Nothing freaks me out more than seeing meat or poultry thawing on the counter. I'm always asking how long an item has been out and no matter the answer, I usually end up tossing it in the fridge to keep the bacteria at bay.
The USDA states:

Perishable foods should never be thawed on the counter, or in hot water and must not be left at room temperature for more than two hours.
Even though the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food could be in the "Danger Zone," between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly.
When thawing frozen food, it's best to plan ahead and thaw in the refrigerator where it will remain at a safe, constant temperature — at 40 °F or below.
I am a bit squeamish around food that doesn't look or feel right, but I also don't like to needlessly toss food away when it looks good. I have even pulled food out of the trash to eat, though I did end up tossing a few back after I got them home and cut up. At times I feel like I am on a foodie teeter-totter, with one end about tossing it all and the other to keep it all. teeter-totters are hard to balance.

Because of this balancing act I have sought out information online and found how long to keep some basic staples and more.
Milk - The smell usually tells most that it's time to toss it. Some dietitians and university extension offices suggest you shouldn't even leave milk out for more than 2 hours, don't pour milk you've drunk back into the container, don't keep your milk in the door where the temperature can fluctuate and freezing milk destabilizes the milk. I believe I have done all of these things at some point in my life and here I am. I have even smelled milk going bad - tossed in a bit of salt in the cup, stirred it and drank it up without consequence.

Eggs - When you look at the sell by date, add 3-5 weeks to that and you have a pretty close estimate for the eggs. If you take eggs out of the carton, it is advised to not put them in the door as the temperature changes for those items in the door. If you hardboil your eggs to take to work, only do enough for a week at a time and if you keep them unshelled, leave them in cold water for 2-3 days.

Pizza - This is a staple in my house - so go with it. Frozen pizzas keep in the cold for 3-4 days. However a home-made or delivered pizza should be kept in an airtight container or covering and would have to be smelled and eyeballed. Look for mold or sliminess with the toppings.

Apples - These keep nicely in the refrigerator up to a month and on the counter they need to be eaten in about 10 days. If you slice your apples up and don't eat them within a couple of hours, put them back in the frig.

Bananas - If you eat bananas slow, put them in the frig and they will ripen slower, though they may have brown specs on the outside, they are still good. And if you want to speed up the ripening, put them in a sealed brown bag to reduce their access to oxygen.
flickr/cc - kevindooley
Leafy Greens- Spinach, lettuce, cabbage and the like last about a week when bought fresh and should not be washed until they are used. Keeping them in the refrigerator, loosely wrapped in plastic with holes is good. Some swear by wrapping a thin layer of paper towel around the vegetable as well. When they go bad, cut off the part and eat the rest unless you don't like the smell of it.

After learning what I could on all the types of foods I eat and how long they can keep, I narrowed down on the information to the following rules:
Rule 1: When in doubt toss it
Rule 2: Cut out the bad and eat the good
Rule 3: Smell it, look at it and decide
Rule 4: Nothing teaches you better than getting sick, play it safe.

If none of the above rules answer my question on whether to keep or eat a food, I look it up online at or call the local university extension offices.


  1. kh // Monday, March 14, 2011 8:02:00 AM  

    I always laugh when I see US recommendations for food safety. I grew up overseas and I find that most Americans are WAY paranoid about food. And it really bothers me to see food wasted because of that paranoia.

    In most countries in the world, very little food is actually refrigerated. In Europe it's rare to see butter, eggs, cream, and most fruits and veggies put in a refrigerator. In Asia even less is refrigerated! :)

    Most of the time there is no need to be so paranoid about putting things in the refrigerator or throwing things out the minute they hit their "due date".

    (Disclaimer - obviously, if your household includes elderly people, babies, or anyone who is immuno-suppressed, you have to ramp up your level of diligence - but for the average American, the level of paranoia is simply unfounded!)

  2. SillySimple // Monday, March 14, 2011 9:41:00 AM  

    Thanks for sharing, this is great advice. I keep reading all these blogs about stocking up on food, so it is great to get some knowledge about how long it will keep.

  3. J.N. Urbanski // Tuesday, March 15, 2011 8:14:00 AM  

    I read your post with interest as I am British and adhere to none of these rules. My poor exasperated husband is constantly putting the milk back in the fridge and to thaw out some meat at the weekend, I put it on the mantle piece overnight above the fire! When we first met, my husband was shocked to find the mayonnaise in the cupboard. We are not dead yet, knock on wood, but I do test our immune system to the limit..

  4. Anonymous // Tuesday, March 15, 2011 8:03:00 PM  

    "Rule 3: Smell it, look at it and decide"

    As someone who has devoted their entire post-secondary education to food safety, I must advise against this. True, it does work more often than not. However, our senses can fool us. We can't always see, smell, or taste bacteria.

    For this reason, I am a big advocate of thermometers in the kitchen. Just as your fridge seems out of whack when no milk, eggs, and butter are present, it should be the same way when you open the fridge and don't see your thermometer smiling back at you. Keep a thermometer in the fridge, one in the freezer, and always have a meat thermometer on hand.

    Better safe than sorry. Particularly when you have little ones (or elderly) to feed. Overall, good blog post. The more people paying attention to food safety, the better.