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 brief guidelines to help determine how long food should be stored for maximum freshness and safety.
Leftovers may be the most susceptible to pathogens because they often spend an elongated amount of time in the temperature danger zone (between 40 to 140 F) as they cool. Although bacteria is usually killed during the cooking process, it is quickly reintroduced from the environment after cooking. Leftovers should be placed in the refrigerator (below 40 F) as soon as possible after cooking. Once refrigerated, leftovers should be kept for only 3 to 4 days. If promptly frozen, leftovers can be stored for 3 to 4 months.
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 beef, pork, or lamb can be kept refrigerated for 3 to 5 days prior to cooking. Cured meats, such as ham, can be kept a little longer or for 5 to 7 days.
Eggs should always be stored refrigerated below 40 F. Storing eggs in the main compartment of the refrigerator, rather than storage compartments on the inside of the door, will help ensure that they stay at the proper temperature. When stored properly, eggs can be kept for 3 to 5 weeks past the "sell by" date. If your eggs take on an undesirable or sulfur like smell, discard them.
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 which can allow bacteria entry.
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 rogue smells. Once opened, frozen foods should only be kept 1 to 2 months in the freezer.