For decades I cooked for a full table of family and friends every day. At that time I always had a packed refrigerator and pantry from which to select ingredients.

Now I eat alone most weekdays but can serve a crowd on weekends. This makes keeping fresh ingredients on hand more challenging. If I don’t cook much for a few weeks, excess items may go to waste before using them.

Fortunately, we have some dried, boxed, and frozen foods that have a longer shelf life. Chopped onion and green pepper is available in the freezer section which offers an easy way to use small portions without wasting a whole onion or pepper. Boxed whipping cream and milk may be stored in your cabinets until opened. And some products that we only use in certain recipes, such as buttermilk and tomato paste, are available in powdered form. Mixed with water, they are nearly identical to the fresh product.

Whatever food is used, it’s important to closely watch the date stamped on every item from pancake flour to cottage cheese to avoid illness. However, there is confusion as to what those dates really mean. Unless clearly stated, the date may be the recommended sell date or use by date. And this date may not apply once the product is opened. A good rule of thumb is to toss the food if there is any concern about its freshness to avoid food-borne illnesses. As I tell my kids, “When in doubt, throw it out. We can’t always know by the way a food looks or smells if it is safe to eat.

The US government has some recommendations on their website for common OPENED products. These recommendations are for foods that are stored properly in the inside of a refrigerator – not on the door – at 40° or below. Here are a few of these items and the length of time they may be kept safely (in the refrigerator) after opening:

  • Bacon – 7 days
  • Eggs, raw in shell – 3-5 weeks
  • Eggs, hard-cooked – 1 week
  • Egg, chicken, ham, tuna and macaroni salads – 3-5 days
  • Hot dogs – 1 week
  • Leftovers – 3-4 days
  • Lunch meat -3-5 days
  • Meat, ground -1-2 days
  • Meat, fresh beef, veal, lamb, pork -3-5 days
  • Milk -5-7 days past the date stamp
  • Poultry, fresh – 1-2 days
  • Sausage – Chicken, turkey, beef, or pork -1-2 days

©2015, Mary K. Doyle

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