from getting stained, try lining plastic storage containers with tinfoil, parchment, or wax paper before you add food.
This trick is something Horton learned while working at a restaurant in college. She says they'd do it to keep the food fresher in their to-go boxes, but that it also totally works for plastic food containers. Whatever you use, it'll serve as buffer between the plastic and the food, keeping the container safe from smells and odors and making the cleanup process a breeze. Try re-using whatever you use to make this more eco-friendly.
One thing to keep in mind: You might want to avoid packing anything with tomatoes or tomato sauce over tin-foil, because the acid in tomatoes might react with the metal and create a weird flavor. It's not unsafe, but it is unpleasant, and it also happens to be the same reason you're not supposed to cook tomatoes in a cast-iron skillet. The more you know!
Always clean your containers as soon as you can, whether they be plastic or metal.
Becky Rapinchuck, home-keeping expert and creator of the cleaning blog Clean Mama, tells SELF that one of the best ways to prevent stains on plastic food storage—aside from keeping it away from heat—is to wash it immediately after you finish using it. The longer it spends time mingling with your saucy, stinky food, the more time it has to become saucy and stinky itself. This is true for metal containers, too, she says. Basically, the sooner you wash your food storage containers, the longer they will keep their integrity.
When washing plastic food storage in a dishwasher, be sure to keep it on the top shelf.
Rapinchuck says that if you place plastic food storage on the second, bottom shelf of your dishwasher, it may melt or become warped because of its proximity to the machine's heating element. The moral of story? Always keep it on the top shelf.
If your containers are already stained and stinky, try some of these tricks.
Horton says that she always relies on a simple mixture of bleach and lemon juice to get stains and smells out. To start, you need just a bit of the two (about a tablespoon each per container). Then, dilute it with water, and let your containers soak for five to 10 minutes. Finally, soap and rinse them one more time, dry them off, and pack them up. The smells and stains should be gone in no time.
Alternatively, Horton says you can simply wipe down clean containers with a bit of lemon rind. While this trick won't remove stains, she says it "will help absorb the bad smell and leave your containers smelling a little fresher."
When in doubt, baking soda and vinegar is always a great option.
Soaking food containers in baking soda and rinsing them in vinegar is a trick I saw recommend all around the web, and while Horton hasn't personally tried it out, she says she doesn't see why it wouldn't work. "Those two things seem to work for everything else, so why not try them?," she says. To do it, simply rinse your container with water to remove any food, coat it in baking soda, let it sit for five to 10 minutes, rinse it with vinegar, and say bye to those stains and smells.
When washing any food containers made of metal, avoid using sponges.
Whenever I've used a sponge to wash a metal food container, whether it was a S'well water bottle or a soup carrier, I've noticed that any stinky smells from the sponge cling to the metal like a magnet. That's why Horton says you should avoid using a sponge in these cases. Instead, fill metal containers with a mix of hot water and soap, then seal and shake them until they're sufficiently clean.
And always leave them open to air-dry to prevent a mildewy odor.
When it comes to metal containers, Horton says they can get damp and musky in a really gross way if you put the lid back on before they've had a chance to properly dry. It may take awhile for them to dry completely (anywhere from a few hours to overnight), but it's worth the wait to prevent the stink.
Horton says another good way to ensure that mildew odor never forms on your metal containers is to wash them once every week, even if you only use them for water. The more often you clean them, the longer they'll last.
As for glass food storage containers, cleaning them is no different from cleaning other glass kitchen things.
Wash these containers as you normally would, says Horton, with warm water and soap or in a dishwasher. If the one you're using has a plastic lid, use the previous tips to ensure those don't wind up stinky or stained.
There are also a couple ways to keep food storage containers fresh in your cabinet.
According to Horton, the easiest way to keep food storage containers fresh while they bide their time in your cabinet is to store them with a box of open baking soda. Even though it seems super basic, she says it really works! You can also try storing each individual container with a pinch of salt (which will help remove any flavors or smells that might still be there), or by lining them in newspaper to keep them from absorbing any new smells. With these tricks, your food storage containers will always be fresh and ready to go—because tomorrow's lunch should never taste like dinner from last week.