How Long Can Food Last In The Refrigerator?

Apparently not as long as we thought.

Food waste is always a cause for concern, and as diligent as we all are about using up our leftover food, it's important to know exactly how long it's safe to keep certain foods hanging around in your fridge. Although we try to freeze as much as possible, sometimes we lose track of how long the package of lunch meat has been sitting in the fridge. Understanding food package labels is also a helpful step in knowing whether dating information is intended for us, the consumers, or the distributors.

I reached out to a food safety specialist at the USDA to learn more about what they advise when it comes to storing certain foods in the fridge. The main information to note is that consumers tend to hold on to certain fresh meats, poultry, and leftovers for longer than the recommended time period, says Archie Magoulas, a technical information specialist for the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education's Food Safety Education Staff.

Refrigerator shelf
Getty Images

Another common confusion is consumers storing fresh meats and poultry based on the "sell by" dates on packaging, Magoulas says. A sell by date is for retailers and producers who use colder temperatures in their refrigerators and can preserve foods for longer than what is recommended for to do consumers at home. A "use by" date is the last date that food safety experts recommend using the product before it's no longer in peak quality, according to the USDA's fact sheet on fresh poultry. So exactly what foods have shorter refrigerated lives than we thought? You can see the full detailed list on the USDA's Cold Food Storage Chart. We've included the foods that were most shocking to us in the table below.

Type of Food Refrigerator
(40 °F or below)
Opened package of deli or sliced meat 3-5 days
Raw sausage made from chicken, turkey, pork, or beef 1-2 days
Ground meat (beef, turkey, chicken, other poultry, veal, pork, lamb, and mixtures) 1-2 days
Cooked, store-wrapped slices, half, or spiral-cut of ham 3-5 days
Fresh, whole or pieces of, chicken or turkey 1-2 days
Fresh crab meat 2-4 days
Shrimp or crayfish 3-5 days
Opened liquid egg substitutes 3 days
Soups with vegetables or meat added 3-4 days

While we're brushing up on our food safety rules, might as well review leftover food policies because who knows how long that slice of pizza has been sitting in the fridge. If you find yourself having a lot of leftover food, your best bet is to cool it properly and then freeze it for future use. You can also download the USDA Food Keeper app, or visit the site, for the latest information on properly storing all types of food.

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  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service. The Poultry Label Says "Fresh".

  2. Cold Food Storage Chart.

  3. Foodkeeper app.

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