Spring clean your fridge: What to keep or toss

By Madelyn Fernstrom, Diet and nutrition editor

If you’re confused about what those food expiration labels mean, you’re not alone. Most Americans are tossing safe and perfectly edible foods in the trash after looking at food “dates” that are vague at best.

You might be surprised to know that most food dating is voluntary, and not government mandated (except for infant formula and some baby foods), leading to a lot of variability in what these labels represent.

Understanding what these terms actually mean will help extend your food budget and avoid waste, while also helping to avoid food spoilage.

Here are some popular labels for fresh (refrigerated) items that are the most confusing:

  • Pack date simply means when the food was packaged and does not indicate freshness or shelf-life.
  • Sell-by date is the last day a grocery store, or any retailer, can have the food on shelves for sale. Most foods, if stored properly, are safe to eat for up to several days or several months after this date, depending on the food (see below).
  • Use-by or best if used by date means a food is safe to eat, with optimal taste, flavor, and freshness until this date when properly stored. It refers only to quality, not safety, and is not an index of spoilage.
  • Guaranteed fresh by date usually refers to baked goods, and indicates optimal freshness. The products are still safe and edible beyond the date.

However, these dates don’t apply after you’ve opened the package. While hot dogs may have a "use by" date of three months ahead, once you've opened the package, you only have about a week to eat the rest.

Food safety also extends to how and where you store your foods. Get a food thermometer to make sure foods are stored at 40 degrees or below. More perishable foods should be kept in the "meat drawer," which is usually the coldest section. It's OK to store condiments in the refrigerator door, but keep eggs, milk and yogurt in the main compartment for optimal freshness. Here are a few guidelines:

  • In the door: This is the least cold part of the fridge and is best for condiments, pickles, salad dressings and other foods with a high acid (think vinegar) content to resist bacterial growth.
  • The coldest shelf: The middle of the fridge, sometimes also containing a separate meat drawer, is best for highly perishable foods like fish, deli meats, eggs or dairy.
  • The middle/lower shelves: These are a great place for leftovers.
  • Bottom drawers: The fruit and vegetable crispers maintain higher humidity, helping to preserve thin-skinned veggies like peppers, broccoli and leafy greens.

Here are USDA recommendations for food storage:

In the fridge:

  • fresh meats: 1-2 days
  • lunch meats: 3-5 days
  • hot dogs: 1 week opened
  • salads: 3-5 days
  • chicken, fish: 1-2 days
  • hard cheese: 3-4 weeks
  • milk: 5 days
  • yogurt/sour cream: 7-10 days
  • leftovers: 3-4 days

In the freezer:

  • beef: 3-4 months
  • soups/stews: 2-3 months
  • chicken: 9-12 months
  • cheese: 6-9 months

Be sure to double wrap foods in plastic wrap to avoid “freezer burn,” which doesn’t affect food safety but creates an odd texture and reduces flavor.

Remember that these are all approximate dates and will depend on optimal storage conditions including quick transport from the store to your home and refrigerating perishable items immediately after use. 

The "smell test" is not a reliable because food can still be contaminated without a bad odor. But remember, when in doubt, throw it out!