IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Toss it? Top tips for keeping food fresh and safe

TODAY food editor Phil Lempert offers some guidelines on what to throw out and what to keep.
/ Source: TODAY

In a quandary about those leftovers? Don't know if those cold cuts are safe to eat? Kitchen pantry turned into an unorganized mess? Well, you're in luck. It's clean up time and TODAY food editor Phil Lempert has the scoop on what you can keep and what you have to throw away from your refrigerator and those cluttered kitchen cabinets. He says it's about food safety, convenience and getting your kitchen organized:

Start in the refrigerator:
Check expiration dates carefully and don’t assume that just because your refrigerator seems cool that the products will last beyond the expiration date. What we don’t think about are the many "un-cool" moments that our fresh and frozen foods experience from manufacture to our home. Trucks that may not be at the correct temperature, foods sitting on loading docks waiting to be unpacked and even the time that it sits in our own shopping carts and on the way home, can all effect the perishability of our foods.

Proper air circulation is critical for proper refrigeration and freezing. Look carefully to see where the air vents are and be sure to leave them exposed. Leave spaces between products — don’t jam them together — to allow the air to circulate.

The most important refrigerator and freezer accessory is a thermometer. Refrigerator temperature should be between 38 and 40 degrees and freezers at zero.

The doors on your refrigerator and freezer are the most convenient, but also the warmest. Use these shelves for those products that are the least perishable — salad dressings, soda, condiments, etc.

Crispers are designed for fruits and vegetables and usually have different settings for each. Crispers that are too cold may spoil your produce. Be sure to put a clean absorbent paper towel on the bottom of the drawer. Not only will it make cleanup easier, but it will also absorb excess moisture and keep your produce fresher longer.

The second most important tool is a permanent marker. Circle or write expiration dates in big letters that are easy to read. Use zipper bags to store opened foods. Never put uncovered foods in your refrigerator.

Remember that you cannot see, taste or smell bacteria until it’s too late and can cause serious food illnesses.

The foods:

  • Milk should always be put on a shelf and never on the door.
  • Eggs should be stored in the container they came in. Never use the plastic egg container that comes with some refrigerators. Eggs need to breathe and the plastic container keeps them from doing so and will cause them to spoil faster. Fresh eggs will last up to three weeks if stored properly.
  • Condiments kept in the fridge will last up to a year, except mayonnaise and that should be kept only for two months. The most dangerous part of condiments is cross contamination. Be sure to always use a clean utensil that has not touched other foods before putting the knife or fork into the jar.

Next is the freezer:
Freezers are known for their mysteries. Go ahead, open yours up and count how many unidentified foil packages you have. Be sure to wrap foods in foil and then put in a freezer zipper bag. And again identify what’s inside and the date.

Just because it’s in the freezer does not mean it will last forever.

Here are frozen storage guidelines for products that are properly packaged in airtight containers:

  • Frozen entrees and dinners:  three to four months
  • Ground beef or turkey: three months
  • Lunchmeats (unopened): one month
  • Bacon (unopened): one month
  • Whole chicken or turkey: one year

Then on to the kitchen cabinets:
Most shelves are jammed with boxes, cans and jars — many for which we can't even remember the purchase date. Step one is going through what’s in your cabinets and checking expiration dates and inspecting packages carefully.

Look for expiration dates. Use a permanent marker to mark the cans and boxes with the date you purchase them in large letters on the side of the can that you can easily see.

  • Cooking oils should always be stored in a cool dry place. Unopened oil lasts about six months, once opened up to three months.
  • Salad dressings will last unopened up to a year and after opening should be kept in the fridge up to three months.

Put paper boxes of grains — for example, crackers, pasta, cereals, and rice — in airtight containers or large zipper bags. Not only will the products stay fresher, but it will also prevent insects from finding their way in your favorite pasta. The starch that is used to hold together corrugated boxes can be a breeding ground for insects both in warehouses and in supermarkets. And when these bugs get hungry they can find their way into packages that you can inadvertently bring home.

  • Pastas will last about a year unopened or stored in an airtight container.
  • Egg Noodles will only last about one to two months after they're opened.
  • Rice will last about a year, but be sure to keep moisture out.
  • Herbs and spices can be breeding grounds for bugs, so handle and store these properly. Whole spices last about two years, ground spices between six to 12 months. Always store in glass jars. Spices in plastic jars or plastic bags don’t last as long as the plastic itself allows air to get in. Never buy spices in wooden bins. They are a haven for insects.
  • Canned foods will last up to two years from date of manufacture — not the date you purchased them. Many cans still carry a manufacturing code (instead of a "use by" date). There is no standard, but most canned goods follow this system:
    If the code reads as E719W1...
    E = Month manufactured, the manufacturing year typically starts in June with A for June. In this case E = "October."
    7 = Last number of the year which it was manufactured. In this example — 2007.
    19 = The day of the month manufactured.
    W = Plant name or location.
    1 = Shift that the product was manufactured. In this case, the first shift of the day.
    If you don’t want to take the trouble to decipher, just call the 800# on the package and the customer service representative will be happy to tell you when it was made.

Never use canned foods that are rusty, bent, dented or bulging. It’s a sure sign that bacteria are growing inside.

And for those of you who want to get even more shelf life, here are three products you may want to check out:

VacuWare Fresh Food System is a vacuum sealing system that preserves foods three to five times longer than those stored with traditional methods and is ideal for foods that spoil quickly when exposed to air and contaminants, those that will be stored over long periods of time and foods that can go stale due to time or humidity. VacuWare retails for $160. (

QuickSeals converts nearly any packaged food item into a resealable storage container. The product uses a zip slider top and adhesive strips to form a seal with any food bags or boxes. A 20-pack (10 medium size and 10 large size) retails for $3.49, a 6-pack (3 medium and 3 large) $1.29, and a 150-pack (75 medium and 75 large) $24.99. (

DaysAgo Digital Day Counter is a counter that attaches to any surface with a magnetic or suction backing and counts up to 99 days. You can use it on food containers to let you know how many days ago you opened it, closed it, tried it, sauced it, grew it, etc. As for leftovers, it eliminates the doubt about when to throw it out. Available in Lime, Tangerine, Charcoal and Blueberry colors and each 2-pack sells for $10. (

For more food and health information as well as recipes, check out Phil’s website at

Phil Lempert is food editor of the TODAY show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .