When Do Foods Spoil?

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If you’ve ever sniffed an open carton of milk wondering if it’s still good to drink, or tried to decide if those leftovers were still safe to eat, you probably find that you throw out food more often than you’d like. Stale bread, overripe fruit and moldy cheese are not only unpleasant and potential health hazards, but wasted food is one of the biggest blows to your food budget.

By handling and storing food properly, knowing how long various food items stay good to eat, and consuming edibles before they spoil, you reduce food expenses, avoid the risk of stomach trouble and cut down on waste.

When Do Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Spoil?

It’s a shame to toss out produce because it has turned overripe, squishy or moldy. Only buy as much fresh fruits and vegetables as your family will consume within a week, and use the following guidelines for storage.

  • Apples: two to three weeks in the refrigerator
  • Berries: two to four days in the fridge
  • Citrus fruit: room temperature up to a week, around two weeks if refrigerated
  • Grapes: up to five days in fridge
  • Peaches and nectarines: ripen at room temperature for two to three days, up to five days in the fridge
  • Pears: two to three days on counter, then in the fridge for up to five days
  • Tomatoes: room temperature up to five days
  • Bananas: room temperature for a week
  • Asparagus: Refrigerate up to two days
  • Cabbage: Up to two weeks in the refrigerator
  • Lettuce: Up to a week in fridge
  • Carrots: Up to two weeks in fridge
  • Mushrooms: if refrigerated, two or three days
  • Potatoes: Keep in cool, dark location for several weeks


When Do Meat and Fish Go Bad?

Fresh meat is highly perishable. Keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it, and don’t leave meat out on the countertop to thaw.

  • Solid cuts of beef, lamb and pork can be stored in the fridge for up to five days before cooking. Once cooked, they are safe for up to three days if refrigerated.
  • Poultry, fish, shellfish and ground meats should be cooked within two days of refrigerating. Once cooked, they are safe in the fridge for up to four additional days.
  • Keep eggs in the refrigerator, where they will last for up to a month past the “sell by” date.

How Long Do Dairy Products Last?

Always check “sell by” dates when purchasing dairy items and store in the refrigerator as soon as you get home. Once opened, you can follow these general guidelines:

  • Milk: five days
  • Cream: ten days
  • Sour cream: up to three weeks
  • Yogurt: seven to ten days
  • Butter: two weeks
  • Margarine: up to six months
  • Soft cheese: one week
  • Hard cheese: up to four weeks

How Long Do Baked Goods Stay Fresh?

  • If you transfer cereal, cookies, crackers and similar packaged baked goods to a tightly sealed storage container, they will stay fresh for a couple of weeks.
  • Bread will stay fresh for several days in the pantry, a week or two in the fridge, and up to three months if frozen.

When Do Canned Goods Spoil?

Store unopened cans at room temperature. Once open, transfer any leftovers into a plastic or glass container, store in the fridge, and eat within three days. Most canned goods have an expiration date, but if not, follow these general rules.

  • Tomatoes, pineapple or highly acidic foods: one year
  • Other fruits, vegetables or meats: up to five years
  • Always throw away any cans that are bulging, cracked or deeply dented. Some canned foods become poisonous after spoiling, with a bulging can signifying unhealthy gases escaping from the food.

When Do Condiments Go Bad?

Once opened, you should keep condiments in the refrigerator.

  • Ketchup: six months
  • Mustard: one year
  • Mayonnaise: up to two months
  • Salad dressing: two to three months
  • Barbecue sauce: four months
  • Jam or jelly: six months

How Long Are Frozen Foods Still Good To Eat?

Most packaged, frozen foods will remain safe to eat for extended periods of time, but will lose taste and texture. Use the following guidelines for best flavor.

  • Chicken pieces: six to nine months
  • Salmon: two or three months
  • Lean fish: up to six months
  • Ground meat: two or three months
  • Solid cuts of meat: six months
  • Fruits and vegetables: up to a year
  • Cooked leftovers: two or three months

Start Off With The Freshest Food Possible

The fresher your food is to start with, the longer it will stay good once inside your home.

  • Always buy from sources with high turnover and clean facilities.
  • Check purchase-by dates on all perishable foods before buying. Check the items toward the back of the shelf, as grocery store employees usually try to rotate stock, with the older items moving toward the front.
  • When buying bread or other foods in plastic bags, make sure there are no small rips or tears in the package.
  • Avoid produce that is limp, dry, discolored or has bruises or insect damage.
  • Don’t take cans with dents or bulges.
  • Boxed products should have no holes, gaps or tears in the packaging.
  • Fresh meat should not have an iridescent shine, strong smell or darkened color.

The National Resources Defense Council estimates that the average American family loses $2,275 each year in wasted food. Cut down on money lost to spoiled food by storing it properly, and eating it within the recommended guidelines. Your taste buds and your wallet will both thank you.

Last Updated: November 13, 2012
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About Michelle Ullman Michelle Ullman has lived and gardened in Southern California since childhood. A freelance writer, she covers topics ranging from gardening to home improvement to health issues. She also has experience as a catalog copywriter and poet. Michelle has trained and worked as a respiratory therapist and surgical technologist, but prefers to spend her time gardening, and walking with her dog. Michelle holds a Bachelor's Degree from Redlands University in Business Management. 

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