From Purchase to Storage, Tips on Extending Shelf Life

Grocery ShoppingThe average American wastes more than 200 pounds of food a year, says the Consumer Reports ShopSmart magazine.  The Vegetarian Times website says, “Americans throw out 25% of the produce we buy because it’s gone bad.” What a pity! Ever wish you had a magic wand that could keep your food purchases safe and tasty until you’ve consumed the very last morsel or drop? It would be nice, but you don’t really need that wand.  If you select foods carefully, get your perishables home and refrigerated promptly, and wrap and store foods appropriately, you can extend the shelf life of your food purchases and thereby cut down on grocery shopping trips and food bills. 


The following article contains many tips on ways to extend the shelf life of your food purchases.  But we can’t cover the whole story in one article.For more suggestions, consult the links listed within and at the end of this article.


In the Grocery Store or Supermarket


The proverb “haste makes waste” is especially apt when it comes to shopping for food. Check out those “use-by” dates; they’ll help you locate the items that will last longest.  Take time to look at, touch, and sometimes even sniff the perishable products you’re buying.  Then what you bring home will be in good condition and likely to stay that way for awhile.


Here are some supermarket shopping suggestions inspired mostly by ShopSmart:


-Don’t be shy. To get the freshest possible meat, poultry, fish, and produce, ask the staff in various departments what days the items you want are regularly delivered.  If you’re buying ready-made salad or grilled chicken at the deli counter, ask when these were prepared.


-Take time to check out those “use-by” dates They can help you locate items that will last longest.


-Inspect produce carefully before tossing items into your cart, and look for the freshest items.   Apples should be firm and have no bruises. Lemons, oranges, and grapefruit should not have a green tinge; that means they were picked too early.  Garlic, onions, and potatoes that are starting to sprout have been exposed to light or heat, which can spoil them. Reach for those in the bins closest to the ground, the coolest, darkest place in the produce department.  “How long your lettuce will last depends in part upon its condition when you brought it home,” food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter points out, “so pick out a good one without brown edges.”   (Note: Our Q/As on produce usually include info on how to select the best.  Use the “Search” box on our home page to find these Q/As.) 


-Shop at stores that have a rapid turnover of food.  One sure sign of slow turnover is canned goods with dusty lids or expired coupons. 


-For the freshest baked goods, shop at stores with an in-house bakery.  Their products are usually replaced daily. 


-Before buying a carton of eggs, open it and check for cracks or leakage. 


-Selecting raw, unfrozen fish?  It should look shiny, have a sheen.


-Don’t assume that all frozen fish is in good condition.  Fresh catches are often processed and frozen right on the fishing vessel. However, fish can spoil if it thaws during transport or is held at warm temperatures for too long.
 If the packaging is transparent, look for signs of frost or ice crystals, which denote the fish has been  stored a long time or has thawed and refrozen. If you see ice or crystals, select another package. Don't buy frozen seafood if its package is open, torn, or crushed on the edges, and avoid packages positioned above the "frost line," or top of the freezer case.


For more shopping suggestions concerning freshness and saving money, click on these links:    


Shop as often as possible, and don’t buy more perishables than you use can fairly soon.  Despite all efforts to extend shelf life, the fact remains that produce, poultry, fish, and many other products taste best when they’re fresh.


At the checkout counter, keep an eye on the bagger to be sure your food is properly packed.  Raw meat, poultry, and fish should be separated from other foods so drippings can’t contaminate other items.  Berries shouldn’t be placed under canned goods if you don’t want them crushed. Cakes should not be bagged upside down or sideways if you want them to look nice when served. 


From Store to Home


Perishable foods should not be kept unrefrigerated for more than 2 hours.  Moreover, they don’t react well to temperature variations, so don’t let them warm up while you chat with a friend in the store parking lot. The faster you get groceries home, the better.  If you must make a stop between the store and home, bring along a cooler (or at least an insulated bag) with sufficient ice or ice packs to keep the contents below 40°F. or as cool as possible. Your frozen purchases will also help to keep the items that require refrigeration cool. 


In wintertime, put your groceries in the trunk, where they won’t be warmed up by the heat you turn on.  In the summer, when using air conditioning, put the groceries inside the car, the perishables as close as possible to the vents.


If you generally walk home from the store pulling groceries in a cart, schedule this excursion in cooler weather, perhaps after sundown.


When you get home, even if the dog needs walking and the kids want a snack, give those groceries priority; get them out of the car and the perishables into the fridge immediately.  They’ll last longer if you do.


Tips for Handling Perishables


In terms of helping to extend the shelf life of perishables, your fridge is your best friend.  Rather than 40°F, keep the temperature around 36-37°F  (or even a few degrees cooler if that doesn’t freeze and ruin your lettuce or berries).  The cooler the fridge, the less rapidly bacteria will multiply and spoil food. Dr. Cutter explains, “Colder temperatures slow down the metabolic growth of microbes. Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen adds, “Even a few degrees difference can affect shelf life. If your refrigerator doesn’t have a built-in thermometer, buy one.”


Also, keep the refrigerator clean.  Bacteria can grow on spills and food particles left on shelves, and migrate and contaminate the food.  Click here for advice on how to clean and sanitize your fridge.


Pay attention to where you place foods in the fridge.  Don’t put eggs in the refrigerator door.  The temperature fluctuates there when the door is opened.  The door is a fine place for pasteurized fruit juices, olive oil, re-corked white wine, and condiments such as mustard and ketchup. Butter can also be stored in the door because it has a very high fat content  (80%) and low water content (20%), which inhibits microbial growth.


Put raw meat and poultry on a plate (tightly-wrapped) on the bottom shelf to be sure no drippings from it migrate to the food and hasten spoilage of other items.


The following products should be tightly wrapped before refrigeration:  meat, poultry, fish, and cheese. To reach 18 Q/As on wrapping food right, click here.


Dr. Cutter offers these suggestions about family habits:  “Don't take mayonnaise with the knife or spoon you just used in the tuna fish, and don’t let your kids drink milk directly out of the bottle.”


Tips on Handling Produce


There’s a lot to learn about the proper handling of produce.  Here are some general rules:


-Produce lasts longer if it’s kept whole. According to food scientist Barry Swanson of Washington State University, “As soon as you start pulling fruits and vegetables apart, you’ve broken cells, and microorganisms start to grow.”  However, food scientist and produce specialist Dr. Luke LaBorde doesn’t advise consumers to give up the convenience of buying sliced mushrooms, melon chunks, or bagged chopped lettuce. Instead, his recommendation is that consumers use these products up as rapidly as possible to prevent bacteria from multiplying to the point where they spoil the product and/or cause illness.  He also offers this reassuring comment: “Billions of pounds of chopped lettuce are produced each year, and we rarely see problems.”


-Most produce lasts longer in the fridge because cold temperatures slow respiration (breathing). 


-Produce needs some air.  If you seal fruits and vegetables in airtight bags, you hasten spoilage and contamination. They should not be covered with plastic that has no holes in it.  (Generally, there are small ones in the wrap on berries, mushrooms, and other produce.) If not, puncture the plastic or store them in a paper bag. 


-Ethylene must be considered.  Some fruits give off a lot of this gas; others respond to this gas by ripening more quickly. Be especially careful to keep apples away from ethylene-sensitive produce that you don’t want to ripen quickly.  According to the Vegetarian Times website, if you put spinach or kale in the same bin as apples or peaches, the greens will become yellow and limp within a day or two.  


You can also try some of the products on the market now that claim to absorb ethylene. (Click here for the names of these products and for more suggestions on storing produce in general.) Click here for the Shelf Life Advice discussion on bags that absorb ethylene.  To consult an extensive chart on produce that gives off ethylene and produce that responds to it, click here. (Note: Be patient. It may take a little while for this long chart to open.)  This chart also lists the optimal temperature for many common fruits and vegetables. It can help you decide which ones to refrigerate and which to store in a cool basement or crawl space. We strongly recommend that you print out  this chart and keep it handy in your kitchen.


-Food scientist and produce specialist Dr. Luke LaBorde gives this advice: “Keep fruit that can be refrigerated in the container it was sold in or loosely wrapped in a bag or paper towel to minimize moisture loss. It’s best to wash fruit just before eating (or preparing to cook or serve) to prevent surface moisture accumulation and mold growth during storage.”


-Food scientist Dr. Fadi Aramouni (at Kansas State University) says that greens tend to dry out and wilt after a few days in the fridge, but spraying them (lightly!) with water will maintain crispness and extend their shelf life an extra day or two.


Tips on Dried Spices, Canned Goods, and other Shelf-Stable Items


-Spices: Resist the urge to buy an attractive spice rack and hang it on the wall.  Dried spices will last longest if kept in a cool, dry, dark cabinet.  If you already have a spice rack or counter spice stand, at least keep it away from the oven and away from bright sunlight. Some dried spices can last for years, but, when they lose their scent, throw them out. 


-Canned goods:Also, store these away from heat and light. Rotate what’s on your shelves.  Put the oldest items in front so that you don’t wind up with canned goods older than you are hiding far back in your cabinet.  These could eventually deteriorate, explode, and make an enormous mess.  (I know someone this happened to.)   


-Other shelf-stable items:  Don’t keep pancake mix, crackers, cookies, breadcrumbs, etc. forever.  These items can get stale and taste awful. Remember, “use-by” dates on foods refer to the sealed package.  Once any food is opened, it’s likely to deteriorate before that date.


For more shelf life advice on specific products, you can find a link to the relevant Q/A on that product by typing the name of the product in the “Search” box on this site’s home page.


For additional tips on ways to extend shelf life, click here:


To read advice about extending shelf life by correct use of your freezer, cllck here:




Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Luke LaBorde, Ph.D. Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science  “Grocery Produce That Lasts The Longest “Spoiled Rotten—How to Store Fruits and Vegetables”


Consumer Reports SHOPSMART September, 2011.


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