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How Long Does Your Food Really Last?

Avoid food waste and food-borne illness with proper fridge and freezer storage.

Man getting leftovers out of his refrigerator.
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There are lots of tricks for stretching your food budget from couponing and buying in bulk to meal planning and prepping. After all that effort to save money at the grocery store, it’s a shame to let perishable items go to waste by not eating or freezing them before they go bad.

Worse still, you can suffer food poisoning if you help yourself to something that’s spoiled. According to, that happens to one in six Americans each year, and 128,000 of them end up in the hospital. If you don’t have an adequate emergency fund, that unexpected medical bill could wreak as much havoc on your budget as the spoiled food did on your body. 

This guide will help you stay healthy while you do your best to stay on budget.

How long do raw foods last in the refrigerator?

In addition to washing your hands before handling raw foods and cooking them to their appropriate temperatures, experts stress the importance of proper food storage to reduce the risk of food poisoning. This starts by setting your refrigerator to 40° F or lower to keep bacteria at bay.

All perishable foods have a limited refrigerator shelf life within which they should be eaten or, if appropriate, moved to the freezer. Most expiration dates listed on food packaging focus on peak quality and not safety, but milk and sour cream shouldn’t be consumed past such dates. For other foods, it’s best to use the federal government’s Cold Food Storage Chart and FoodKeeper App to know how long specific items can safely last after their purchase date. Here’s a summary of what they say about some of the non-produce items:

  • 1-2 days: Any kind of ground meat or sausage and fresh poultry like chicken and turkey
  • 1-3 days: Most fish, including cod, flounder, salmon and trout
  • 2-4 days: Fresh crab meat and lobster, along with raw egg whites or yolks and homemade eggnog
  • 3 days: Liquid or opened egg substitutes
  • 3-4 or 5 days:
    • Eggnog that’s store bought
    • Ham in most forms
    • Lunch meat whose package is open or has been sliced at the deli
    • Mayonnaise-based salads, including chicken, egg, ham, tuna and macaroni
    • Meat, including beef, lamb, pork or veal cut into steaks, chops or roasts
    • Shrimp
  • 1 week:
    • Bacon
    • Cooked ham or sausage
    • Unopened liquid egg substitutes
    • Hard-boiled eggs
    • Hot dogs in an open package
  • 1-2 weeks: Yogurt and soft cheeses, such as brie
  • 2 weeks: Unopened packages of hot dogs or lunch meat and cottage cheese and cream cheese
  • 3-4 weeks: Hard cheeses like cheddar once opened
  • 3-5 weeks: Uncracked raw eggs
  • 1 month: Shredded cheeses
  • 1-2 months: Butter
  • 6 months: Unopened hard cheeses

One of the best ways to extend the life of most produce is to thoroughly dry it after you wash it and before you store it.

And always make sure to store and prepare fresh produce separately from meat, poultry and eggs to avoid cross contamination.

How long do leftovers last in the fridge?

After a meal, you should chill leftovers as soon as possible, especially when food is exposed to air temperatures of 90° F or above. In a climate-controlled environment like your home, you have no more than two hours to refrigerate or freeze leftovers before they start to spoil. Once leftovers are in the fridge, the If you don’t plan to eat them within that window, put your leftovers in a container specifically designed for the coldest temperatures and move them straight to the freezer.

How long can foods last in the freezer?

According to the Cold Food Storage Chart, “frozen foods stored continuously at 0° F or below can be kept indefinitely.” However, there are several foods that it does not recommend freezing:

  • Canned ham
  • Eggs and egg substitutes
  • Live shellfish, including clams, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters and scallops
  • Mayonnaise-based salads

Even though food in your freezer may not go bad, the atmosphere can eventually impact its quality. Kitchn recommends the following limits for keeping commonly frozen leftovers and cooked foods:

  • Up to 1 month: Fish
  • Up to 2 months: Pasta
  • Up to 3 months: Gravies, rice, sauces and vegetables
  • Up to 4 months: Meats and casseroles

To help you keep track of what’s in your freezer, label containers by content and date.

When you remove any cooked or uncooked items from your freezer, thaw them in the refrigerator and cook or reheat them thoroughly before eating. A food thermometer helps you avoid what the USDA calls the danger zone of between 40° and 140° F in which bacteria grows quickly.

What about food safety in your pantry?

The non-perishable items in your pantry have much longer shelf lives than produce, meat, fish, seafood and dairy items. The biggest safety concern are cans with dents at the seam because that can mean the seal is broken, allowing in bacteria. It’s best to avoid these at the grocery store or throw them out if you find them in your pantry.

For a kitchen that’s all about healthy, safe and resourceful cooking, make a habit of checking your fridge daily for foods that either need to be eaten or frozen. Get creative with leftovers! If you’re ever in doubt about how long something has been in there or are concerned about how a food smells, err on the side of caution and throw it out.  

For more information, visit or the USDA Food Safety page.

Editor’s note: Quorum is not affiliated with any of the companies mentioned in this article and derives no benefit from these businesses for placement in this article.

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CUNA 2023 diamond award trophy icon

CUNA 2023 Diamond Award Winner

Financial Education

Quorum derives no benefit from businesses in return for placement in this blog.

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