Keeping a stocked refrigerator makes meal prep easy, but misinformation about how long foods stay safe to eat in the fridge can cause food waste and foodborne illness. Understanding expiration dates and how long it is safe to store foods can help keep your family safe, and your refrigerator stocked.
Shelf Life vs. Sell By Date
Understanding different terms related to food safety is important. Some states require expiration dates for meat and dairy, while others don’t require any expiration dates for any foods. The only exception to this is a federal law requiring dates on baby formula due to the nature of the product. Never use baby formula past its expiration date.
The shelf life of food means how long the food is at its best. Canned foods have an indefinite shelf life as long as the cans are in good condition without dents or rust. The sell-by date is when the store needs to sell or take the product off the shelf. Many foods are still good beyond the sell-by date. In many states, these foods can still be sold at a discount. In other states, the laws do not allow packaged or canned items to be sold after the sell-by date. If you live in a state that allows these items to be sold, it is best to purchase them only if you plan on using them right away.
The use-by date is when the product will have the best quality, including taste and texture. The manufacturers are letting consumers know that this product is of the best quality if used by this date and that after this date, the quality will quickly deteriorate.
Health Concerns and Food Poisoning
As a general rule, according to the FDA, all prepared packaged foods that are opened should not be in the refrigerator beyond seven days. This includes any leftovers, including pasta, salad, beans, rice, meats, and dairy. However, some foods may need to be thrown out before the seven days.
Perishable foods will develop bacteria much quicker than other foods. Consumers can usually just do a visual check and determine if the food is safe to eat. Checking for mold or unpleasant odors can clue you to whether the items are still safe to eat. But some foods don’t have any signs of spoilage, and since bacteria cannot be detected by the naked eye, consumers could actually eat these foods by accident.
Eating spoiled foods can make you sick. Food that is expired can contain dangerous bacteria and other toxins like Listeria, E.coli, Bacillus cereus, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, and Cholera, just to name a few. People who eat spoiled foods may develop diarrhea, vomiting, fever, chills, stomach cramps, and intense nausea.
It is important to understand food safety to help make the most of your groceries and keep your family from getting sick. Checking refrigerator guidelines and keeping track of when you purchased foods can help you.
When referring to freezer guidelines for products, this is only in relation to food quality, texture, and taste. Food can generally last indefinitely in the freezer; however, the quality will suffer.
When using a combination of refrigerator and freezer to store foods, you still need to refer to safety guidelines. For example, if you have leftover beef stew, which is good for four days in the refrigerator, and after two days, you put it in the freezer when it is defrosted, you only have two days to use it. Freezing foods essentially stops bacteria from growing but does not kill the bacteria already present.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are perishable foods and are easy to check for spoilage. If they are unsafe to eat, they will usually have mushy brown spots and visible mold.
Many consumers are unaware that fruits and vegetables should always be stored with similar items. For example, keep apples with apples and do not store broccoli with apples. Many fruits and vegetables give off gasses which can be harmful and cause other fruits and vegetables to go bad faster.
Do not wash fruits and vegetables before storing them as a general rule. This can lead to molding. However, the exception is leafy greens like lettuce and Swiss chard. Wash leafy greens, then dry in a paper towel before storing.
Berries are another exception to this rule. To keep berries fresh longer, wash them in vinegar water, about one part vinegar and three parts water. Then, dry them on paper towels and store them. The vinegar wash helps them stay fresh longer.
Onions and potatoes shouldn’t be kept in the refrigerator. They should be stored in a cool dark place and not in plastic bags.
Apples can be refrigerated but do not need to be. Instead, store them out of a plastic bag on the counter.
Citrus fruits, tomatoes, and avocados do not need to be stored in the refrigerator. Keeping them in the refrigerator can help them last longer only when they are past their peak.
- Apricots: 2 to 3 days
- Avocados: 3 to 4 days
- Asparagus: 3 to 4 days
- Beets: 7 to 10 days
- Bell Peppers: 4 to 5 days
- Berries: 4 to 5 days
- Broccoli: 3 to 5 days
- Brussels Sprouts: 3 to 5 days
- Cabbage: 1 to 2 weeks
- Carrots: 3 weeks
- Cauliflower: 3 to 5 days
- Celery: 1 to 2 weeks
- Cilantro: 7 days
- Corn: 1 to 2 days
- Cucumbers: 4 to 5 days
- Eggplant: 3 to 4 days
- Garlic: 1 to 2 weeks
- Ginger: 1 to 2 weeks
- Grapes: 1 week
- Green Beans: 3 to 4 days
- Spring Onions: 1 to 2 weeks
- Lettuce: 3 to 4 days
- Melons: 3 to 4 days
- Mushrooms: 2 to 3 days
- Okra: 2 to 3 days
- Onion: 2 months
- Orange Juice, Opened: 7 to 10 days
- Parsley: 7 days
- Peaches: 3 to 4 days
- Radishes: 10 to 14 days
- Rutabagas: 2 weeks
- Spinach: 1 to 2 days
- Tofu: 1 week
- Tomatoes: 2 to 3 days
- Turnips: 2 weeks
- Zucchini: 4 to 5 days
Eggs and Dairy
Sour milk and spoiled yogurt have a strong enough smell to indicate they are unsafe to eat. If in doubt, a quick smell test should let you know if they are still edible. Always store dairy products in their original packaging. If serving in a serving dish, do not return uneaten portions to the original container. Instead, cover with plastic wrap and store as usual.
- Eggs, Hard Boiled: 1 week
- Eggs, Raw: 3 to 5 weeks
- Egg Salad: 3 to 5 days
- Butter: 1 to 3 months
- Cottage Cheese: 1 week
- Cream Cheese: 2 weeks
- Half-and-Half: 3 to 4 days
- Hard Cheese Opened: 3 to 4 weeks
- Hard Cheese Unopened: 6 months
- Margarine: 6 months
- Milk: 1 week
- Processed Cheese Slices: 1 to 2 months
- Shredded Cheese: 1 month
- Sour Cream: 1 to 3 weeks
- Whipped Cream: 1 day
- Yogurt: 1 to 2 weeks
Meat and Poultry
Meats and poultry should always be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, generally in the back. Keep them in their original packaging as opening them exposes them to bacteria. If the packaging is bloodied, place a plate under them to not contaminate the rest of the items in the refrigerator. Pregnant women should be especially careful with lunch meats past their prime as they can have dangerous listeria bacteria.
- Bacon, Uncooked: 7 days
- Beef Roast, Steaks or Ribs, Uncooked: 3 to 5 days
- Chicken, Cooked (including rotisserie): 3 to 4 days
- Chicken, Uncooked: 1 to 2 days
- Ground Beef, Cooked: 3 to 4 days
- Ground Beef, Uncooked: 1 to 2 days
- Hot Dogs, Opened: 1 week
- Hot Dogs, Unopened: 2 weeks
- Lunch Meat, Opened: 3 to 5 days
- Lunch Meat, Unopened: 2 weeks
- Pork Roast, Uncooked: 3 to 5 days
- Sausage, Uncooked: 1 to 2 days
Fish and Seafood
Properly storing fresh fish can keep the fish longer in your refrigerator. The best way to store fresh fish, whether fresh from the market or fresh from your fishing pole, is to wash it in cold water and dry it with paper towels. Then, wrap in wax paper or aluminum foil and place in a single layer in a Ziploc bag. Ideally, you will want to place ice around the bag. The average refrigerator is not cold enough to safely store fresh fish, so adding ice can help keep the temperature lower and the fish fresh longer.
Uncooked live shellfish in their shell should be stored in a shallow pan without water with moist paper towels on top. Live lobsters and crabs need to be cooked the same day they are purchased.
- Fish, Cooked: 3 to 4 days
- Fish, Uncooked: 1 to 2 days
- Shrimp, Cooked: 3 to 4 days
- Shrimp, Uncooked: 1 to 2 days
- Mussels and clams Uncooked: 2-3 days
- Oysters: 7-8 days
Starches and Prepared Foods
Ideally, bread products should be left out of the refrigerator or kept in the freezer. Bread products become stale faster in the fridge. Because if they are in a cold place that is above freezing, 32 degrees, a process called recrystallization occurs, making them stale faster.
- Bagels: 1 to 2 weeks
- Bread: 1 to 2 weeks
- Broth: 1 to 2 days
- Cookies: 2 months
- Leftovers: 3 to 4 days
- Muffins: 1 week
- Pie: 3 to 4 days
- Rolls: 1 week
- Soup: 3 to 4 days
- Tortillas (Corn and Flour): 4 to 7 days
Condiments that contain dairy should not be stored in the refrigerator doors as it is the least cold part of the fridge. However, condiments with vinegar like pickles, olives, and sauerkraut are fine in the fridge door. Condiments with fresh fruits like jams, jellies, and chutneys should not be kept in the fridge door either.
- Barbecue Sauce: 4 months
- Chocolate Syrup: 6 months
- Frosting, Canned: 1 week
- Jams & Jellies: 6 months
- Ketchup: 6 months
- Maple Syrup: 12 months
- Mayo: 2 months
- Mustard: 12 months
- Olives: 2 weeks
- Pickles: 1 to 2 weeks
- Salad Dressing: 3 months
- Salsa: 1 month
Pet owners that give their pets wet or canned food should store the canned food in the refrigerator once it has been opened. If the animal has wet food in their dish that they haven’t eaten, it is safe to eat for around four hours. After that, bacteria can begin to grow on the food. It is best to throw out any uneaten wet food that remains in the dish longer than four hours to ensure the animal does not have diarrhea or vomiting.
Wet Cat Food: 5-7 days
Wet Dog Food: 5-7 days
Dry Cat/Dog Kibble Unopened: 1 year
Dry Cat/Dog Kibble Opened: 2 weeks
Helpful Tips for Food Storage
Keeping your refrigerator organized and cleaning it out every week can help you manage your food waste and prevent foodborne illness. Here are some other tips to keep food fresh longer.
- Containers: Using sealable containers can help food stay fresh longer in the refrigerator. Glass jars, plastic tubs, and reusable silicone pouches work well to preserve food.
- Label Makers: Keeping track of dates is easy with a label maker. Labeling foods with dates of purchase and dates opened can help busy families store food without the fear of spoilage.
- Fridge Thermometer: Investing in a separate fridge thermometer can help you ensure the refrigerator temperature is below 40 degrees.
- Store leftovers: Making sure to store leftovers within two hours of cooking is key. Using several small containers rather than one large one helps them cool faster to avoid bacteria growth.
- Never in Cans: Storing canned foods in their original cans in the fridge can leave foods with a metallic taste. Always remove foods from opened cans and store them in a new container.
- Always Follow FIFO Rule: Following the rule of first in, first out when storing products can help you use the oldest products first. When putting away groceries, always put the oldest products toward the front and the newer products toward the back. This is an easy rule to follow and can help ensure older products are always used first.
If there is something questionable in your refrigerator, follow food safety guidelines to make sure you and your family don’t get sick. Experts agree that consumers should follow the rule of, if in doubt, throw it out for maximum safety.