That thing in the back of the fridge
January 12, 2020 7:14 AM   Subscribe

I recently hit on writing the date I opened something on things in the fridge, so that way I know just how long they've been lurking. My therapist suggested also writing when something should be disposed of, which is a good idea. But... how long do various things (generally) last once opened? How do you tell if something has gone off?

I did google this for various things so I know:
-eggs are likely fine past the sell by, test them by putting them in a bowl of water (sink==good, float==bad)
-milk should be good the day past the sell by and smell it the day after (I seldom have milk that's expiring, thoughTrader Joe's keeps selling me milk that goes off really fast.)

- I live in the US (egg storage varies a lot around the world, because eggs are processed/shipped differently different places, not sure about other things)
- I am a vegetarian (but you can tell me about meat for other people's benefit, I guess)
posted by hoyland to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, I just realised: one thing that would be particularly helpful to know about would be (plain) yogurt in larger than single serving containers. How long do I have after it's open? Until the expiration date or obviously noxious?
posted by hoyland at 7:29 AM on January 12, 2020

Best answer: You can look things up on or FoodKeeper. Different sites may provide different information, so which you trust will depend on how conservative you want/need to be on food quality and safety.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:30 AM on January 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

I am very cautious about meat, no details needed here. I tend to ignore manufacturer dates; they want you to buy more stuff. I read an article sponsored by a spice company that said to throw out herbs and spices after 6 months. But they harvest annually, so it's a con. If herbs and spices smell delicious, I use them. Cloves last quite a while, basil hardly lasts at all.

Milk is fine if it smells good. Live yogurt may get a bit more tart, but unless there mold or a bad smell, it's fine. Vegetables are fine if they look good. It's okay to trim brown or wilted bits. Outer leaves can go slimy while inner leaves are fine.

I've become less sanguine about mold, because mold has invisible tendrils that reach out into food, and may be bad for you. If I cut mold off cheese, I take off a lot, not just the 1st layer, and if a corner of the bread is moldy, I either throw out a lot or all of it.

Weather matters. In deep summer, when Maine is hot and humid, I turn the fridge colder, still, things spoil quickly. If I realize I'm not going to eat those green beans in time, I pop them in the freezer. The quality will not be quite as good as if I blanched them 1st, but they'll still be usable and tasty.
posted by theora55 at 7:37 AM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

This article from the Washington Post seems relevant here.
This man ate ‘expired’ food for a year. Here’s why expiration dates are practically meaningless.

Last year, Mom’s Organic Market founder and chief executive Scott Nash did something many of us are afraid to do: He ate a cup of yogurt months after its expiration date. Then tortillas a year past their expiration date. “I mean, I ate heavy cream I think 10 weeks past date,” Nash said, “and then meat sometimes a good month past its date. It didn’t smell bad. Rinse it off, good to go.” It was all part of his year-long experiment to test the limits of food that had passed its expiration date.
I've never been squeamish about this sort of thing, and I'm still alive and kicking.
posted by alex1965 at 7:40 AM on January 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

I have used yogurt/quark/sour cream weeks after their use by dates. I mainly use them in cooking/baking. If something is obviously spoilt clearly I bin it but if it looks and smells like normal I taste a tiny bit and if it tastes normal as well I use it.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:57 AM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am aware expiration dates are largely meaningless. I need guidance on how to judge when I find a jar of pasta sauce that's been hanging out for six months. Or jam that's been lost in the back of the fridge open for a year. (Well, jam seems to last forever, but you get the point.)
posted by hoyland at 7:58 AM on January 12, 2020

Sugar is a preservative. That's why they call them preserves; sugar was a way to preserve fruit, jam is usually fruit that's not whole, jelly is usually strained.
Tomato sauce is quite acid, but once opened will mold eventually, and then I throw it out. Mold in liquid will give it an off taste.
If maple syrup has mold, skim it off, heat the maple syrup, skim any foam and then use it up.
Olives and pickles last ages. You can re-use pickle juice 1 time to pickle shredded carrots, onions, or other veg, delicious.
Sour cream and cream are super-pasteurized and last a long time. Cream cheese is fine unless, mold.
Almond milk a fair bit lasts longer than the label suggests.
The bottom shelves are colder than the top shelves (heat rises, cold falls).
Commercially canned and jarred goods and frozen foods last a very long time, though quality will suffer over time.
If the milk is going off fast, tell TJs. The case may not be cool enough. And don't take the carton in front, take one further back.
posted by theora55 at 8:19 AM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

If it doesn't have visible mold and doesn't smell, then it is probably fine.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:22 AM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Pasta sauce, marinara, and salsa get really tart after a certain point. I'm not sure when that is exactly, but assuming it's not moldy when I go to eat it, I try as little on a fingertip. If it's not enjoyable in that dose, it's not going to be any better in larger quantities, so I toss it. If you're dating things going in anyway, just keep records of when you get to that point and over time you'll have a good baseline for discovering when they need to go out.
posted by teremala at 10:04 AM on January 12, 2020

Also: be sure to pick a dating convention and stick to it, lest you find yourself wondering several months down the line what exactly things like 12/05/20 or 01/20 meant.
posted by teremala at 10:09 AM on January 12, 2020

I would argue for an aggressive schedule, for reasons I'll get to below. I'd further split it into categories:
1) Things you buy refrigerated, like fresh salsa or tofu: 2 weeks (obvious exception: cheese)
2) Stuff you buy in a jar and refrigerate after opening, like pasta sauce, mayonnaise, salad dressing ("convenience foods"): 90 days
3) "Traditional" preserved foods, like jam or ketchup: 6 months

This is probably way before any of these products would go "bad", but I'd argue that 6-month-old pasta sauce is pasta sauce you're never going to eat, either because you don't like it or because you never think about it (I say this as someone who has pasta sauce at least a year old in the fridge: I checked while writing this answer).

I have this problem for sure with vegetables, and when I'm able to deal with it successfully, it's always because I was diligent about checking the fridge BEFORE going food shopping. That's the antidote to the forgotten sauce jar: looking in the fridge and planning how to use what's there before you go out and get more food. That's why I think an aggressive approach is best -- if there are fewer things to use up, I'm more likely to pick one. With twenty jars of various condiments/sauces/etc it's too hard to choose.

With condiments especially it's hard to buy an appropriately-sized jar for my needs (I like mustard, but everybody wants to sell me enough to last me for years), which is a problem. I might have more of a "check every 90 days but extend if appropriate" policy for those.
posted by five toed sloth at 10:27 AM on January 12, 2020

To save time you can also just make a habit of sticking grocery receipts to the fridge with a magnet so you can look back and remember when you bought stuff.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:38 AM on January 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

I also write the opened date on everything in my fridge. When it gets older I look it up online or look on the package. Some items have "best used within 7 days of opening". If I can't find info or feel it's risky - I toss it - because my sensitive body cannot handle that risk and I can spend $4 on a new bottle of sauce. In general I just try to use what I open and not buy things in too large of sizes.
posted by Crystalinne at 2:22 PM on January 12, 2020

What is your goal for therapy? Is it more that you're trying to develop habits that will keep your fridge clean and sanitary, or that you are trying to overcome feelings of guilt about throwing away food, or that you want to learn how to manage anxiety about accidentally consuming something expired?
posted by capricorn at 6:59 PM on January 12, 2020

Throwing it in here despite it not being the exact question: root around in the dairy section because the dates can vary by a week or more, even for milk. The older stuff is normally in the easy to reach spot.

Also, older eggs are useful for different things. Omelettes and scramble don’t care so much, baking cares rather more. So despite having a fairly long shelf life you might consider cut off dates for certain uses.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 12:40 AM on January 13, 2020

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