Shelf life of different types of food including cooked, tinned and fresh foods.
As we know, all types of food products stay fresh for a different length of time and there are a number of factors that can affect the shelf life of a certain food.
Not only does the shelf life of your food depend on the way in which it has been stored at home; the way it has been handled, treated and stored before arriving at your local supermarket also plays a crucial role in how long your food will stay fresh.
This is extremely important particularly when dealing with highly perishable foods such as fresh meat, fish and poultry and to a slightly lesser degree, fresh fruit and vegetables.
There are many ways in which you can get the best out of your food and ensure that it stays as fresh as possible for as long as possible and below we have included some useful information and tips on how to store certain foods and for how long.
Buying your food
Where you buy your food is very important. You should always buy your food, especially highly perishable products and products that are susceptible to contamination, from a reliable source.
It is usually better to buy fresh produce from a big supermarket where there is a high turnover and the shelves are refilled every day. However, some supermarkets have large warehouses and storerooms where fresh food could be sitting in cardboard boxes for days before they are taken out onto the shop floor and stored correctly.
This could leave them more open to contamination, loss of freshness and nutritional value and damage.
Always inspect the produce before you buy it and don't buy anything that looks too dry, discoloured, limp, soft or generally not fresh. The same applies to packaging; don't buy any boxes or tins that are dented or any packets that have been ripped open or torn.
At the same time, supermarkets use a lot more chemicals and plastic packaging to store and preserve fresh produce, which may extend the shelf life of the food but perhaps to the detriment of the taste, nutritional value and your health.
Often food colouring and preservatives are added to meat to make it look fresher and some plastic wraps contain chemicals that are harmful to the body.
When purchasing meat or fish from your local butcher or fishmonger, you are able to keep more of a control on how far your food has travelled, how it has been reared, slaughtered, prepared and stored and how long it has been sitting on the shelf, which are all factors that affect not only the quality of the food that we are consuming but also how long it will stay fresh.
Buying fresh fruit and vegetables from your local market is often the most economical choice. There is usually a much wider variety of the same types of fruit and vegetable, although care must still be taken when buying.
Markets do not have the same standards as supermarkets when it comes to acquiring fresh produce from the farmer. Supermarkets are much more strict and will only accept fruits if they are the correct size, shape and quality, whereas markets will more or less accept any produce whatever the shape or size.
This has however led many people to complain that supermarket fruit and vegetables are losing their flavour and aroma, as farmers must ensure that appearance is the most important factor if they want to sell their produce.
To prolong the shelf life of highly perishable foods such as meat, poultry or fish, buy these items last if you are in a supermarket or just before returning home if you are in town.
Never leave these foods in the boot of your car whilst you continue to shop; they must be taken home as soon as possible after purchasing and stored in the refrigerator or freezer immediately upon returning home.
Storing your food
Different types of foods require different storage conditions and not all foods can be stored in the same way or for the same amount of time.
Some foods will need to be stored in the refrigerator, whilst others can be kept at room temperature in a cupboard or pantry. Freezing is a really useful way of extending the shelf life of a certain product and ensuring that it does not lose valuable nutrients. Foods that are going to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer should be done so as soon as possible.
To extend the shelf life of your fresh produce, it is not only vital that it is stored in the correct place in your kitchen, but how it is packaged and where it is positioned in comparison to other foods are also imperative. This will be discussed in more detail in the following sections.
Cooked and uncooked food
Fresh meat such as beef, lamb or pork can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days before being cooked, but should be eaten within 2 - 3 days when cooked.
On the other hand poultry, fish and shellfish must be cooked within 1 or 2 days after purchase, but will stay fresher for longer once cooked and can be stored in the refrigerator for 3 - 4 days maximum.
Processed meats such as pre-packaged ham, sausages or salami, will stay fresher for longer, as they have been chemically manipulated and also contain additives and preservatives such as salt, sugar, vinegar or certain chemical compounds.
Cooked rice can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 - 7 days, however, with all leftover food, it is best consumed as soon as possible after cooking.
Opened and unopened food
Tinned foods should not be stored in the refrigerator. However, once a tin of food has been opened, it should be treated as if it were fresh. This means that when you open a tin of tuna fish or baked beans, the amount that you do not use should be stored in the refrigerator and will then only stay fresh for a matter of a few days.
Never store an open tin of food in the refrigerator. Always transfer the leftover tinned food into an airtight plastic container with a lid, as the tin and air will react with the contents and spoil the food.
With regards to other types of foods such as pasta, cereal, milk and various dairy products, they will always last longer if left unopened. Once a product is exposed to oxygen, heat, moisture and bacteria, the quality will start to deteriorate and its flavour, taste and appearance will begin to change.
This is the same for products such as fruit juice, mayonnaise and pate in a jar. These foods will stay fresh for several weeks if left unopened, however once opened they may need to be consumed within a much smaller period of time, usually a matter of days or weeks.
Once a food item is opened it is best to consume the product as quickly as possible.
All foods will contain one form of dating on it. For foods that tend to stay fresher for longer, this will be a "best before" date, whilst highly perishable items usually contain a "use-by" date.
If a product indicates that it should be used by a certain date, you should consume or cook that item before or on the specific date on the packaging.
Once that date has passed, the food item will no longer be deemed fit for consumption according to the manufacturer and government health and safety specifications.
Meat, fish and poultry are the main items that have a use-by date, as they are the most perishable products and eating them past their use-by date may be harmful and could cause illness.
Throw away any items you still have in your fridge that have gone past their use-by date, even if they look and smell ok, although the chances are that they wouldn't.
The sell-by date is not the same as the use-by date. It gives the consumer a bit more leeway with regards to when to cook and consume that product.
Consumers should purchase a product before or on their sell-by date and they then still have a certain amount of time in which to use that item before the expiry date, which is when the product would start to lose its freshness, quality and begin to go bad.
Best before date
Best before dates tend to apply to items that may keep fresh for several weeks, months or even years.
The best before date does not mean that a certain item must be consumed by that date, it is just an indication or estimate as to when a product will only start to lose its freshness, crispness and optimum quality.
The item may still be consumed after this date; only it won't taste as fresh as it should. This date, does of course apply to an unopened product and not an open one.
Shelf life of bread, cereal, rice and pastry foods
Bread may be stored at room temperature, in the refrigerator or in the freezer. For a longer shelf life, store bread in its original packaging in the refrigerator, as the cold of the refrigerator delays the growth of mould. Otherwise, if kept at room temperature, bread will usually last for between 5 and 7 days, depending on the amount of preservatives and temperature at which it is stored. Alternatively, with sliced bread, you can store it in the freezer for up to 3 months and remove slices to defrost at room temperature as and when needed.
Breakfast cereals should be stored in a dry cupboard either in their original packaging or in an airtight container. If the original packaging is unopened the cereal should last for between 6 - 12 months, although you should check the date on the packaging. Once the cereal box has been opened, you should consume the cereal within 2 - 3 months. Make sure that you refold the inside lining after each use in order to maintain maximum freshness.
Most people store their rice in a cupboard or on a shelf, however the shelf life of rice may be extended if stored in the refrigerator. White rice will stay fresh for a year, whilst brown and wild rice only have a shelf life of half this time, as they are less treated by chemicals and their natural oils will start to spoil after this time.
Shelf life of dairy products
All types of dairy produce should either be stored in the refrigerator or in the freezer. Never store any dairy products at room temperature. The only exception is unopened tinned evaporated and condensed milk, which may be stored at room temperature until opened, after which they should be tightly covered, transferred to the fridge and used within a week.
Milk should always be kept in its original container, covered at all times and stored in the fridge. Do not freeze milk, as the fat will separate and the texture, taste and appearance will all change and not for the better.
At the same time, never leave milk at room temperature. Any unused milk left out should be discarded rather than returned to the original carton. Milk will have a shelf life of between 8 - 20 days if kept under optimum conditions.
Cheese may be stored in the freezer, although expect the texture, taste and flavour to change slightly afterwards. For the best flavour and quality, store all cheese in the refrigerator.
Hard cheeses such as Cheddar should last for several weeks if the packaging has been opened. If a green mould begins to form on the outside of the cheese, it can be cut off with a knife and discarded without affecting the rest of the cheese. It does not mean that you should throw away the whole block of cheese, although you should try to consume it as quickly as possible.
For maximum shelf life of cheese and for health and safety reasons, once the packaging has been opened, rewrap the cheese in aluminium foil rather than in cling film and this will prevent moisture loss. The chemicals and toxins contained within cling film should not come into direct contact with foods that have a high fat content, as they tend to be fat-soluble. This means that the toxins will leak onto the cheese when they come into contact with the fat, enter the body upon consumption and could potentially cause harm and lead to illness.
Shelf life of vegetables
Vegetables that do not need refrigeration
Contrary to what you may think, not all fresh vegetables should be stored in the refrigerator, whether it would extend their shelf life or not.
Tomatoes, for example, continue to ripen even after they have been harvested and should be kept at a temperature of around 50°F - 60°F (10°C - 16°C), so that they ripen fully and gain flavour. The temperature of a refrigerator is about 41°F (5°C), a temperature at which tomatoes would lose their flavour and not taste as good. Wrap tomatoes in newspaper or place in a well-ventilated box and keep on the counter away from direct sunlight.
Potatoes, whether sweet or white, should not be stored in the refrigerator either. For a longer shelf life and better quality, place your potatoes into a well-ventilated box or basket and store in a dark, cool area with a temperature of between 50°F - 60°F (10°C - 16°C). Do not store potatoes in plastic bags.
Onions are another vegetable that do not require refrigeration and may be stored in a basket or mesh bag at room temperature for up to 3 months. You can refrigerate them if you prefer but it will not extend the shelf life or alter the quality or taste of the onion.
Finally, aubergines are better kept at a temperature of between 50°F - 60°F (10°C - 16°C), as the refrigerator temperature is too low for them. They should be kept at room temperature in the same way as potatoes.
Do vegetables need to be washed before storing?
In general, the majority of vegetables do not require washing or rinsing before being stored in the refrigerator. Too much moisture may actually be detrimental for some vegetables and can even shorten their shelf life rather than extend it.
The only vegetables that should be washed or rinsed before storing rather than just before usage are lettuce, endives, spinach and kale. The outer leaves of these vegetables should be discarded, whilst the inner leaves should be rinsed thoroughly under running water. They should then be completely drained and dried, preferably by using a salad spinner before being placed in moisture-proof plastic bags and then refrigerated.
Although, for a longer shelf life, moisture must be retained within the vegetable to prevent it from drying out and wilting, this does not mean that it necessarily needs washing. Actually, all vegetables should be thoroughly dry upon storing in the refrigerator.
In order to retain the moisture of certain vegetables that tend to dry out quicker, it is sufficient to store them in plastic bags, plastic containers, paper bags or perforated plastic bags. Perforated bags are ideal.
Vegetables that require refrigeration should be stored in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator, also known as the crisper. This drawer is specifically designed for storing vegetables, as they often have settings that control the moisture and humidity of that part of the fridge.
The majority of vegetables will have an extended shelf life if stored in a plastic bag and placed in the crisper area. As well as preventing loss of moisture, this also prevents against loss of vital nutrients.
There are, however a few exceptions, for example, mushrooms should not be washed before storing and they should be kept in a paper bag and not in a plastic bag, and then placed in the crisper.
The same goes for peppers ad chillies, which tend to sweat if stored in plastic bags. Do not wash them before storage, just wrap them in a paper towel or place them in a paper bag and then into the vegetable drawer.
To extend the shelf life of carrots, radishes and beets, the tops can be removed, as this prevents rapid moisture loss and they can then be kept in a plastic bag in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator.
Shelf life of fruit
To prolong the shelf life of most types of fruit, it should be stored in the refrigerator, although not necessarily in the crisper, which is mainly for vegetables.
As with vegetables, it is not necessary to wash fruit before storing it in the refrigerator, but it is absolutely vital to wash it before consumption to remove all traces of pesticides and chemicals, especially if you are eating the skin.
Many fruits are harvested whilst still unripe and continue in this state when sold in the shops and supermarkets. Therefore, for fruit that is still unripe after purchase, it can be stored at home at room temperature until it has ripened, after which it can then be transferred to the refrigerator.
Unlike vegetables, not all fruits will benefit from being stored in plastic bags and some may even be kept in the refrigerator uncovered and as they are.
On the other hand, certain fruits should be covered in order to prevent moisture and nutrient loss or so that they do not pick up stronger odours or flavours from other foods.
There are a number of fruits that produce ethylene, a gas that speeds up ripening, and should therefore be stored away from other fruits and vegetables, preferably in plastic bags or wrapped in cling film. Some of these gas-producing fruits are apples, pears, peaches, cantaloupe and honeydew melons. Exposure to ethylene can cause other fruits and vegetables to turn yellow or brown and it can greatly reduce their shelf life.
Now let's take a closer look at some of our favourite fruits, as we detail the correct way to store them in order to get the maximum flavour and texture for a longer period of time:
Apples: For a longer shelf life store apples in the fridge, although they should be kept away from other fruits, as they produce ethylene. If stored at room temperature they will soften within a few days and go bad much quicker. Hard apples may keep for up to a month in the refrigerator. Keep apples in moisture-proof bags.
Avocados: Unripe avocados should be left out at room temperature for a few days until they become soft and ripe. After this, they can be stored in the refrigerator and should be used within 3 days.
Bananas: Bananas should be stored at room temperature in a cool area. The cold of the refrigerator causes the skin to blacken, although the fruit is perfectly fine to eat.
Citrus fruits: It is perfectly fine to store citrus fruits at room temperature, although they will keep for longer if refrigerated. Lemons should be kept away from other foods and oranges and limes should be stored inside a bag in the refrigerator. These fruits, if fresh, will have a shelf life of up to several weeks.
Grapes: Grapes will have a longer shelf life if stored in a perforated bag or in a bowl and then covered and placed in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. This may extend their shelf life for up to two weeks whereas at room temperature, grapes would quickly dry out and shrivel.
Kiwi fruit: Kiwi fruit are often unripe when sold in the supermarkets, therefore they can be left out to ripen at room temperature for 2 - 3 days before transferring to the crisper drawer of the refrigerator, where they will stay fresh for around 1 week.
Melon: All types of melon should be stored in the refrigerator once they have ripened. Ripen the fruit at room temperature and then tightly wrap in cling film and place in a plastic bag before storing in the fridge. Melons must be tightly covered, as their smell will affect other foods in your fridge.
Peaches: Peaches and nectarines will ripen quicker if placed in a paper bag and left at room temperature. Once they have softened slightly and give off a warm scent, they can be refrigerated. If they are already ripe upon purchase they should be placed directly into the fridge and consumed within 3 days.
Pears: Pears have a slightly longer shelf life than many fruits. They can be ripened at room temperature and then wrapped in a plastic bag and stored in the coldest part of the fridge where they will stay fresh for up to 2 weeks. Pears produce ethylene, which is why they should be covered.
Pineapple: Pineapples are best if consumed as quickly as possible after purchase. If whole, they may be left at room temperature for up to 2 days, but as soon as they have been cut, they should be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in cling film.
Plums: Unripe plums can ripen at room temperature and then be transferred to the fridge.
Strawberries: Strawberries should be stored in the refrigerator at all times. They should be covered and preferably placed inside a plastic bag and kept away from other foods. Consume as quickly as possible for the best flavour and texture when ripe.
Shelf life of meat products
Fresh meat, such as steaks, chops and joints are highly perishable and therefore care must be taken when storing it so that the meat and other foods in the fridge are not contaminated. Contamination may cause food poisoning, vomiting, several days in bed and even hospitalisation.
All fresh meat contains a small amount of bacteria on the surface, which rapidly multiplies in the warmth. For this reason, fresh meat must be refrigerated as quickly as possible after purchase.
The optimum temperature at which to store meat with minimal bacterial growth is about 33 - 36°F. The cold of the refrigerator will greatly slow down the growth of bacteria, although there will still be some growth, which is why meat spoils after several days.
Although in most fridges the coldest area is nearer the top, just under the freezer section, fresh meat should ideally be kept on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, above the salad drawer, so that any leaking juices are not able to drip down onto other foods and contaminate them.
Try to keep the meat in its original packaging and wrap it inside a plastic bag just to be on the safe side.
Always store cooked meat away from any fresh meat, making sure that they are kept separate at all times.
Under optimal storage conditions, fresh meat will last for between 3 - 5 days but always make sure that you check the expiry date and do not use if out of date.
Ground meat or minced meat has a shorter shelf life and must be cooked within 1 - 2 days after purchase.
Obviously, meat has a much longer shelf life if stored in the freezer and larger cuts of meat and joints will keep for anything up to a year. If possible remove the meat from its original packaging and rewrap tightly in moisture-proof plastic packaging, aluminium foil or freezer bags. Make sure that you freeze the meat as soon as possible after purchase and definitely before its "use-by" date.
Processed meats that are sold in vacuum packaging have a longer shelf life than fresh meat. This type of packaging with the removal of some of the air is what extends the shelf life of this type of meat. Processed meat in an unopened packet will have a shelf life of around 2 weeks, however, once the packaging has been opened the shelf life is just under half this time.
Once you have opened a packet of ham, turkey slices or bacon, it is best to tightly rewrap the product in cling film or foil after use, and keep inside a plastic bag as well, before restoring it as quickly as possible in the refrigerator.
Cooked meat of any kind should always be stored away from raw meat in the refrigerator. Raw meat should be stored on the bottom shelf and cooked meat preferably on the one above.
If meat has been cooked on its own, without any other ingredients or gravy, it can be wrapped tightly in cling film or foil and that is sufficient storage for the refrigerator.
Meat based dishes such as casseroles, stews, pies and sauces should be stored in a well-sealed plastic container or in a dish with a lid. Do not store the meat dishes in the pan that they were cooked in. It is much safer to divide the dish into smaller portions and store them in clean separate plastic sealed containers.
Ensure that any cooked food has been thoroughly cooled before refrigerating; otherwise this could play havoc with the temperature of your fridge and all the other products inside it.
Under optimal storage conditions as described above, cooked meat on its own such as steaks, chops or roast meat without gravy, will have a shelf life of 2 - 3 days and the same goes for casseroles, stews and meat pies.
If there is any meat broth or gravy with the meat or meat dish, it should ideally be consumed within 1 - 2 days after cooking.
Shelf life of fish and seafood
As with all fresh produce, but perhaps more so with fresh fish and seafood, you must buy your fish from a reputable source with a high turnover in order to guarantee quality.
When buying fish, look for fish that look and smell fresh. The fish should smell of the sea and not of fish; there shouldn't be any strange odours being emitted from the fish. The body should be firm and springy to touch and the eyes should be clear and glossy. If in any doubt, don't buy the fish.
Fresh fish is highly perishable and must be refrigerated or frozen as soon as possible after purchase, as it only has a shelf life of 1 - 2 days. You wouldn't really want to keep it for much longer anyway, as nothing beats the taste of freshly caught and freshly cooked fish or seafood.
The ideal temperature for storing fish is slightly lower than the normal temperature of the fridge at 32°F. Therefore, store fish and seafood in the coldest part of the fridge or ideally wrapped in waxed paper or foil, placed into a plastic bag and then sat on a bed of ice. Never store fish in water. It should always be carefully and tightly wrapped to protect other foods from the smell and to prevent contamination.
Although fresh fish must be cooked within 1 or 2 days of purchase, cooked fish and seafood has a longer shelf life of 3 - 4 days. Store cooked fish and seafood in airtight containers or tightly wrapped in foil.
For more detailed instructions on how to store individual items of seafood such as crab, lobster, mussels or shrimp plus additional information on the above, see our Guide to crabs, Guide to lobster, Guide to shrimp and prawn and Guide to mussels.
Tinned fish or seafood can be kept unopened for up to 12 months, but as soon as the tin is opened, you must transfer any leftovers to an airtight container with a lid and use within 2 days.
Shelf life of poultry and eggs
Fresh poultry has a slightly shorter shelf life than fresh meat and must be consumed within 1 or 2 days of purchase. If you are not going to prepare the poultry within two days, it should be frozen immediately until needed.
Fresh poultry is highly perishable and is very susceptible to many different types of bacteria including salmonella.
Care must be taken when preparing raw poultry but also in storing it too. Ensure that the poultry is tightly wrapped in its own packaging and also wrapped in a bag. Any juices that drip onto other foods in the refrigerator could cause food poisoning or at least stomach pains.
If you notice that there is a hole in the original packaging and juices are leaking from it, it is best to remove the poultry from the packaging, which should then be discarded, rinse it under a running tap, pat it dry with kitchen paper and carefully and tightly wrap it in cling film or aluminium foil before placing it into a clean plastic bag and into the refrigerator. Make sure that you wash your hands thoroughly after handling any raw meat, especially raw poultry.
Store fresh poultry on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator, away from any cooked food.
Any type of fresh poultry that you store in the refrigerator should be consumed within 2 days of purchase, whether it is duck, turkey, goose or chicken.
Cooked poultry can be stored for longer than fresh poultry, unless you are dealing with poultry nuggets or poultry meat with gravy.
Cooked poultry should be stored in the refrigerator as soon as it has completely cooled down, preferably within 2 hours of cooking.
Pieces of poultry meat should be placed into airtight sealed containers or wrapped tightly in aluminium foil, refrigerated as soon as they are cool and consumed within 3 - 4 days.
Poultry dishes with gravy should be transferred into airtight containers and consumed within 1 - 2 days. Any stuffing should be removed, stored separately and also consumed within 1 - 2 days.
When reheating dishes that contain poultry, remember that the food must be reheated to a temperature of 165°F (75°C). For more detailed instructions on buying, choosing and storing poultry, see our Guide to choosing poultry.
Eggs should have a shelf life of between 3 - 5 weeks after purchase. When purchasing eggs, check the expiry date and also the date on which they were laid or packaged.
Always store eggs in their original carton, as this will protect them from odours from other food in the fridge.
Ideally, eggs should be stored at a temperature of 33°F - 37°F for maximum shelf life, which means that they should be stored in a cold area of the fridge, as the temperature of a refrigerator is usually 41°F or below.
Place the eggs on the top shelf or as near to it as possible, as this is the coldest part of the refrigerator. Do not store eggs in the separate egg tray on the side of the fridge door, as this is the warmest part of the fridge.
For more detailed instructions and advice on eggs and how to choose and store them, see our Guide to buying and storing eggs.
Hard-boiled eggs in their shell will keep for a week in the refrigerator, whilst any egg-based dishes should keep for 3 - 4 days if covered and protected properly.