The shelf life of food can come down to where and how you store it. Keeping foods at the right temperature can help preserve quality and freshness. So, too, can protecting many foods from exposure to air, heat, moisture and even sunlight.
There’s a big difference between quality issues and safety issues when it comes to food. In fact, food that appears perfectly edible can make you sick if it carries a foodborne pathogen like salmonella or listeria, while expired or spoiled food won’t necessarily do any harm.
“We still don’t recommend eating spoiled foods, of course,” says Meredith Carothers, technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “But [bacteria that cause spoilage] don’t really act the same way that foodborne-illness-causing bacteria will. Foodborne-illness-causing bacteria don’t change the food — you won’t be able to taste, see or smell them. But they may cause foodborne illness.”
We looked at food storage guidelines from the USDA and spoke with William Lendway, a chef and assistant professor at Johnson and Wales University, a school whose specialized degrees include culinary arts and food safety, to identify common mistakes people make when storing food at home that can affect quality and reduce shelf life. Take a look.
1. You leave olive oil by the stove
Heart-healthy oils, like olive oil, that have less saturated fat are more susceptible to going rancid, which can result in an unpleasant smell and cloudy appearance. Exposure to heat speeds up the degradation process, as does exposure to light and air.
To maintain quality, keep olive oil in a tightly sealed, opaque container inside a cabinet away from the stove or other heat source. According to the USDA, a container of olive oil, once opened, can last three to five months when stored properly in a pantry. If you opt to keep olive oil in the refrigerator, it will solidify and need to reach room temperature before it can be measured for cooking.
2. You keep coffee in the pantry
Coffee loses quality quickly at room temperature. When it is ground, coffee has a drastically higher surface area, causing its quality to degrade even faster. Keep ground coffee in an airtight container in the freezer to minimize exposure to air, light and moisture. Only remove the container from the freezer briefly to measure out what’s needed.
The USDA estimates the shelf life of ground coffee after opening at two weeks in the pantry, a month in the refrigerator and up to a year in the freezer.
3. You chop produce in advance
Try the FoodKeeper app
The USDA offers a free mobile app for Apple and Android users that provides information on how to best store over 400 food and beverage items. It also highlights cooking tips for different types of meats, shows the latest food recalls, and gives an option to log your purchases and receive notifications when your food is about to expire. You can also search the FoodKeeper app’s food catalog online here.
Presliced fruit and bagged salads are convenient, admits Lendway, but once a piece of produce is cut, it begins to degrade and the quality will decrease. Ideally for freshness, wait to chop fruits and vegetables until just before you’re ready to consume them.
“When you cut an onion fresh, it’s a wonderful, beautiful thing,” he said. “And if you cut those onions, put them in the refrigerator for three days, covered up tightly, and bring them back out, they’re still good to eat. But you’re going to open them up, and they will have more of a sulfur smell. The quality is constantly degrading.”
4. You put bread in the refrigerator
Fresh bread that you don’t plan to eat within a couple of days is best stored in the freezer. When left at room temperature it may grow mold, says Lendway, and when stored in the refrigerator it may dry out and go stale. Not all is lost with stale bread, however, because you can use it to make stuffing, croutons or breadcrumbs, he adds. Presliced whole wheat bread typically last three to five days in the pantry, according to the USDA, but freezing will keep it fresh for three months.
5. You store spices in a cabinet
Spices don’t go bad in the same way milk goes bad. Rather, the flavor and aroma of your spices may start to fade over time due to exposure to air, heat and humidity. However, they are still safe to consume. Whole spices last longer in the pantry (three to four years) than ground spices (two to three years), estimates the USDA. The exception is salt, which spice maker McCormick says will last indefinitely.
Preserve the flavor and aroma of spices, especially those you don’t use often, by storing them in ziplock bags in the freezer, recommends Lendway.
6. You toss out honey too soon
Honey has a shelf life of two years in the pantry, estimates the USDA, though some people get rid of theirs earlier for the wrong reason. When honey loses moisture it crystallizes, causing an increase in the concentration of sugar. This can occur when the jar isn’t sealed properly, or when it sits on the shelf unused for too long. But according to the USDA, this is not a sign the honey has gone bad and is unsafe to consume. To salvage crystallized, cloudy or solidified honey, heat the jar in the microwave or in a pan of hot water to melt the crystals.
7. You save cooked rice too long
Rice can contain Bacillus cereus, a heat-resistant bacteria that can survive the boiling process. As the rice cools, the germ can come out of its shell and grow on the rice, even at refrigerated temperatures. After about 48 hours rice should be thrown out or frozen.
Although a broad range of foods can carry the bacteria, illness is most frequently associated with improperly refrigerated starchy grains. Symptoms may include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, lasting for about 24 hours.
8. You stow flour in the cupboard
Unless you’re an avid baker, you probably don’t go through a lot of flour. You also probably keep your flour in a kitchen cabinet, which reduces its shelf life. White flour lasts six to eight months in the pantry after opening, the USDA says, but a year if refrigerated after opening. Wheat flour lasts six to eight months if refrigerated after opening, about twice as long as it would unrefrigerated.
Lendway says major food companies he has worked with take it a step further by keeping their whole grain flours in a freezer before shipping to retail stores to maintain freshness. To store flour in your refrigerator or freezer, he recommends sealing it in an airtight container to block out moisture and prevent the absorption of odors.
How to avoid wasting food as you age
Lendway, who is also a registered dietitian, points out that people can struggle to maintain their appetite and eat healthy meals as they get older. The ability to taste and smell can deteriorate with age, dental issues can affect chewing, and certain medications and conditions can suppress hunger. It’s especially challenging when eating alone. “It’s really hard to cook for yourself versus for yourself and a spouse or for yourself and your family,” he said.
One solution: If you buy an ingredient in bulk or simply have too much of an item in your kitchen, he recommends sharing it with others.
“It’s good to think about working with your friends, family, having people over for dinner or going over to their house. It would be nice to see people strive to be social, so that we can burn through these items and not have to save them on the shelf as long,” Lendway said. “So, this idea of sharing a meal with friends or family — when it’s OK to gather again with COVID — that’s such a healthy practice for the mind, the spirit, for the body. We often eat better with other people.”
Aaron Kassraie writes about issues important to military veterans and their families for AARP. He also serves as a general assignment reporter. Kassraie previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for the Kuwait News Agency’s Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA Today and Al Jazeera English.