Food Safety

How Long is This Good For? Shelf Life Demystified

Posted by
Trust20 Contributors • 9 minute read

Have you ever found yourself playing a guessing game with the freshness of your kitchen's ingredients?

Guess no more! Read on to unlock the secrets of minimizing waste, mastering inventory management, and serving up nothing but the freshest flavors to your customers. After all, with more than 128,000 people hospitalized due to foodborne illness each year, this really isn’t a game you should play.1

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down expiration dates–what they actually mean–and provide you with a food-specific roadmap to freshness.

Armed with this knowledge, you can confidently manage your inventory, reduce waste, and always deliver food that’s just right.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

How Long Is It Good For? A Detailed Breakdown By Food Type

Detecting Food Spoilage: Quick Guide

How Long Can You Use After Expiration Date?

Making Expiration Dates Work for Your Kitchen

How Long Is It Good For? A Detailed Breakdown By Food Type

Food, just like many of us, has its preferred climate. For foodservice professionals, knowing where different items sit along the temperature spectrum helps to preserve taste and safety.

Certain items, such as potatoes, unripe avocados, and whole melons, can be stored for a short time (typically a few days or weeks) without refrigeration at ambient room temperature.

Many staples like milk, yogurt, and cheese thrive in the cold. Fridges should operate at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to deter bacteria growth.

Most food items can be frozen, which substantially extends their safe storage time. For example, if you have fresh meat you won't use for a few days, you can freeze it. Freezing food is a key strategy for foodservice to manage inventory and waste efficiently.

With that in mind, here’s a detailed guide broken down by the type of food.


According to the USDA, uncooked roasts, steaks, and chops stored in the refrigerator are good for three to five days.2 Ground meats, including ground poultry, can last a little less, holding their quality for one to two days. 

When these items are frozen, however, they can be preserved for significantly longer–four to twelve months for most cuts. Pre-cooked, store-bought roast ham can last in the fridge for about a week and in the freezer for one to two months.

Milk, Yogurt, Butter, and Cheese

Dairy products like milk, yogurt, butter, sour cream, and various cheeses also have a broad longevity spectrum.3 Always follow the "Sell By" or expiration date on the packaging. 

Generally, milk can last up to a week past its "Sell By" date if properly refrigerated. Hard cheeses have a longer life, staying good for up to six weeks (unopened) in a refrigerator set at around 40°F. Sour cream is safe for about one to three weeks.

Dairy products vary in terms of how well they freeze. While hard cheeses freeze just fine without losing quality (milk and buttermilk generally do, too), sour cream and soft cheeses, like Brie, don’t freeze well. 


Fish is particularly sensitive to the rigors of time and temperature. In the refrigerator, cooked fish should be consumed within three to four days, according to the USDA.4

The good news is that freezing dramatically extends this window–up to four to eight months for some lean types of fish. Higher-fat fish should be consumed within two to three months from the day they were frozen.


Egg storage can sometimes be controversial. Eggs may be refrigerated three to five weeks from the day they are placed in your fridge, dismissing the "Sell-By" date as a non-issue.5

However, it is always smart to consume eggs before the "Sell-By" or expiration date on the carton. Hard-cooked eggs last for about a week in the fridge.

It gets a little more tricky if you’re buying your eggs anywhere besides the grocery store. For eggs sold in the conventional manner (those from the supermarket or, likely, your supplier), the USDA requires pasteurization, which is heat-treating to kill bacteria. Because of this, they have to be refrigerated. Unpasteurized, farm-fresh eggs coming straight from the chicken unwashed do not have to be refrigerated. The bloom of the egg protects the interior from any bacteria.

Of course, you need to wash farm-fresh eggs before cooking with them to remove any fecal matter or debris–but the bloom keeps the inside of the egg fresh and safe without refrigeration until it’s ready to be cooked. They should last about two weeks on the counter and last as long as three months in the fridge.


Ketchup, mustard, and other condiments often linger unassumingly in restaurant fridges, their continued usefulness often forgotten. Mustards and vinegars have quite a substantial shelf life and can typically keep for a year, even after opening.

Ketchup is good for about six months. When unopened and stored in a cool, dark place, the classics like soy sauce and hot sauce are good for the long haul–approximately two years. However, once opened and refrigerated, they are best consumed within a year.

Fruits and Vegetables

The storage lifespans of fruits and vegetables vary widely–from a few days to several weeks.6 Very few can be safely stored at room temperature for extended periods, and most must be kept in the refrigerator. Bruises and mold are signs of spoilage, and regular checks are necessary to guarantee their quality.

Rice and Pasta

Under the right conditions, dried pasta and rice are non-perishable. If unopened and stored in cool, dry, dark cupboards, they can easily last years past their expiration date.


Be mindful of temperatures and timing with leftovers, and ensure they are refrigerated within two hours of serving.

Most can maintain their quality for three to four days in the fridge and can be frozen within a two-hour window of cooking for two to six months.7

However, it really does vary based on what you’ve prepared and how it’s stored. 

Detecting Food Spoilage: Quick Guide

Your senses are your sharpest tools when it comes to detecting spoilage. Learning to detect the early signs can save you from the pitfalls of serving food past its prime. However, it is critical to remember that food spoilage and contamination are different. A food could look, smell, and taste perfectly fine but still be contaminated with potential pathogens (like E. coli or salmonella bacteria) that can still make you or your customers extremely sick.

The difference between the two means the steps listed below are only effective when you also follow the best practices for avoiding cross-contamination.

The Sight Test

Visual cues can reveal a lot about a product's freshness. Signs of spoilage might include discoloration, mold growth, or a change in texture.

For instance, fruits and vegetables may lose their vibrant color or become mushy, while dairy products can develop lumps or an off-putting texture.

The Smell Test

The nose knows when something's amiss. Rancidity, fermentation, or just plain old stink are indications of spoilage. Trust your sense of smell: it's one of the most powerful detectors of spoiled food.

The Taste Test

As a foodservice professional, you have the added benefit of being able to taste the products you work with. Do so cautiously and only when safe, but know that an unexpected bitterness or sourness can give away spoiled items that your other senses might miss.

And never double-dip a utensil after taste-testing a food item!

The Touch Test

Your sense of touch allows you to feel changes in temperature, sliminess, or excessive moisture, all of which can point to food spoilage. Texture is a key indicator, particularly with meat and seafood.

How Long Can You Use After Expiration Date?

The battle between "Use By," "Sell By," and "Best By" dates can get confusing."Sell By" dates are there for stocking and sales management. "Best By" dates are recommendations for peak quality, while "Use By" dates are less flexible and suggest when food is best for quality and safety. 

However, for many foods, they're more conservative estimates than strict deadlines.

The FDA and similar regulatory bodies emphasize that these dates are not federally regulated and are manufacturer suggestions for peak quality, not safety.8 It’s always best to exercise caution and use your best judgment or seek reliable resources for specific food items.

For instance, it's safe to consume eggs even a few weeks after the expiration date listed on the carton as long as they've been properly refrigerated. But if they’re farm-fresh eggs and haven’t been washed, the shelf life can be as long as six weeks. 

However, milk can only maintain its safety and quality for several days after the expiration date (if stored correctly). 

Always remember: the nose knows. If something smells off, err on the side of caution.

Making Expiration Dates Work for Your Kitchen

Storage and handling go hand-in-hand with understanding expiration dates. There are some best practices you can follow to make sure your food remains safe and palatable for as long as possible.

Temperature Control

First, always maintain proper temperatures in storage units and during transportation. Refrigerators should be set at 40°F (4°C) or below to slow the growth of bacteria, and freezers should be set at 0°F (-18°C) for storage of frozen products.

Cross-Contamination Prevention

Store raw meats separately from other foods, and use different cutting boards and utensils to prevent cross-contamination. These tactics are direct control measures against spoilage and foodborne illnesses.

Proper Packaging

Ensure all food is packaged or covered properly to prevent dehydration and contamination with pathogens. Airtight containers can help maintain quality and integrity.

Inventory Management

Keep track of your inventory using the 'first in, first out' (FIFO) method. This practice ensures that items with the closest expiration dates are used first, minimizing waste and the risk of serving spoiled food.

Label Your Products

Use a clear and consistent labeling system. Include the date the item was prepared, the use-by date, and any specific storage instructions. This simple step can prevent confusion and help you know exactly when to use or discard an item.

Communication is Key

Encourage open communication among your kitchen staff. Ensure that staff feel empowered to voice their concerns if they notice something off about a product. Quick action can prevent more significant problems, including potential food poisoning outbreaks.

Comply With Local and Federal Guidelines

Remember–expiration dates are about more than just the quality of your food. They're also about the law. 

Familiarize yourself with the guidelines from your local health departments and the FDA. These regulations dictate the sale and serving of food products, and non-compliance can result in hefty fines.

Documentation and Record-Keeping

Keep detailed records of your food inventory and any actions taken regarding spoilage. If an issue arises, these documents will act as your defense, demonstrating that you took the necessary steps to ensure food safety.

Training and Certification

Invest in continuous education for yourself and the rest of your staff. Training will help ensure everyone is up-to-date with the latest safety standards and practices, minimizing the risk of serving expired or unsafe food.

Final Thoughts

The journey of food from farm to fork is one of trust. Customers trust that the food they are served is safe. This trust is in your hands, quite literally. 

By honing your understanding of expiration dates, using your senses, and following good storage and handling practices, you protect your customers' health and your establishment's reputation.

Stay vigilant, stay informed, and never compromise on the quality and safety of the food you serve. After all, a well-preserved meal is more than just a feast for the palate–it's a testament to your care and commitment to excellence in the culinary arts.

Ready to take your food safety skills to the next level? Explore Trust20’s products, each designed to empower you with the latest insights and best practices in food safety. Join the community today and ensure every dish you serve is not just good–but exceptional. 

New call-to-action


  1. CDC: Estimates of Foodborne Illness in the United States

  2. USDA: How long can I keep meat in the refrigerator?

  3. USDA: How long can you keep dairy products like yogurt, milk, and cheese in the refrigerator?

  4. USDA: How long can you keep cooked fish in the refrigerator?

  5. USDA: How long can you store eggs in the refrigerator?

  6. USDA: How long can you store fruits and vegetables?

  7. Cold Food Storage Chart

  8. UConn Extension: Expiration, Use-By and Sell-By dates: What do they really mean?