The Surprising Guide To the Real Shelf Life of Refrigerated Food

October 28, 2015

In cities like Los Angeles or San Francisco, that dream apartment or incredible house for rent might come with one caveat: there’s a gaping hole in the kitchen where a refrigerator should be.

No fridge? Big problem. But some states—such as California—don’t require landlords to provide the appliance, since this amenity goes through so much wear and tear that it almost always needs to be replaced after each renter moves out.

That heavy, impenetrable, airtight door keeps wasted food more or less out of sight and out of mind. It can be easy to forget that there’s a month-old container of spaghetti lodged in the back corner of the fridge, until one fateful night when the midnight munchies summon us to poke our head into the old icebox for a closer look at what’s available to eat. Sometimes, what we end up reaching for isn’t so pretty.

According to the USDA, most leftovers can be left in the fridge for three to four days. This includes veggie and meat dishes that were home-cooked as well as take-out and brown-bag leftovers. The same length of time applies to opened canned food like tuna, as well as lunch meat. Bacon, however, has a refrigerator shelf life of about seven days once the package has been opened.

For fresh produce, use this guide that lays out all the fruits and vegetables that should be stored in the fridge, and for how long. For example, lettuce should be eaten within three to five days, while carrots can last up to six weeks.

Like produce, the shelf life of your favorite condiments is pretty varied. According to Consumer Reports, a six-month shelf life in the fridge applies to ketchup, jams, and jellies. Mustard and Worcestershire sauce are good for up to one year, while barbecue sauce lasts about four months. A CBS report recommended that mayonnaise be kept for up to two months, but use the look, smell, and taste of condiments to make a judgment call on when it’s time to toss them.

As mind blowing as it sounds, eggs can be good up to five weeks after the “expiration date” on the carton. (To tell if uncooked eggs in the shell are still good to use, check out these pro tips.)

The National Resources Defense Council found that 91 percent of American consumers have admitted to discarding food based on the “sell by” date, because of food safety concerns. The truth is, both “sell by” and “best by” dates are arbitrary—they are best guesses by manufacturers as to when food reaches its peak quality, and often has little to do with how safe they are to consume. These dates are not even required by law on any products aside from infant formula. So, don’t be so ruled by these expiration dates. Let your eyes and nose be the judge whether or not food has gone bad—you’ll definitely know it when you see or smell it.

The importance of keeping a refrigerator clean and clutter-free is a given, but there’s an even deeper problem here. According to the NRDC, the average American throws away about 20 pounds of food each month. We cringe at that thought, but what’s worse is most of it ends up in landfills where it decomposes and releases methane into the environment.

So, instead of taking this information as an opportunity to empty out the refrigerator and toss everything that’s been in there since last Thanksgiving, consider it a call to action to be a little more proactive in finishing off food before it gets close to going bad. Repurpose leftovers whenever possible to keep things interesting, and plan meals for the week ahead, utilizing whatever is in the fridge that’s approaching the end of its shelf life. If you can’t eat it, freeze it. But if some foods need to be trashed, roll up your sleeves and have some fun with composting.

To sum things up, here’s a quick reference guide at-a-glance:

Leftovers: 3 to 4 days
Canned food (opened): 3 to 4 days
Lunch meat: 3 to 4 days
Bacon (opened package): 7 days
Lettuce: 3 to 5 days
Carrots: 6 weeks
Ketchup: 6 months
Jams and jellies: 6 months
Mustard: 1 year
Worcestershire sauce: 1 year
Barbecue sauce: 4 months
Mayonnaise: 2 months
Eggs: 5 weeks

Illustration by Foley Wu

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Dana Poblete

Dana's love for all creatures under the sun (bugs, too) drives her in her advocacy for ethical eating, environmental sustainability, and cruelty-free living. A natural born islander, she surfs when she can, and writes, always.

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