Have you ever searched through your freezer or refrigerator for something for dinner only to find packages of unidentifiable objects? We all have those items that get pushed to the back of the refrigerator or the bottom of the freezer and are forgotten. Sometimes the spoiled items are obvious, but not all items are so obviously spoiled.
Some members of your family may be more susceptible to food-borne illness than others — elderly, small children, women who are pregnant or anyone with an immune system that is compromised. Therefore it is best to take a look at your food storage areas and discard foods that may be spoiled.
Do you ever check the temperature in your refrigerator or freezer? The temperature setting for your refrigerator should be 40 degrees or lower and the freezer should be set at 0 degrees or lower. Above 40 degrees allows for growth of bacteria. If you don’t have a thermometer in your refrigerator get one and check the temperature from time to time. When cleaning out your refrigerator and freezer take the time to wash down the shelves to get rid of any potential bacteria or mold that might be growing there.
Canned items don’t last forever. Usually, high-acid canned items such as pineapple, grapefruit and tomatoes can be stored for about 12-18 months, where low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry and most vegetables will keep 2-5 years as long as the can is in good shape and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place.
Best by, use by, sell by dates are seen on most packaged food that you purchase at the grocery store. These terms are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
• Sell by tells the retailer how long a product should be displayed for sale. The consumer should use the product before the date expires.
• Best if used by is the time frame recommended to consume the product for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
• Use by recommends the time frame to fully consume the product by while it is still at its peak of quality. The product manufacturer determines this date.
If there isn’t a date on the package and you notice a change in taste, smell, color or quality, don’t consume it.
Pantry items vary considerably in their shelf life capacity. Items that are frozen will usually last much longer.
Pantry item, storage time at room temperature
Spices and seasonings, 1 year
Baking powder or soda, 18 months to 2 years
Ready-to-eat cereals, 2-3 months after being opened
Hot cereals, 6 months
Chocolate, 12-18 months
Cocoa, indefinitely, when kept in a tightly sealed container
Baking flours, 6-8 months, less for whole grain and nut flours
Honey-jams-jellies, 12 months
Pasta, 2 years, 6 months for egg noodles
Brown rice, 6 months
White rice, 1 year
Salad dressings, 10–12 months unopened
Vegetable oils, 1-3 months after being opened
Granulated or brown sugar, 2-4 months
Confectioner’s sugar, 18 months
Tea, 18 months for bags, 2 years for loose leaves
Freezer item, storage time
Steaks, 6-12 months
Roasts, 4-12 months
Chops, 4-6 months
Hamburger or ground meat, 3-4 months
Chicken pieces, up to 9 months
Whole chicken or turkey, up to 12 months
Hot dogs, 1-2 months
Bacon, 1 month
Raw sausage, 1-2 months
Lunch meats, 1-2 months
Knowing the approximate time you can keep items in your pantry or freezer will help you make smart decisions when shopping. If you bake a few times a week then you probably go through a lot of flour, sugar, baking powder and more, and it would be beneficial to purchase items in bulk. If you bake only a couple of times a year then you would want to purchase smaller package sizes. When you open a new container of baking powder, write the date on it so you’ll know how old it is.
Be sure to check the labels to see if the manufacturer recommends refrigerating products once they have been opened.
Freezing can keep many foods safe to eat for long periods of time, but the quality and flavor can decline if the food is improperly wrapped or stored too long. If you repackage items be sure to use freezer-safe containers or heavyweight plastic freezer bags and squeeze out as much air as possible before freezing.
If you know that you won’t consume a food by its expiration date, donate it to a food pantry where someone can use it right away and it won’t be wasted.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.