When cheese turns green and sprouts a fuzzy coat like a Chia Pet, you know it's time to toss it. But food spoilage signs aren't always that clear. As much as you love your favorite foods, keeping them past their prime can turn even the tastiest dishes toxic, warns nutritionist Edith Howard Hogan, R.D.L.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "It's easy to take adequate precautions to prevent food-borne illnesses, which are more common than people think." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that food-borne diseases cause about 76 million illnesses in the U.S. every year. Hogan provided this handy guide for knowing when to let go of your leftovers.
"It's difficult to give hard and fast rules for how long you can refrigerate things safely," says Hogan. "In the summer, when people constantly open and close the refrigerator door, food spoils more quickly." To help ensure that your food stays fresh, Hogan recommends keeping the refrigerator on a colder setting—between 34°F and 40°F. Put food in the refrigerator quickly to prevent the growth of bacteria; don't let leftovers sit out for more than two hours (hot dishes for more than one hour). Store foods in Ziploc bags or covered containers, and keep meat separate from vegetables to prevent cross-contamination. Then toss all edibles according to the following deadlines:
Cooked meats and casseroles: three to four days
Deli meats: sealed, five days; opened, three to five days
Cooked meat patties, gravy: one to two days
Uncooked ground meat, poultry: two days
Soup, stews: three to four days
Seafood: cooked, two days; raw, cook that day if possible, toss after three days
Cooked rice: one week
Cooked pasta: three to four days
Fresh vegetables: three to four days; greens, one to two days (unless you wash, bag, and store them in a closed drawer)
Cheese: three to five days
Eggs: in shell, three weeks; hard-boiled, one week
Milk: Follow the use-by date
Bottled foods: opened, one week
Salad dressing: closed, several months; opened, two months
Mayonnaise and ketchup: closed, several months; opened, two months. "Buy the smallest containers you can," suggests Hogan. "Once they're open, the flavor will change—and you may expose it to bacteria."
The Big Freeze
Simply put, says Hogan, keep your freezer at freezing—that's 0°F. Wrap food in plastic wrap and foil, or store in airtight Ziploc bags or sealed tubs with the date marked. Place new items in the back, and rotate existing food to the front to guarantee that you'll use them in a timely manner. Use leftovers before uncooked meat, if possible. And follow this timeline for tossing out freezer food.
Raw hamburger: three to four months
Raw chops: six to nine months
Raw steak: six months to one year
Raw chicken: one year
Bacon, sausage: one month
Frozen dinners: three to four months
Soups, casseroles, other leftovers: two to three months
Frozen vegetables: two months
Bread: one month
Dairy: one month
Canned foods: Follow the use-by date stamped on the top. Stored properly, most unopened canned foods keep for at least one year. If the top of a can is bulging, throw it out.
Boxes and bags: sealed, three months to one year; open, one week to three months. Store open products in airtight containers to extend their longevity and to prevent odor crossover and insect invasion.
Bottled foods: sealed, a few months; once opened, refrigerate.