Toss Or Keep: A Primer on Fresh (And Not So Fresh) Foods

moldy bread

Guest blogger – Anna Polucha, Nutritionist

We’ve all been there — maybe you just got home from work or school, or maybe it’s the middle of the night, and you decide to check the fridge for a snack. You open the refrigerator door and spot something vaguely familiar; it could be leftovers or something you bought from the store a few weeks ago but never got around to eating. You give it a quick optical pat-down, and it looks ok, but you can’t help but wonder: How old is this? Can I eat this? Should I eat this?

That age-old conversation of “Sweetie, does this look ok to eat?” can be easily resolved with a little professional expertise. Nutritionist Anna Polucha dispelled some myths about food storage, palatability, and whether or not those leftovers are really worth the risk.

She says that when food is left at warm temperatures for too long, pathogens (bacteria, fungus, viruses) can grow and the food can become unsafe to consume. Food should be tossed if it has sat at room temperature for longer than two hours; even reheating the food cannot kill all of the bacteria that have had a chance to grow.

Most people are not cautious about this and will pack up food from a holiday or cookout that has been out for well over two hours. Even if you’ve never gotten sick from eating this type of food, you should remember that the very young and very old have weakened immune systems. They may not always be able to fight off the bugs.

When it comes to storing foods, first check your refrigerator temperature. Pathogens grow well in food in temperatures over 41°F, so your refrigerator should be set lower than that.

These foods are most likely to become unsafe and need to be stored in a refrigerator:

  • Milk and dairy products
  • Raw meat (beef, pork, lamb)
  • Raw fish
  • Baked potatoes
  • Tofu, soy protein
  • Cut up fruits and vegetables
  • Eggs
  • Raw poultry
  • Raw shellfish
  • Cooked foods/leftovers (grains, vegetables and fruit, meats, beans)
  • Lunch meats
  • Sprouts and sprout seeds
  • Untreated garlic and oil mixtures

Most foods will last three to five days in the refrigerator before they become unpalatable. These foods can be kept for no longer than seven days in a refrigerator before they become unsafe.

There is a difference between unpalatable and unsafe. Most molds and slimes (yuck) that grow on food after three to five days are harmless, but they do make food taste and smell bad. After seven days, the food is much more likely to carry invisible pathogens that could cause food borne illness.

If a food has a “sell by” or “consume by” date, it’s safe to use that date as a reference, even if it’s longer than seven days.

Some foods, like yogurt or deli meat, come in sealed packages that have a sell-by date that is weeks or months away. Once the seal is broken, you should abide by the three to seven day rule.

Eggs are one exception. They last three to five weeks in the refrigerator or until the sell-by date.

The best solution to food storage is freezing. Most people think of freezing only raw meat, but you can freeze things like leftovers or deli meat as well. Foods will last between one and two months in the freezer.

There you have it — some reliable, solid advice for keeping your perishables palatable. Leftovers can be a tempting (and tasty) fallback when you’re looking for some last-minute chow, but your safety is always the most important thing.

Join the conversation. How often do you break the toss and keep rules?

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