Spoiler Alert: When Good Food Goes Bad

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Overview

The party is about to start and you're making your world famous onion dip--it just needs sour cream. You open the container, and it's all blue and furry. Maybe it's time for a kitchen detox. Learning how long you can really keep food will spare you from more than just a close encounter of the moldy kind. Save money and (more importantly) the health of your family by becoming shelf-life savvy.

Eggs

Check this out: The USDA says raw eggs in shells can last three to five weeks past the printed date, while hard-boiled eggs will keep for up to one week. Unsure if your eggs are still good? Try floating them in water. If an egg sinks, it's probably fine to eat. If an egg smells rotten when cracked, it's definitely past its prime. To avoid wasting eggs nearing their use-by date, get creative. Katherine Zeratsky, a registered Mayo Clinic dietitian, suggests making frittatas. Yum!

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Beef, lamb and pork

Don't be the guy who ruins the neighborhood barbecue with mystery meat. According to FoodSafety.gov, ground meat can be refrigerated for two days and frozen for four months. Fresh beef, lamb and pork can be refrigerated for up to five days; steaks and roasts can be frozen for 12 months, and chops for six. When cooking, use a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of meat; ground meat should be at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit, while steaks, roasts and chops should be no less than 145 degrees.

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Poultry

Whole chicken and turkey last for two days in the fridge and up to one year frozen, while pieces should only be frozen for nine months. Did you know that you shouldn't wash uncooked chicken? Harmful bacteria can spread to other food, serving dishes and kitchen surfaces. Only heat can destroy bacteria; 165 degrees Fahrenheit is the safe minimum internal temperature for poultry.

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Seafood

Consume fresh fish within two days; fatty fish, like mackerel, can be frozen for three months. Lean varieties, such as cod, freeze well for up to 10 months. Bagels and lox, anyone? Smoked fish stays fresh the longest (two weeks in the fridge and five weeks in the freezer). In-shell clams, crab and lobster can be refrigerated for two days and frozen for three months. Oysters, scallops and shrimp should be eaten within five days of refrigerating and within three months of freezing.

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Cheese

Soft and moist cheese, like mozzarella, lasts two weeks unopened in the refrigerator. On the other hand, unopened hard cheese, such as Parmesan, is good for up to a year. If soft cheese has mold, toss it; if a harder cheese has a bit of mold but smells fine, slice off an inch around the affected area. To guarantee the longest shelf life for any cheese, store it in the vegetable crisper of your refrigerator and wrap it in wax paper. And did you know that you can also freeze cheese?

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Milk, cream and other dairy products

Drink refrigerated milk within seven days of the sell-by date. To ensure it lasts as long as possible, never leave milk sitting out at room temperature and don't store it in refrigerator door. Half and half cream lasts just three or four days in the fridge but four months in the freezer. Butter should be good for two months in the fridge and nine months frozen.

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Yogurt and sour cream

According to Zeratsky, the longevity of sour cream and yogurt depends on various conditions, such as the live bacteria cultures. Sour cream lasts for at least one week and up to three weeks unopened; yogurt should be safe for one week after the sell-by date. How can you tell if sour cream or yogurt is rotten? It might smell or look odd because of bacteria growth breaking down the sugars. "When in doubt, throw it out," notes Zeratsky.

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Frozen foods

Don't rush to the freezer to dump the TV dinners you stockpiled for the apocalypse; if frozen correctly, food can last indefinitely--just make sure your freezer is set to 0 degrees Fahrenheit: "At freezer temperature, food is likely safe. But it's the quality and the taste that you're going to see a decline in," explains Zeratsky. If you prefer silky ice cream over something that tastes like a snow cone, toss it after two months. Frozen microwavable entrees last for at least four months, while soups and stews last for up to three.

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Fruit

If hardy fruit is what you're seeking, opt for citrus fruits and apples, which--when refrigerated properly--last two weeks and an entire month, respectively. Melons stay good for one week in the refrigerator, while berries and cherries are the weakest of the sweetest, lasting only three days. Freeze fruit to avoid wasting it, but remember that freezing decreases moisture, resulting in a softer texture. Zeratsky recommends using thawed fruit in baked goods.

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Vegetables

Root vegetables like beets and carrots stay fresh for up to two weeks in the fridge, while cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes will hold their freshness for one week. Artichoke, asparagus, corn and mushrooms are the feeblest veggies, lasting only two days refrigerated. Save for artichoke, lettuce, onions and radishes, vegetables freeze for at least eight months and will work well in soups and sauces when thawed. Now there's no excuse not to eat your veggies!

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Drinks

Bottoms up! Unopened fruit juice and punch last three weeks in the refrigerator and up to 12 months frozen. If it's open, drink it within three weeks. Regular canned soda lasts up to nine months in the pantry, but diet soda stays good for only four months before the artificial sweetener starts to break down. Unopened canned coffee stays fresh for two years. Once open, brew within two weeks. Vacuum-packed coffee lasts for one year and must be refrigerated. Tea bags stay fresh in the pantry for up to 18 months.

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Pasta, rice and noodles

Pasta, rice and noodles are dinnertime staples, but don't count on them lasting forever in your pantry. Toss pasta that is over two years old, white rice that is over one year old, and brown rice or egg noodles that are over six months old. If you don't use all of your pasta, rice or noodles in one sitting, transfer the remainder to an air-tight container to maximize its shelf life.

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Flour, sugar and other baking materials

Think twice next time you want to whip up homemade cupcakes--when did you last freshen up the dry ingredients? Flour keeps for six to eight months in the pantry and one year in the fridge. Brown sugar has a shelf life of four months; powdered sugar, 18 months; and granulated sugar, over two years. Baking powder, baking soda and cornstarch last for 18 months. Store flour and other dry materials in air-tight containers in cool places to minimize moisture exposure.

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Cooking oils

It may come as a surprise that cooking oils, such as vegetable oil and olive oil, can go bad. Excessive heat exposure speeds up the breakdown of fat, but time is also a culprit. Unopened oils can last a year, while opened oils should be used within four to six months. To prolong the life of your cooking oils, Zeratsky suggests storing them in a cool, dark place--not above the stove or dishwasher. You can even refrigerate them.

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Spices

Some things get better with age...spices, not so much. According to the website of spice manufacturer McCormick, herbs and ground spices last up to three years. Seasoning blends last about two years, while whole spices, seeds and extracts last four years. Not sure when you purchased the spice? To test it, McCormick recommends crushing the spice in your hand; if the smell is weak and the color is not vibrant, toss it.

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Sauces, jam and other condiments

It's time to dump all of those fast food condiment packets! Opened bottles of ketchup, chili sauce and cocktail sauce last six months in the refrigerator. Sweet additions like honey, jam, and syrup can be chilled for up to eight months, while refrigerated peanut butter should stay good for six months. Opened bottles of mayonnaise only last two months in the refrigerator, while mustard keeps for eight months and up to one year in the freezer. Salad dressing should be consumed within three months of opening.

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