Maintain Quality & Safety
Storage does not improve the quality of any food. The quality of a food item will also not decrease significantly during storage as long as the food is stored properly and used within the recommended time frame.
Quality is not the same as safety. A poor-quality food may be safe, such as stale cereal, overripe fruit, or soured pasteurized milk. An unsafe food may have good quality in terms of appearance and taste but have a high (unsafe) bacterial count. For example, improperly canned food may contain Clostridium botulinum (which causes botulism), thus making it unsafe. Or cooked chicken may be placed on a plate that held the raw chicken and becomes contaminated. The goal of home food storage is to provide both safe and high-quality foods.
Maintaining a food’s quality depends on several factors: the quality of the raw product, the procedures used during processing, the way the food is stored, and the time length of storage. For example, fresh-picked corn will store better than corn that has been in the market for a few days; a tightly folded inside cereal box liner will prevent a ready-to-eat cereal from becoming limp. The recommended storage time takes these factors into consideration.
Since bacteria can frequently enter into food through careless food handling, keep everything – hands, pantry, shelves, and storage containers – clean.
To help assure quality, some products have “open dates” on the package. Product dating is optional on most products. Dates may also be “coded” by the manufacturer and only understood by them.
Sell-by Date: This is the last recommended day of sale. The date allows for home storage and use. You will find the date after the statement, “Sell by (a date).” Bread and baked goods may have “sell-by dates.”
Use-by Date: Tells how long the product will retain top quality after you buy it. You will find this date after the statement, “Use by.” Some packaged goods have “use-by dates.”
Expiration Date: This is the last day the product should be used or eaten. You may find this date after the statement, “Do not use after (date).” Yeast and baking powder have “expiration dates.”
Pack Date: Canned or packaged foods may have dates, which tell you when the product was processed. This does not tell you how long the food will be good.
These are guidelines; if a food is not properly handled, its storage life will be shortened. Follow these tips for purchasing top-quality foods that have been handled safely.
For best results in maintaining product quality, practice the rule: FIRST IN, FIRST OUT. This means you use the oldest products first and the newest products later. A good practice in the home is to place the newly purchased products behind the same products already on the shelf. It may help to write purchase dates on products without “open dates” on the package. Follow recommended storage times for the refrigerator (HGIC 3522), freezer, and pantry (See the chart on the following pages.)
- Storage areas near oven ranges, hot water pipes or heating ducts should not be used because heat and moisture can cause food to lose its quality more rapidly.
- Insect infestation can occur in any home. Susceptible foods include cereals, flour, seeds, baking mixes, spices, candy, dried fruits, and dry pet foods. Avoid purchasing damaged packages of foods and keep cupboard shelves and pantry areas clean. Storing food in tightly sealed glass, metal, or rigid plastic containers may help reduce the chances of insect infestation.
- High temperature or humidity may reduce storage time considerably.
- Pantry foods will possibly be safe beyond recommended storage time, yet eating quality (flavor and texture), and nutritive value will be reduced.
Recommended Times for Foods Stored in the Pantry in Tightly Sealed or Airtight Containers
|Bread & Cakes
Store bread & cakes at room temperature. Storing in the refrigerator promotes staling. Use within 3-7 days or 3 months if stored frozen.
|Bread Crumbs||4 months|
|Brown Rice||6 months|
|Cornmeal and hominy grits||12 months|
|Honey and syrups||1 year|
|Nonfat dry milk||1 year|
|Olive oil||6 months|
|Sugar, brown or powdered||18 months|
|Vegetable oil||1 year|
|Wheat germ (unopened)||8-12 months|
|White flower||10-15 months|
|Whole wheat flour||3 months (best in refrigerator or freezer)|
|Wild rice||6 months|
|Baking mix (biscuit, cake)||6 months|
|Soup mix (dry)||12 months|
|Dried apricots||3 months (refrigerate after opening)|
|Dried prunes, raisins||9 months (refrigerate after opening)|
|Dried peas and beans||1 year|
|Salt, cream of tarter||indefinitely|
|Ground spices and herbs||2-3 years|
|Whole spices||4-5 years|
|Tabasco, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce||30 months|
|Beverages (sealed, unopened)|
|Bottled water||2-5 years|
|Soft drinks||8 months|
|Chocolate chips, cocoa||18 months|
|Coffee (canned)||12 months|
|Nuts (unshelled)||6-12 months|
|Peanut butter||3-4 months (best refrigerated)|
Recommended Times for Food Stored in Cool, Dry Pantry (65 To 70 °F)
|Canned fruits, juices, tomatoes, pickles||12-18 months|
|Canned meats and vegetables||2-5 years|
|Home-canned foods||1 year|
|Onions||1-3 month at room temperature or below|
|Potatoes||1-3 months at 45-50 °F
1 week at room temperature
|Squash, hard-rind||1-3 months at 60 °F
1 week at room temperature
|Sweet potatoes||1-3 months at 60 °F
1 week at room temperature
Minch, Daryl L., (February 1994.) Home Storage of Foods Part I: Refrigerator and Freezer, and Part II: Pantry. Rutgers Cooperative Extension, State University of New Jersey. http://njaes.rutgers.edu/pubs/publication.asp?pid=FS274
Public Affairs. (2019, November 21). FoodKeeper App. Retrieved from https://www.foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe/foodkeeper-app
Originally published 05/99