How to Gauge the Shelf Life of Food

Shopping and meal-planning are just a couple of the tasks involved in healthy, flavorful eating. You also need to become a food detective of sorts, and pay attention to the shelf life of food you eat every day. Not only is this important for fresh taste and texture, but it keeps you safe from foodborne illnesses. Because expiration dates aren’t regulated by the FDA, but rather provided by food product sellers, you need to stay mindful.

It’s essential that you know how a food typically smells, looks and tastes when it’s fresh. This allows you to use your senses to identify food that has gone bad. Keep the following guidelines in mind as you manage your kitchen.


Naturally, the lifecycle of a fruit or vegetable varies based on what kind it is. Green leafy vegetables and lettuces, for example, typically go bad more quickly than foods such as broccoli and celery because they’re delicate and, according to The Kitchn, often depend on their roots for moisture. Foods like carrots, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic and winter squashes last much longer — anywhere from several weeks to a few months.

Learn more about food storage.


Fresh berries and soft fruits such as peaches and bananas have a shorter shelf life than fruits like apples. Berries usually go bad within a week, whereas you can keep apples refrigerated for several weeks before they start to decay. You can ultimately tell if fruits or vegetables have gone bad when they don’t look or smell fresh; they get soft, discolored and develop white or brown fuzzy spots or patches. They may also have a foul odor.

Meat and Eggs

You’ll know when meat and eggs are no longer fresh and safe to eat when they smell before or during cooking, or they taste spoiled while eating them. Eggs in their shells keep in the refrigerator for three to five weeks, states the U.S. Department of Health. When it’s frozen solid, chicken stays fresh in the freezer between nine months (for chicken pieces) and a year (for whole chicken). Ground beef can stay in the freezer for four months whereas steak can last up to a year.


As is the case with meat and eggs, the smell of seafood often determine whether it’s still fresh. Fish can be expected to have a rather strong smell even when fresh, but it should not have an odor that doesn’t match how the it smells when you first buy or catch it. MyRecipes suggests lean dishes like catfish should be used within one or two days, but they can be frozen for six months before cooking.

Dry Goods and Packaged Food

Dry goods and packaged food can take longer to go bad, but it’s still important to be cautious about shelf life. These foods include dry goods like pasta, rice and flour, as well as packaged products such as crackers, canned items (fruits, beans, vegetables and soup), cooking oils and frozen produce. If you’re unsure whether an item like this is still fine to eat, go by its texture, smell and appearance. Flour, according to Eat By Date, generally stays fresh for at least four months.

When food shows signs of exceeding its shelf life, throwing it away is your best course of action. When in doubt, throw it out — that’s far better than taking a chance on getting sick. To follow your food budget and avoid having to toss food that has gone bad, be sure to plan the quantities of the foods that you buy. Meal planning can be an excellent tool to help you do this.

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