When you peek in your fridge and wonder what to keep or toss, you may be surprised to know there’s a lot of wiggle room. As much as 40 percent of food is wasted in the U.S. every year, and while the “smell test” is not reliable when it comes to cleaning out your fridge, these easy tips for 10 popular foods will get you on the right track.
Before you start, make sure your fridge is cold enough. Skip the “coldness” dial in your fridge, and get a thermometer to keep inside on a shelf — the temperature should be no higher than 40 degrees to avoid bacterial growth and rapid food spoilage.
1. Frozen chicken
Bought a ton of chicken on sale? Store it in a single layer in a heavy duty freezer bag. Squeeze out excess air in the bag, and plan to use within three months. Frozen chicken (and all frozen foods) are safe to eat indefinitely, but will lose taste and flavor the longer it is stored. If you don’t seal the food carefully, freezer burn can occur, which dries out the exposed meat — though it’s still safe to eat.
2. Raw chicken
This is highly perishable. Always use by the date on the package (usually up to two days); and use on the same or the next day when you purchase from a butcher case in paper wrapping without a date. Otherwise, freeze it. When you thaw out that chicken, put it on a plate to catch any raw chicken juices and allow 24 hours in the fridge.
3. Deli meat
Buy what you need for up to three days. Ask at the deli counter when the large piece they’re slicing from was opened — it’s not three days from when you buy it, but three days from when the piece was opened. You can try vacuum-sealed deli meats that have a long fridge life — up to a couple of months if unopened. If opened, they still have the same three day shelf life.
Eat all of your leftovers within three days and store them properly — a sealed Ziploc bag is easiest, but plastic wrap works fine.
5. Frozen bread/bagels
Like all foods stored in the freezer, breads and bagels are safe to eat indefinitely. Store these in a freezer bag and eat within two weeks for optimal taste and flavor. When stored in the freezer, breads and bagels will dry out, and develop ice crystals and freezer odors.
Both ground coffee and whole beans pick up moisture easily, making them a magnet for sucking up the odors of other foods stored with them. Keep a one- or two-week supply in an airtight container in the fridge. For longer than that, store them in the freezer to maintain optimal freshness for about three months.
7. Chicken or beef broth
That recipe called for a half-cup of broth, so now you're stuck with the rest. If the broth was canned, pour it into another container, refrigerate and use it within three days. Or freeze it for up to a month in a small airtight container.
Labeling on egg containers varies widely and can be confusing — from sell by, to use by, to simply a date. The best rule of thumb is to use your eggs within two weeks of any date on the package. Always store eggs in a middle shelf of the fridge. Avoid storing in the door because it’s the warmest part of the fridge from all the opening.
9. Canned tomatoes
Any leftovers should be stored in a sealed container, never in the original can. Use them within three days. While you can freeze them, the texture will change and become mushy, so save them for a soup or stew.
10. Snack foods, like chips and cookies
When you seal these packages completely after opening, they’ll stay fresh at least until the date listed on the package. When exposed to air, the fats in these foods start to break down, impacting taste and crispness. Try a Ziploc bag around the original packaging to maintain optimal freshness. While the taste and texture can change after a few weeks, these foods are still safe to eat.
Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, is NBC News Health and Nutrition Editor.