The amount of time you can leave food in the fridge depends on the food -- and the food's expiration date. Some foods can be left in the fridge a long time and still be safe to eat. Guidelines exist to help determine when you should keep food or throw it out to keep your risk for foodborne illness low.
As long as you thoroughly cook your meal and refrigerate leftovers within two hours of serving, you can keep leftover meals in the fridge for three to four days, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While eating leftover meals after more than four days of refrigeration may not make you sick, it does increase your chance for foodborne illness. The USDA also notes that leftovers can be safely frozen for three to four months, and kept three to four days after being thawed.
Raw Meat and Eggs
The number of days you should keep raw meat and eggs in the refrigerator depends on a variety of factors. If the packaging of raw meat or eggs has a "use by" date on it, discard the product after that date to lower your chance of getting sick. The USDA notes that if the product comes with a "sell by" date, you can generally keep raw meat and eggs in the fridge past that date by using the following guidelines:
- Chicken, turkey, sausage, ground poultry, and ground meat: 1 to 2 days past sell-by date
- Beef, lamb, pork, and veal: 3 to 5 days past sell-by date
- Uncooked cured ham: 5 to 7 days past sell-by date
- Eggs: 3 to 5 weeks past sell-by date
After thoroughly cooking raw meat or eggs, you can safely keep these foods in the fridge for the same amount of time as leftover meals -- three to four days.
For dairy foods like milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheeses and butter, use the expiration date to determine how long they can safely be kept in your fridge. Many dairy products like milk safely last about two to three weeks. Cheeses and soy milk may last a few months.
- Keep milk and cream for 1 to 5 days after the sell-by date, according to Clemson University.
- Leave yogurt in your fridge 7 to 10 days after the sell-by date, notes Clemson University.
- If your milk or yogurt has been kept in room temperature for more than two hours, throw it away, suggests theU.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
- Hard cheeses and butter are usually okay to be out in room temperature for up to four hours.
- If milk or yogurt tastes sour, throw it away.
- If you see visible signs of mold on cheese or cottage cheese, toss it.
Fruits and Veggies
Many fresh fruits and veggies don't come with expiration dates, so use your best judgment to determine when to throw these foods out. In general, fresh fruits and vegetable will safely last in your refrigerator anywhere from a few days to a few weeks before going bad. If you notice bruising, a slimy texture, abnormal odor, mold or other discoloration, throw fruits and veggies away.
An experienced health, nutrition and fitness writer, Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian and holds a dietetics degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also has worked as a clinical dietitian and health educator in outpatient settings. Erin's work is published on popular health websites, such as TheNest.com and JillianMichaels.com.