Knowing how to keep food fresh for as long as possible saves you money, time, and disappointment—plans for many a meal have been ruined because the berries have gone moldy, the lettuce limp, or the milk sour. Tossing spoiled food has big impact on the environment, too. It ends up in landfills and as it decomposes it produces methane, a type of greenhouse gas.
Maximizing the shelf life of your groceries can seem a little mysterious, and there’s a lot of confusion about the point where a food becomes unpleasant or unsafe to eat. But the truth is many foods last longer than you may think, and proper storage can keep them edible for even longer. Follow these general strategies and our tips for specific foods.
Food Storage Basics
The first rule of keeping food fresh is to check the temperature in the places where you store it. Kitchen cabinets should be between 50° F and 70° F, says Jackie E. Ogden, family and consumer sciences agent at the University of Georgia Extension and president of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (AAFCS). Set the fridge to 37° F and the freezer to 0° F or below.
Next, don’t take those “best by” dates on packages as gospel—even for fresh foods such as yogurt, milk, and eggs. “It’s easy to interpret them as ‘throw out on this date’ when what they may really mean is ‘this food may taste best before this date, give or take,’” says Amy Keating, R.D., a nutritionist at CR. “But consumers should examine foods past their ‘best by’ dates for signs of spoilage, and when in doubt, throw it out.”
And when you’re storing dry goods, the key word to remember as you select containers is “airtight,” says Nancy Bock, senior director of communications and marketing at the AAFCS. That helps to keep bacteria and moisture out.
When freezing foods for future use, wrap tightly and be sure to write the date you froze it on the packaging.
Stay-Fresh Tips for 17 Foods
Bananas Once the fruits reach the level of ripeness you prefer, put them in the fridge. They’ll continue to ripen, but at a much slower rate. Note that the peels will darken, but that doesn’t affect the fruit inside. If you end up with overripe bananas, peel and wrap them tightly and store in the freezer. You can use them for baking or in smoothies.
Bread Never refrigerate bread or baked goods such as bagels, according to the National Wheat Foundation. These products can go stale up to six times faster than if you stored them in a breadbox, a kitchen cabinet, or somewhere else dark and cool. But Ogden notes that especially in warm, humid climates, the choice may basically be stale vs. moldy. For longer storage, you can freeze bread, whole or sliced, depending on whether you’ll be defrosting by the slice or the loaf. Wrap it tightly in foil or plastic wrap and put it in a sealed container (such as a zip-top plastic bag) and it will keep for three months. You can take out what you need and let it come to room temperature and use it, or go straight from the freezer to the toaster.
Broth, Noncream Soup, and Pasta Sauce When you’ve only used half the box, jar, or can, it doesn’t have to just sit in your refrigerator until it goes bad. Transfer the remainder to an airtight freezer container, leaving extra space at the top because the liquid will expand, and stick it in the freezer.
Butter Butter is surprisingly hardy for a dairy product. In the fridge, it lasts one to two months. But it can also be stored, tightly wrapped in an airtight freezer container, in the freezer, where it lasts from five to nine months. If you like to have soft butter available at any time, you can store it, covered, on the counter, but be sure to use it within two days.
Cheese Hard (cheddar, swiss) or soft (brie, Bel Paese), cheeses can be frozen for up to six months. The caveat? The texture will become more crumbly, so it’s best to plan to use it for cooking, not snacking. Hard cheeses are likely to fare better, but they also last up to six months in the fridge, anyway. (Soft cheeses should be eaten within one to two weeks.) Shredded cheese lasts for one month when refrigerated, but you can extend that to three to four months by freezing it.
Coffee Beans Don’t refrigerate! Beans easily absorb moisture, smells, and tastes from the refrigerator. You can keep your week’s supply in an opaque, airtight container somewhere cool and dark to retain best taste. But you can store beans in small, freezer-proof packages for up to a month if you’re buying in bulk.
Eggs If you’re planning to eat or cook with them within three to five weeks after purchase, the fridge is generally fine. Keep them in their carton and store them on a shelf in the fridge, not on the door. Even if the sell-by date passes during that time, the eggs are still safe to eat, though as time goes on the yolks get flatter and the whites thinner and runnier. You might notice a difference if you were serving your eggs fried—they’d be more spread out—but not if you’re scrambling them or using them in cooking or baking.
If you find yourself with more eggs than you can use in that time, they can be frozen and will be good in the freezer for about a year. Crack and lightly beat whole eggs before freezing them in tightly sealed freezer containers. (After freezing, yolks can get hard and not blend once thawed, according to the Department of Agriculture, hence the need to beat the eggs before freezing.) Egg whites can be frozen without beating.
Egg yolks alone need special treatment before freezing to make sure they’re usable when they thaw. If you’re planning on using them in something sweet, beat in 1½ teaspoon of sugar for every 4 yolks; if you’re going to make something savory, beat in ⅛ teaspoon of salt for every 4 yolks. Then freeze in a freezer container.
Flour “Consumers think flour is flour is flour,” Bock says. But if you only use yours once a year and just leave the bag folded over in the cupboard, it might not work as well or may even get bugs. Refrigeration and tight wrapping can keep your flour bug-free and extend all-purpose or bread flour’s usable life to two years. For those who don’t use flour often, it may be more practical to store it in the freezer, where it will keep indefinitely.
But note that whole-grain flour degrades more quickly because of the oils in the grain’s germ. In a cool, dry place, it can keep from one to three months (Ogden advises just one); freezing can double that.
Grapes Even in the refrigerator, these fruits can go bad in less than a week. But you can preserve them for months by freezing them. Just wash and dry them (remove the stems). Then place them on a baking sheet that has been covered with wax paper and freeze. Once they’re frozen through, you can put them in an airtight, sealed container in the freezer.
Greens You can expect lettuce to last 3 to 7 days in the fridge, with heartier types, such as iceberg and romaine, keeping longer than the more delicate leaf lettuces. And there are a few things you can do to keep it fresh. First, if the lettuce has any slimy or damaged leaves, remove them before you put it away. Place the lettuce in an airtight container along with a damp cloth or paper towel. Store it in a crisper drawer, preferably one that can be set to high humidity, and away from produce that ripens over time, such as apples, avocados, or pears. (The ethylene gas they produce can hasten spoilage of the lettuce.) Finally, don’t be quick to toss wilted lettuce; you can crisp it up again by soaking it in a bowl of ice water for 5 to 20 minutes.
Another option is to freeze sturdy greens. Spinach, however, can last 10 months when frozen. “You blanch it—plunge it into boiling water—to stop the enzymes that break it down, then cool it quickly to stop the cooking process, dry it thoroughly, and then freeze it in an airtight container,” Ogden says. Blanching and freezing will also work for broccoli, cauliflower, corn kernels, and okra.
Herbs Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, and other fresh herbs have very limited shelf lives. You can purée fresh basil, cilantro, parsley, or oregano with a little olive oil, then freeze the purée in an ice cube tray. Pop the cubes into a plastic freezer bag and use them to season pasta or soup, or to make a topping for chicken or fish. If you have a bumper crop, you can preserve them yourself by rinsing and drying them, leaving them in a well-ventilated place out of the sun (sunshine can reduce flavor), and then store (crumbled or whole) in an airtight container.
Milk Depending on how it has been transported and stored, a carton of pasteurized milk may or may not be okay a few days past the date on the label—a sniff will probably tell you. But, Ogden says, if you freeze it, the milk will be usable for up to three months. “You can stir it together, but it may not have the same texture,” she says, “so you may want to use it for cooking rather than drinking. And be sure to leave ‘head space’ in the container if you’re freezing it, because it will expand.”
Pasta Dried pasta in an unopened package can be stored and used for up to two years, even past its “best by” date, but refrigeration won’t extend its usable life. If the package has been opened, it’s good for up to one year (just one to three months for egg noodles). Meredith Carothers, M.P.H., technical information specialist in the office of public affairs and consumer education at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, recommends storing it in airtight containers to help prevent it from going stale. Fresh pasta, however, lasts just four to five days in the fridge but up to six to eight months in the freezer.
Strawberries Prevent berries from going moldy quickly by removing the stems and placing them in a paper-towel-lined container. Refrigerate, and don’t wash the berries until you are ready to use them.
Whole Grains These healthy grains, such as wheat berries, don’t keep as well as less healthy refined grains, largely because of the oils in the grain’s germ (part of the kernel). Generally, stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry, place, like your cupboard, whole grains will keep for about six months. Keeping them in the freezer can double that shelf life. You can also freeze grains that you have already cooked.
For more guidance on how to safely handle and store foods, you can turn to the USDA’s free FoodKeeper app, Carothers says. ”The app offers specific storage timelines for the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry for various products, including meat, poultry, produce, seafood, dairy products and eggs, and more,” she says, adding that the storage times listed are meant as guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.