Refrigerator Storage

HYG-5403
Family and Consumer Sciences
Date: 
12/09/2010
Lesley Fisher, Student Research Assistant, Department of Human Nutrition
Lydia M​edeiros, Extension Specialist and Professor, Department of Human Nutrition

Storing certain foods in the refrigerator is a sensible way to extend the quality, safety, and nutritional value of your groceries.

Remember safety first with refrigerator storage. Microorganisms cause over 76 million cases of foodborne illness each year in the United States. The three microorganisms responsible for most cases are Norovirus, Campylobacter, and Salmonella. Improper food storage can cause these normally minor bacteria to multiply and cause foodborne illness. Most bacterial growth will happen when food is kept in the Danger Zone. The Danger Zone refers to food at a temperature between 41 degrees Fahrenheit and 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Perishable food kept at these temperatures for 2 or more hours has a higher chance for microorganism to multiply to a level that can cause foodborne illness.

To keep food safe, be sure to keep your refrigerator below 41 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not over-pack your refrigerator or air will not be able to circulate properly, making it difficult to cool down the food. The warmest area of your refrigerator is the shelf space in the door and the coldest area is in the back.

How long should you keep food in the refrigerator?

The length of time you can safely store food in the refrigerator depends on whether or not the food is fresh, unpackaged food, or packaged food. It also matters if the package has been opened, or if the food has been cooked. The chart in this fact sheet provides information to help you decide how long to keep foods, whether fresh, cooked, packaged, or if the package has been opened. With some exceptions, fresh foods, opened foods, and cooked foods should not be kept in the refrigerator longer than 4 to 7 days. If you think you will keep these foods longer, the recommendation is to freeze the food for later use. Refer to the Ohio State University Extension fact sheet, Freezer Storage (HYG-5402) for information on how to freeze food.

A common question when it comes to refrigerator storage is what does the date mean? The date does not refer to the safety of the food. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS) there are four types of dates that will appear on refrigerated foods: Sell-By, Best-if-Used-By (or Before), Use-By, and closed or coded dates. A Sell-By date tells the store how long the product should be on display. Be sure to buy a product before this date. A Best-if-Used-By (or, Before) date is recommended for the best quality of the food. That means that the flavor, color, or texture of the food may have some deterioration after that date. A Use-By date is the last date that the manufacturer recommends that the product is at its peak quality. A closed or coded date includes packing numbers, not a calendar date, for use by manufacturers. The only perishable foods that by federal law require a date are baby formula and some baby foods. State regulations, however, may require dates on certain foods such as eggs. Packages of eggs that have the USDA grade shield on them means that they must have the stamped "pack date." This is a three-digit code that correlates to the Julian Date, or consecutive day of the year (for example, January 1 is 001).

When choosing foods, purchase items before the Sell-By date has passed and select packages with the longest time until the Best-if-Used-By date has passed. At home, store food below 41ºF, or freeze. Once properly stored, refer to the storage chart to determine how long food can be stored for safety, regardless of the date on the package.

Tips for Storing Food in the Refrigerator

  • While there are many products that claim to extend the life of vegetables and greens in the refrigerator, few are actually able to stop the decay caused by the natural release of gasses from the vegetables. The original bags that spinach and produce come in from the grocery are specially designed to release the gasses. It is therefore better to store leftovers in the original packaging and tape the bag shut to ensure freshness.
  • Don't cut fruit or vegetables until you are ready to prepare for a meal.
  • Just before preparation, thoroughly rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under cool running water before eating. Do not use soap, dish detergent, bleach, or commercial vegetable and fruit washes.
  • Prepare only the amount of produce you can eat in one meal.
  • Don't store wet fruit and vegetables—wash just before preparation or dry thoroughly before placing in the refrigerator.
  • If you have too much to eat in one meal, store the vegetable or fruit that you don't prepare in the refrigerator. When you are ready to eat this food, make a "fresh cut" where the vegetable or fruit is bruised, cut, or damaged and throw that part away.
  • Avoid eating raw sprouts.
  • Don't wrap mushrooms in a paper bag because they will turn spongy and wrinkly. Don't cover them with a wet paper towel as this will only speed up the decaying process. Do store loose mushrooms in a zipper-lock bag partially opened to allow for proper air circulation. Whenever possible, store mushrooms in their original container. Even after opening the package and using some, store the reminder back in the container covering with plastic wrap.
  • Fish stored at 32 degrees Fahrenheit will keep twice as long as fish stored at 41 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to achieve this desired atmosphere, place fish in a zipper-lock bag on ice and store at the back of the refrigerator (the coldest part). Remember, chill fish immediately upon returning home.
  • Keep eggs in their original container and store in the coldest part of the refrigerator, not the door. Since eggs can be sold up to 2 months after packaging, store in the refrigerator for only 3 to 5 weeks, depending on when you purchased them.
  • Butter can pick up odors in the refrigerator and become rancid after only a month. If you do not use butter often, store it in a zipper-lock bag in the freezer and thaw as needed. Butter will stay safe in the freezer for up to 4 months.
  • Once maple syrup is opened, store in the refrigerator for 6 months to a year to reduce the chance of yeast, bacteria, and mold growth.

Refrigerator Storage Chart

Here is a chart with information on the appropriate length of storage in the refrigerator for various foods.

Food Recommended Storage Time for Safety at 33–41°F Handling Hints
Dairy Products
Butter 1 to 2 weeks Wrap or cover tightly.
Margarine 4 to 5 months Hold only two-day butter supply or two-week margarine supply in butter keeper.
Buttermilk 3 to 5 days Cover tightly. Flavor not affected if buttermilk separates; remix before serving.
Cottage or ricotta cheese 5 days Keep all cheese tightly packaged in moisture-resistant wrap. If outside of hard cheese gets moldy, remove 1 inch of cheese under and around the mold before eating.
Neufchatel, cream cheese 1 to 2 weeks
Unopened packages of hard or wax coated (such as Cheddar, Edam, Gouda, Swiss, brick) cheese 4 to 6 months
Opened packages of hard and wax coated (such as Cheddar, Edam, Gouda, Swiss, brick) cheese 3 to 4 weeks Hard cheese may be frozen for longer storage.
Sliced or grated hard cheese 2 weeks  
Soft cream cheese 5 to 6 days after opening  
Parmesan, Romano—grated (opened) 2 months Refrigerate after opening.
Processed cheese, food products (loaf, slices) 3 to 4 weeks Refrigerate slices of process cheese and cheese food. Refrigerate loaves and jars after opened. Most squeeze packages and aerosol cans don't need refrigeration (check label).
Commercial dips, such as sour cream 2 weeks Keep tightly covered.
Homemade dips 2 days Keep tightly covered.
Cream—light, heavy, half and half 3 days Cover tightly. To prevent bacteria spreading into leftover cream, do not return unused cream to original container.
Coffee lightener (liquid) 3 weeks Do not return unused portion to original container.
Cream—whipped, ultra pasteurized (unopened) 1 month  
Cream—whipped, sweetened 1 day  
Whipped cream in aerosol can 3 months  
Whipped topping prepared from mix 3 days Keep covered.
Whipped topping bought frozen (once thawed) 2 weeks Keep covered.
Milk evaporated (opened) 4 to 5 days Keep covered.
Milk  5 days Keep container tightly closed. Don't return unused milk to original container.
Milk sweetened, condensed (opened) 4 to 5 days Transfer to non-metal container. Keep covered. 
Mayonnaise 2 months Refrigerate after opening.
Pudding 2 days after opening Keep covered.
Yogurt 7 to 10 days Keep covered.
 
Food Recommended Storage Time for Safety at 33–41°F Handling Hints
Eggs
Eggs, in-shell 3 to 4 weeks Store covered. Keep small end down to center yolks.
Egg whites 3 days Store in covered container.
Egg yolks 3 days Cover yolks with water; store in covered container.
Hard cooked eggs 1 week  
Egg-containing products: custards, custard-filled pastries, cream pies 1 to 2 days  
Liquid or pasteurized eggs or egg substitutes, opened 3 days  
Liquid or pasteurized eggs or egg substitutes, unopened 10 days  
 
Food Recommended Storage Time for Safety at 33–41°F Handling Hints
Fruits and Vegetables
Apples 1 to 3 weeks  
Bananas See handling hints to the right. Refrigerate only when fully ripe.
Berries, cherries, peaches, pears, pineapple, etc. 1 to 2 days Discard bruised or decayed fruit. Do not wash before storing—moisture encourages spoilage. Store in crisper or moisture-resistant bag or wrap.
Citrus fruit 3 weeks Wrap cut surfaces of citrus fruit to prevent Vitamin C loss.
Juices—canned, bottled or reconstituted 6 days Keep fruit juice tightly covered. Transfer canned juice to glass or plastic container if not used up in one day. Thaw frozen juice in the refrigerator.
Juices in cartons, fruit drinks, punch opened 7 to 19 days
Juices in cartons, fruit drinks, punch unopened 3 weeks
Pre-mixed, full strength fruit juice See handling hints to the right. Keep refrigerated. Do not use after the "use by" date on the carton.
Bottled lemon or lime juice 12 months  
Cranberry juice cocktail  5 to 6 days  
Melons 1 week Wrap uncut cantaloupe and honeydew to prevent odor spreading to other foods. Wrap cut surfaces melon to prevent Vitamin C loss. 
Other fruit 3 to 5 days Before serving leftovers, slice off ¼ inch of the surface and discard. Bacteria accumulate in the cut surface.
Asparagus 1 to 2 days  
Corn in husks 1 to 2 days  
Beans, green or wax 1 to 2 days Keep in crisper or moisture-resistant wrap or bag.
Beets, carrots, radishes 1 to 2 weeks Remove leafy tops; keep in crisper.
Cabbage, celery 1 to 2 weeks Keep in crisper or moisture-resistant wrap or bag.
Lettuce head 5 to 7 days Store away from other vegetables and fruits to prevent russet spotting.
Mushrooms 1 to 2 days Do not wash before storing.
Shredded cabbage, leaf and bibb lettuce, salad greens 1 to 2 days Keep in moisture-resistant wrap or bag.
Tomatoes, ripe 1 to 2 days Ripen tomatoes at room temperature away from direct sunlight; then refrigerate. Refrigerate all cut tomatoes.
Unshelled peas, limas, spinach 3 to 5 days Keep in crisper or moisture-resistant wrap or bag.
 
Food Recommended Storage Time for Safety at 33–41°F Handling Hints
Meat, Fish, and Poultry
Ground beef, lamb 1 to 2 days  
Ground veal 1 to 2 days  
Beef, lamb, veal, and pork roasts 2 to 4 days  
Beef, lamb, veal, and pork steaks 2 to 3 days  
Beef, lamb, veal, and pork chops 2 to 3 days  
Variety meats 1 day  
Pre-stuffed, uncooked pork chops, lamb chops, or chicken breast stuffed with dressing 1 day  
Poultry, including chicken, duck, or turkey 1 to 2 days  
Chicken livers 1 to 2 days  
Fish and shellfish, fresh cleaned fish, including steaks and fillets 1 day  
Seafood including shucked clams, oysters, scallops, shrimp 1 day Store in coldest part of refrigerator.
Clams, crab, lobster in shell 2 days Cook only live shellfish.
 
Food Recommended Storage Time for Safety at 33–41°F Handling Hints
Cured or Smoked Meats
Bacon 7 days Keep wrapped. Store in coldest part of the refrigerator. Times are for opened packages.
Bologna loaves, liverwurst 4 to 6 days
Corned beef 5 to 7 days
Dried beef 10 to 12 days
Dry and semi-dry sausages 4 to 5 days
Frankfurters opened 4 to 5 days  
Frankfurters unopened 2 weeks  
Ground pork, ham, and picnic cured 1 to 2 days  
Canned ham opened 3 to 5 days Store in refrigerator unless label indicates refrigeration is not needed.
Canned ham unopened 6 months
Liver sausage 4 to 5 days
Fully cooked, vacuum sealed ham 2 weeks
Fully cooked, whole ham 1 week
Fully cooked, half ham 3 to 5 days
Sliced fully cooked ham 3 to 4 days
Luncheon meat opened 3 to 5 days
Luncheon meat unopened 2 weeks
Sausage, fresh or smoked 2 to 3 days
Sausage, dry and semi-dry 4 to 5 days
Smoked breakfast links, patties 7 days
Summer sausage—labeled "Keep refrigerated," opened 3 weeks
Summer sausage—labeled "Keep refrigerated," unopened 3 months
 
Food Recommended Storage Time for Safety at 33–41°F Handling Hints
Other Foods
Canned fruits, opened 1 week Transfer to glass or plastic container to avoid metallic taste. Cover and refrigerate.
Canned vegetables, opened 2 to 3 days
Unbaked rolls and bread 2 to 3 weeks  
Fruit pie, unbaked 1 to 2 days  
Baked fruit pies 2 to 3 days  
Pumpkin or chiffon pies 2 to 3 days  
Refrigerated biscuits, rolls, pastries, cookie dough Use by date on label  
Meat, fish, poultry pies and casseroles 3 to 4 days  
Gravy and meat broth leftovers 1 to 2 days Keep covered.
Cooked poultry with broth, gravy or nuggets/patties
1 to 2 days  
Pizza 3 to 4 days  
Cooked stuffing 3 to 4 days  
Soups or stews 3 to 4 days  

References

FDA/CFSAN. Food safety A to Z reference—refrigerator and freezer storage chart. Retrieved November 24, 2015, from fda.gov/food/foodscienceresearch/toolsmaterials/ucm216150.htm.
Food safety education: Chill. Cold storage chart. (2004). Retrieved June 1, 2009, foodsafety.gov/keep/charts/storagetimes.html.
Garden-Robinson, J. (2007). Food storage guide: Answers the question. Retrieved November 24, 2015 ag.ndsu.edu/burleighcountyextension/pdfs/fcs/fcs-publications/fn-579-food-storage-guide .
Kimball, C. (2004–2010). Cook's Illustrated, volumes 66–103.
K-State Research and Extension. Safe Food Storage: The Cupboard. bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/MF3131.pdf.
K-State Research and Extension. Safe Food Storage: The Refrigerator and Freezer. bookstore.ksre.ksu.edu/pubs/MF3130.pdf.
National Restaurant Association. (2001). Cold storage chart. Educational Foundation's International Food Safety Council.
Mead, P. S., L. Slutsker, V. Dietz, L. F. McCaig, J. S. Bresee, C. Shapiro, P. M. Griffin, and R. V. Tauxe. (1999). Food-related illness and death in the United States. Emerg. Infect. Dis. 5:607–625.
Topics: 
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