A shelf life guide to the foods in your fridge

‘Shelf life’ is a funny term – but a very important one. If you’ve ever pulled some mouldy cheese out of your refrigerator or drank some milk that tasted like a dead foot, then you know what we’re talking about. Not only is consuming out-of-date food unpleasant, but it can also be unhealthy. That’s why Canstar Blue has produced a guide to the shelf life of different foods commonly found in your fridge.

Shelf life is an important property of food and should be of interest to everyone, from the producer of the food to the consumer (you). This article will provide an in-depth explanation of the shelf-lives of various common food products, as well as explaining exactly what shelf life means.

What’s the difference between shelf life and expiry dates?

First off, it’s important to make a distinction between shelf life and expiry dates, since confusing the two can have some bad ramifications. The expiry date is the date that the manufacturer lists on the labelling that states how long a product will ‘stay good’ for as long as it remains unopened. For highly perishable foods such as meat and dairy products, this is called a ‘use by date’, while foods that stay better in storage have a ‘best before’ date.

Shelf life, on the other hand, is a little different. The broad definition of shelf life is the length of time that products may be stored without becoming unfit for use or consumption. For food, it is the manufacturer’s label of how long the product will stay good for once it is opened.

Shelf life and expiration dates can be vastly different. For example, bread can last for months in the freezer, but as soon as you break that seal and defrost it, you have about a week to eat it all before it starts to go mouldy.

What determines shelf life?

No single factor influences the shelf life of food, but according to CSIRO, the most important factors that determine a food’s shelf life are:

  • Microbiological changes
  • Moisture and water vapour transfer
  • Chemical or biochemical changes
  • Food-packaging interaction
  • Domestic storage 

You can read their article on shelf life for a more in-depth understanding of how these factors affect the shelf life of your food.

The legal requirement for manufacturers of packaged foods to date foods was introduced in 1978. The packaging needs to include both a timeframe of use and expiry or used by date. The responsibility of determining the shelf life of food lies with the manufacturers, but the consumer also has to take responsibility to ensure that they check these dates and don’t consume off foods.

To help you with this, we have compiled a handy guide to the shelf life of your favourite refrigerator foods, so you can enjoy them in safety. In this guide, the shelf life in the freezer refers to storage at 0°C or below. A temperature of 0-3 indicates using the coldest part of the fridge, while 21-24 means it should be fine at room temperature, preferably stored in the cupboard. If a column in any of the tables below states ‘not recommended’, then do not store the product at that temperature.

The shelf life of meat products

food shelf life fridge life guide

Meat products are highly perishable and are highly sensitive to microbiological growth and deteriorative changes. Unless you’re planning on eating them straight away after buying them, you should always look to store meat products in the freezer to prevent them from going off. Depending on the type of meat you’re freezing, it can last anywhere from one month to one year, but the shelf life is usually much less than that.

Due to the extensive range of meat products, we’ve divided this section into three different tables – general meat products, fish products, and poultry.

General meat products

Food Shelf life in cupboard Shelf life in fridge Shelf life in freezer
Raw beef, lamb and steak Not recommended 3 days if wrapped, 5 days if unwrapped 6 months
Raw pork roast and lamb chops Not recommended 3 days if wrapped 4 months
Pork sausages and raw pork Not recommended 1-2 days 1-2 months
Roast beef and roast lamb Not recommended 2-3 days 6 months
Cooked steak Not recommended 2-3 days 6 months
Stewed meat and casseroles Not recommended 2-3 days 2-3 months
Beef mince Not recommended 2-3 days 2-3 months
Pre-packaged ham slices Not recommended 1-2 weeks if unopened, 4 days once opened 1-2 months
Sausages and salami Not recommended 1-2 weeks if unopened, 4 days once opened 1-2 months

Fish products

Food Shelf life in cupboard Shelf life in fridge Shelf life in freezer
Raw fish and prawns Not recommended 1-2 days 3-4 months
Cooked fish and prawns Not recommended 3-4 days 4-6 months
Cooked salmon Not recommended 1-2 weeks 2 months
Tinned tuna 12 months unopened 2 days in fridge once opened Not recommended
Crabs and oysters Not recommended 2 days 6 months

Poultry and other products

Food Shelf life in cupboard Shelf life in fridge Shelf life in freezer
Chicken mince and raw poultry Not recommended 2-3 days 3 months
Raw poultry – chicken, duck, turkey and goose Not recommended 1-2 days 3-6 months

 

Cooked poultry Not recommended 3-4 days – refrigerate within 2 hours of cooking 3-6 months
Cooked chicken nuggets Not recommended 1-2 days 1-3 months
Cooked poultry with stuffing Not recommended 1-2 days 1 month
Meat juice and gravy Not recommended 1-2 days 2-3 months
Tofu and meat substitutes Not recommended 4-5 days 6-8 weeks
Frozen dinners Not recommended 3-4 months; keep frozen

The shelf life of dairy products

Almost all dairy products, especially milk and cheese, need to be stored in the refrigerator. The exceptions to the rule are powdered milk and ice-cream. The period of time each dairy product needs to be stored for varies, but generally, they have very short shelf-lives, so be careful not to buy too much or you’ll end up having to throw it out. However, in a lot of cases, dairy products that are past their used-by dates are not necessarily dangerous to consume. They just might not taste very good!

Food Shelf life in cupboard Shelf life in fridge Shelf life in freezer
Milk Not recommended 1-2 weeks Not recommended
Cream Not recommended 5 days once opened Not recommended
Ice-cream Not recommended 1-2 months
Yoghurt Not recommended 1 week Not recommended
Hard cheeses Not recommended 1-3 months – varies by type Not recommended
Cottage and cream cheeses Not recommended 1-2 weeks Not recommended
Butter Not recommended 2 months Not recommended
Margarine Not recommended About 6 months
Condensed milk Varies, need to check the labelling when sealed Not recommended Not recommended

The shelf life of fat products

Fatty and oily products tend to have longer shelf lives since the absence of water in fats lessens the number of microorganisms in the food. They are not highly perishable and generally are stored at room temperature. Oily and fatty products should not be frozen.

Food Shelf life in cupboard Shelf life in fridge Shelf life in freezer
Vegetable oil 1-3 months opened, 6 months unopened Not recommended Not recommended
Salad oil 2months opened, 3 months unopened Not recommended Not recommended
Peanut butter 2-3 months opened; 6-9 months unopened 6 months opened Not recommended
Olive oil 1-2 weeks Not recommended Not recommended
Raw eggs Not recommended 5-6 weeks Do not freeze
Hard-boiled eggs/ cooked eggs Not recommended 1 week Do not freeze
Milk chocolate 7-8 months from opening, 10 months if unopened Only refrigerate if necessary Not recommended
Dark chocolate 1 year from opening, 2 years if unopened Only refrigerate if necessary Not recommended

The shelf life of grain, flour and wheat products

The shelf life of food in this category varies a lot in terms of shelf life. Grain products such as rice last much longer unattended, whereas flour and wheat products such as bread don’t last nearly as long, mainly due to a lack of preservatives.

Food Shelf life in cupboard Shelf life in fridge Shelf life in freezer
Cooked rice Not recommended 5-7 days Not recommended
Raw white rice 12 months Not recommended Not recommended
Raw brown rice 6 months, since they contain more natural oils Not recommended Not recommended
Pasta 6-12 months sealed, 2 months opened Not recommended Not recommended
Cereal 6-12 months sealed, 2 months opened Not recommended Not recommended
Bread 5-7 days 1-2 weeks (try to avoid storing in the fridge) Approximately 3 months
Cakes, cookies and muffins 1 week 1 week 3 months

The shelf life of canned and bottled goods

As a general rule, unopened home canned goods have a shelf life of approximately one year, and they should retain their best quality until that point. Foods that have higher acid levels and aren’t stored in a liquid have a shorter shelf life. Canned foods are the best survivable goods, as they can last up to 10 years unopened!

Food Shelf life in cupboard Shelf life in fridge Shelf life in freezer
Dried fruits and gravy powder Approx. 6 months sealed Not recommended Not recommended
Canned fruits and vegetables 12 months + sealed Not recommended Not recommended
Pate 3 weeks sealed, 5-7 days once opened Not recommended Not recommended
Mayonnaise/salad dressing Not recommended 2-3 months Do not freeze
Tomato/barbeque sauce 4-6 months 4-5 months Do not freeze
Bottled fruit juice 1-2 weeks Not recommended
Canned fruit juice 6 months max Not recommended Not recommended
Soft drink 6 months 6 months Not recommended
Baby food Approx. 6 months unopened 1-2 days once opened Do not freeze

The shelf life of fruits and vegetables

Eating fresh produce is a requirement of a healthy diet, yet a lot of people end up throwing away rotten fruits and veggies due to the rate at which they expire. To avoid this, consult the following two tables below, separated for fruit and vegetables.

Fruit

Food Shelf life in cupboard Shelf life in fridge Shelf life in freezer
Apples 4 days 1 month Not recommended
Avocadoes 3 days 3 days Not recommended
Bananas 7 days if green, 2-4 days if ripe Do not refrigerate as they will turn black in the cold Not recommended
Berries Not recommended 2-3 days Not recommended
Citrus 1-2 weeks 2 weeks + Not recommended
Grapes 3-5 days Not recommended Not recommended
Kiwi fruit 2-3 days to ripen 1 week once ripe Not recommended
Melons 1 week Not recommended
Peaches 1 day to ripen 3 days once ripe Not recommended
Pears 2 days to ripen 2 weeks once ripe Not recommended
Pineapple 2 days (whole pineapple) 1 week once cut Not recommended
Strawberries Not recommended 3 days if covered and isolated from other foods Not recommended
Watermelon 2-3 days 6-8 days Not recommended

Vegetables

Food Shelf life in cupboard Shelf life in fridge Shelf life in freezer
Pre-packaged frozen vegetables Not recommended 12 months in original packaging Not recommended
Canned vegetables Not recommended 3 days once opened Not recommended
Asparagus Not recommended 3-5 days Not recommended
Beans Not recommended 3-6 days Not recommended
Broccoli Not recommended 5-7 days Not recommended
Cabbage Not recommended 1-2 months Not recommended
Carrots Not recommended 1-3 months Not recommended
Capsicum Not recommended 1-2 weeks Not recommended
Cauliflower Not recommended 1-2 weeks Not recommended
Celery Not recommended 3-4 weeks Not recommended
Corn Not recommended 3 days Not recommended
Cucumber Not recommended 10-12 days Not recommended
Eggplants Not recommended 10-12 days Not recommended
Lettuce and mushrooms Not recommended 10-12 days Not recommended
Onions 1-3 months 1-3 months Not recommended
Peas Not recommended 5-6 days Not recommended
Sweet and white potatoes 2-4 months Do not refrigerate Not recommended
Tomatoes 2-5 weeks to ripen 5-7 days Not recommended

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In addition to this information above, there are a number of things you should know that are often necessary to maintain the lifespan and quality of your fruit and veggies:

  • Store apples in plastic and separate them from other fruits and veggies in the fridge, since apple gas turns things brown.
  • Keep all citrus fruits in plastic bags or containers, separate from other fruits and veggies.
  • Keep grapes in a covered bowl to retain their moisture.
  • Wrap melons tightly in cling wrap so their odour won’t contaminate other foods.
  • Wrap all tomatoes in paper if you want them to stay fresh in the fridge.
  • When storing veggies in plastic bags, poke a few holes in the bags to provide air circulation.
  • Always keep fruits and vegetables in separate produce sections of your fridge.
  • Never store potatoes and onions together, as they give off gases that can cause rapid decay of the other.
  • Don’t wash the veggies prior to putting them in the fridge. Only do this once you’re ready to eat them.

Eating foods that have passed their shelf lives can lead to food poisoning,  salmonella poisoning, and other illnesses, so it is best that you avoid doing so. Knowing the shelf lives and expiry dates of the foods in your fridge is an easy way to avoid this, although you can always learn to recognise the signs that your food is off as well.

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