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How Long Should I Keep My Food?

Although most people employ the “sniff test” to determine if their food is still good, this method can be misleading and dangerous.

Many organisms that cause foodborne illnesses do not create any odor or visual evidence of their presence. Use these guidelines to help determine how long food should be stored for maximum freshness and safety.

Fresh, Uncooked Meats

Fresh, uncooked meat usually contains a fair amount of bacteria and should only be stored for a short time in the refrigerator before cooking. Fresh poultry and ground meats (hamburger or fresh sausages) should only be kept in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 days. Solid cuts of meat can be kept refrigerated for 3 to 5 days prior to cooking. Cured meats, such as ham, can be kept for 5 to 7 days.

Uncooked Foods

Uncooked foods, such as cold salads or sandwiches, also should be eaten or refrigerated promptly. Keep food cold by nesting dishes in bowls of ice or use small serving trays and replace them often. Your goal is to minimize the time a food is in the “danger zone” — between 40°F and 135°F — when harmful organisms quickly multiply.

Cooked Foods

The first step in having safe food is cooking it safely! Use a food thermometer to make sure that the food is cooked to a safe, minimum internal temperature.

Temperature Chart

After food is safely cooked, hot food must be kept hot at 135°F or hotter to prevent bacterial growth. Keep food hot in chafing dishes, slow cookers, or warming trays.


Eggs should always be stored refrigerated below 40°F. Store them in their original carton on an inside shelf and away from pungent foods. The carton keeps the eggs from picking up odors or flavors from other foods and helps prevent moisture loss. When stored properly, eggs can be kept for 3 weeks past the “sell by” date. If your eggs take on an undesirable or sulfur-like smell, discard them.

Cool Food Rapidly

To prevent microorganism growth, it’s important to cool food rapidly so it reaches as fast as possible the safe refrigerator-storage temperature of 40°F or below. To do this, divide large amounts of food into shallow containers. For whole roasts or hams, slice or cut them into smaller parts. Cut turkey into smaller pieces and refrigerate. Slice breast meat; legs and wings may be left whole. Hot food can be placed directly in the refrigerator or be rapidly chilled in an ice water bath before refrigerating.


Within 2 hours of cooking food or holding it hot, leftovers must be refrigerated. Throw away all perishable foods that have been left at room temperature for more than 2 hours or 1 hour if the temperature is over 90°F. Although bacteria is usually killed during the cooking process, it is quickly reintroduced from the environment after cooking.

Cover leftovers, wrap them in airtight packaging, or seal them in storage containers for storage in the refrigerator. This practice help keep bacteria out, retain moisture, and prevent leftovers from picking up odors from other food in the refrigerator.

Once refrigerated, leftovers should be kept for only 4 days. Be sure to eat them within that time. After that, the risk of foodborne illness increases. If you don’t think you’ll be able to eat leftovers within four days, freeze them immediately. If promptly frozen, leftovers can be stored for 3 to 4 months.

Reheat Leftovers Safely

When you are ready to eat leftovers, reheat them on the stove, in the oven, or in the microwave until the internal temperature reaches 165°F. Cover leftovers to reheat. This retains moisture and ensures that food will heat all the way through. Slow cookers and chafing dishes are not recommended for reheating leftovers because they may not get the food hot in a timely manner.

Canned Goods

Canned goods can be divided into two categories as far as storage times: high acid and low acid. High-acid canned foods, such as tomato products and pineapple, have a shorter shelf life of about one and a half years.

Low acid canned foods, like most vegetables and meats, have a longer shelf life of about 5 years. If you cannot remember when the product was purchased, most cans are labeled with a “Best if Used By” date that can be used as a guide. If at any time, you find a can that is dented, damaged, or bulging, discard it immediately. Damaged cans can have microscopic cracks that can allow bacteria entry.

Frozen Foods

Packaged frozen foods that have remained unopened should stay palatable for up to 3 months. Although freezing does not kill bacteria, it slows its growth significantly. Expiration dates on frozen foods are usually a guide to best quality rather than spoilage. Prolonged freezing can dry foods, cause ice crystals, and other common characteristics of freezer burn. Opened packages can expose food to bacteria, air, and smells. Once opened, frozen foods should only be kept 3 to 4 months in the freezer. Although safe indefinitely, frozen leftovers can lose moisture and flavor when stored for longer times in the freezer.

Food handling is just as important as feeding your family with healthy food. Foods go bad quickly, especially when they have been around for far too long. It’s time to say goodbye to last week’s meal leftovers! If you are in doubt about a food’s safety, it is best to throw it out. Follow the above USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service’s recommendations for handling foods safely.


  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA),
Food in fridge

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Extension Educator:
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University of Wyoming Extension

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Extension Educator:
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Issued in furtherance of extension work, acts of May 8 and June 30, 1914, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kelly Crane, Director, University of Wyoming Extension, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming Extension, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming 82071.

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