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How long does food last in the fridge? Your guide to meat, produce, leftovers and more

Techly's How To Adult Series

When we move out to into our own place for the first time as young adults, one of the first things many of us underestimate is food.

More specifically, how does one store food? For how long? Is it safe to eat that slice of pizza you stuck in the freezer last Christmas?

The key is to pack your food efficiently and understand when things should be tossed in the bin. Also, before we get into specifics, don’t leave your refrigerator as packed as a Tokyo subway. Always leave some space for the air to circulate.

Alright – let’s get stuck into it!

Meat, poultry and seafood

Birds eye view of seasoned beef steak ready to grill

Sprinkle random herbs and spices over red meat to make it look fancy.

When it comes to fresh red meat, fish and poultry, always keep it in its original wrapping, because opening it to re-wrap or re-package it exposes the food to harmful bacteria.

If it didn’t come with its own styrofoam tray, put a plate underneath it to catch any drippings (the last thing you need is a fridge full of smelly, gross meat juice). Once I had a roommate who thought it was somehow a clever idea to use his girlfriend’s maxi pads. Please, don’t do that.

Bacteria that cause food poisoning grow more rapidly between 4°C and 60°C, which is why refrigeration slows down the growth of those nasty bugs. That temperature range is to be avoided at all costs.

Also in our How To Adult series:

Set your fridge to 4°C or below and try to eat your food sooner rather than later. The low temperatures inside your fridge might slow the growth of bacteria, but that doesn’t mean it will stop it.

Generally speaking, poultry, seafood and raw ground meats shouldn’t be left in the fridge much longer than one or two days. Steaks, chops and roasts – whether they be pork, lamb, beef or veal – can last for three to five days.

Chucking some cooked meat back in the fridge? It should be fine for another three to four days before it should be eaten or tossed.

Milk

Milk and cows in the background.

Who doesn’t drink their milk next to a paddock full of cows?

Ever had a whiff of suspect milk and had trouble deciding whether or not it’s fine to drink?

Well, if it smells like a farm animal then throw it right away. Who would have thought, right? But if the smell is more subtle, see if you can detect a more subtle sour odour. Other signs of bad milk include an off-white or yellowish tinge and a clumpy texture.

If stored properly, milk can last for a few days after it’s expiration date, but the risk really isn’t worth it. If this happens, best just buy some more.

Pro tip: to maximise the shelf life of your milk, store it in the main body of your fridge (where it’s colder) instead of the shelf attached to the door. Milk that’s been hanging around outside the fridge for more than four hours should be thrown out straight away, even if it doesn’t smell too bad.

Oh, and by the way: milk, just like yoghurt and sour cream, should always be kept in its original container. It’s a bit trickier with cheese, but you can always wrap it in wax paper, plastic or foil after removing the original wrapping.

Fruit and vegetables

Fruits

Saturated close-ups of your fruit bowl will work wonders for your boring
Instagram feed.

Interestingly, vegetables and fruits emit a hormone called ethylene as they ripen. Fruits that emit a lot of ethylene, like apples and bananas, can be stored with other produce you want to ripen at a faster rate.

However, be mindful of certain fruits and vegetables that are sensitive to ethylene and may decay faster than you eat them. Choice has a handy chart showing which veggies tend to be more vulnerable.

By the way, do you wash your produce before putting it in the fridge? Stop. This can cause them to go mouldy far more quickly, so you’re better off washing them just before you cook or eat them. When you do put bagged produce in the fridge, always try to perforate the bags to allow air to circulate.

As a general rule, it’s recommended to use all your fruit and veggies within five days of putting them in the fridge.

Pro tip: Have limp veggies? You can bring back their crispness by placing them stem-side down in a small amount of water. Refrigerate until they feel crisp again.

Leftovers

A slice of pizza being lifted up.

The only thing better than pizza is leftover pizza.

Our favourite.

Leftovers are an essential part of a young adult’s diet. They’re pretty easy to deal with for the most part, but you do have to take some precautions. Some bacteria survive the cooking process – yeah I know, THE HORROR – and may grow in your food if it’s at room temperature for long enough.

CSIRO says it’s important to put cooked food into the fridge as soon as possible to prevent microbe growth.

However, it’s suggested that a small cooling off period (no longer than an hour) may be required for large quantities of hot food since modern refrigerators are only built to cope with small amounts of heat.

That said, you can circumvent this problem altogether by splitting your leftovers into small, airtight and leakproof containers so that they can be placed in the fridge immediately.

Once your leftovers are in the fridge, try not to leave them there for more than four days; however, this will vary somewhat depending on the type of food.

If you’re someone to leave half-full cans open in the fridge, you best change your ways. Once a can is opened, residual metal can creep into your food and leave a metallic taste. If you start glowing in the night, don’t say we didn’t warn you!

The bottom line

Ultimately, a little common sense goes a long way. Don’t be lazy, buy fresh where possible, and remember: if in doubt, just throw it out.

If you want to geek out a bit further, the Australian Institute of Food safety and the US Food and Drug Administration have compiled some nifty comprehensive guides with more suggested storage times for both the fridge and freezer.

About the author

Filmmaker. 3D artist. Procrastination guru. I spend most of my time doing VFX work for my upcoming film Servicios Públicos, a sci-fi dystopia about robots, overpopulated cities and tyrant states. @iampineros

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