Save or Toss: Shelf Life of Common Foods

by in Food Safety, April 1, 2011

stocked refrigerator

The time for spring cleaning has arrived — this includes your refrigerator, freezer and pantry! Confused on what should stay and what should go? We’ll tell you how long you can keep foods and when it’s time to toss them.

Food Label Terms
People ask me a lot,  “How long after the “use by” date is it safe to eat the food?” With all the label lingo, it’s no wonder folks aren’t sure what to do. Here’s a breakdown of some common terms:

  • Sell-By: This date tells the store how long the food can be displayed for sale. Buy it before that date.
  • Best if Used By (or Before): For the best quality and flavor of the product, you should buy it before the recommended date. Don’t use this date as a purchase or food safety date.
  • Use By: The date shown is the last day to use this product to for the highest quality. This date is determined by the manufacturer.
  • Guaranteed Fresh Date: Typically used for bakery items, the foods will be at their peak freshness until the date listed.

An interesting fact: You don’t have to toss the food if it’s passed these dates. As long as you’re storing the food at proper temperatures (use a thermometer to check), then it should be safe to eat even if you passed the ‘sell by’ date by a few days. If the food has a funky odor, appearance or texture, toss it. Most food-borne illnesses occur because folks mishandle food — think leaving hamburgers in the sun at a picnic all day long.

Storage Life
So how long should you hold onto foods? It depends on the food. Here are some guidelines for your fridge, freezer and pantry.

  • Milk: Good for a week after “sell by” date. If you notice off odors, colors or textures, discard.
  • Eggs: If you purchased before the “sell by” date, you have 3 to 5 weeks from the time you brought them home assuming you refrigerate them at the proper temperature. To keep eggs fresh longer, store them in the coldest part of your fridge (not the door)!
  • Poultry and seafood: Freeze immediately or cook within 1 to 2 days.
  • Beef and pork: Freeze immediately or cook within 3 to 5 days.

To check on specific foods, here’s a cold storage chart for items found in the refrigerator, freezer and pantry.

Specific Foods
We wanted to set the record straight for these 4 frequently-asked-about foods. Do you need to toss anything in your kitchen?

#1 Deli Meat
If you’re buying deli meats in a sealed package, you have 2 weeks to use if refrigerated properly. Use open or freshly-sliced deli meats within 3 to 5 days.

#2 Ultra High Temperature Milk
Milk packaged in boxes and sold on store shelves doesn’t need refrigeration — as long as they’re unopened. Once opened, they must be refrigerated and can be held for up to 7 days. This also goes for milk alternatives like soy, rice, almond and hemp milk.

#3 Canned Goods
Store canned goods in a cool, dry location (so not under the sink or near the oven.) Discard if you find rust, bulges, dents or leaks. As a general rule, canned goods can be stored for up to 12 months. Once opened, they should be removed from the can and placed in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

#4 Eggs
Eggs last a long time in the fridge, but if you can’t eat all the eggs before they expire, then you can actually freeze them (but not in their shells.) In a bowl, crack and beat whole eggs, pour into freezer-safe container, seal and label with date. They’re good for up to one year.

TELL US: What food storage questions do you have?

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby’s full bio »

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