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Can I Eat That? Demystifying the Shelf Life of Foods

Should I buy this?  Can I eat that?  What if I freeze it?  When do I just throw everything out?  We don’t like to waste good food, but many of us are unsure how long to safely store foods prior to tossing them away.  The following guidelines should lessen the challenge of these decisions in the future.

The longevity of a food item is first critiqued at the store by appropriately interpreting the dates provided.  Common terms are defined as follows:

  • Best by” refers simply to the date a product will retain its best quality. This means, it will be safe to consume beyond this date, but the flavor and overall satisfaction may decline.
  • Sell by” provides a cutoff date for purchase; items will maintain safe to eat days following as outlined below.
  • Use by” establishes the manufacturer’s recommended last date the product be consumed. Despite appearance, foods should be consumed by this date or not at all.  Alternatively, freezing foods prior to the use by date will preserve them for future use.

Appropriate food storage is the best way to maintain both food quality and food safety. Always store items according to package directions to avoid bacterial growth or other spoilage.  Refrigerator temperatures should be maintained below 40°F and freezer temperatures below 0°F.  For food without a “use by” day follow the guidelines in the remainder of this text.


Eat or freeze fresh meats (raw, or cooked) within 3 to 5 days and cured ham within 5 to 7 days.  A few exceptions to this rule include poultry, ground meats, and sausage (all varieties), which should be stored for only 1 to 3 days.  Frozen seafood should be discarded if the expiration date has passed or the product has been previously thawed as indicated by ice crystals.

Processed foods sealed at purchase should be used or frozen within the time frames below as adopted from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Processed Product Unopened, after purchase After Opening
Cooked poultry or sausage 3 to 4 days 3 to 4 days


Corned beef, uncooked, in pouch 5 to 7 days
Vacuum-packed dinners 2 weeks
Sausage, hard/dry, shelf-stable 6 weeks 3 weeks
Bacon or hot dogs 2 weeks 7 days
Luncheon meat 3 to 5 days
Fully cooked ham 7 days Slices -3 days

Whole- 7 days

Shelf stable ham 2 years 3-5 days
Shelf stable, canned meat and poultry 2 to 5 years 4 to 5 days



Discard all milk within one week of opening, regardless of the sell-by date.  Yogurt should be consumed within 7 to 10 days from the sell-by date.  Ice cream will maintain quality for 2 to 4 months but may be safely consumed following per your palate.  Hard cheeses and cheese spreads will generally last 3 to 4 weeks in the refrigerator or may be placed in the freezer with an anticipated decrease in quality.  Softer cheeses have a shorter shelf life, with cream cheese acceptable for about 2 weeks, cottage cheese 10 to 30 days, and ricotta cheese lasting only about 5 days.


Raw eggs may be kept in the refrigerator for 3 to 5 weeks while hard-boiled eggs should be consumed within one week.  Eggs are best kept within their original carton and will decline faster with exposure within the refrigerator door egg tray.


Leftovers should be transferred to small shallow containers to encourage efficient cooling.  Date all leftovers and use within 4 to 7 days.  Discard any items left unrefrigerated for more than two hours.

You may freeze almost all foods indefinitely to maintain nutrition and avoid spoilage, however, quality will decline over time.  If you are unsure or suspicious of any food items follow the rule of thumb “when in doubt, throw it out.”  Plan ahead, be safe, and eat well!

Download a printable Fridge Facts guide

CHI Health Food and Nutrition Services Team
CHI Health Food and Nutrition Services Team

These blogs are written by members of the CHI Health Nutrition Services team.

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