Prairie Fare: Are the foods in your refrigerator or cupboard safe to eat?

Julie Garden-Robinson
NDSU Extension
Julie Garden-Robinson, North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

Sometimes kitchen cupboards are kind of dark. You may have a hard time seeing what you have.

Food can get “lost” in the recesses of a refrigerator, too. Have you ever wondered if something stored in your refrigerator or cupboards is safe to eat and high in quality?

Let’s follow a consumer, whom I will call “Connor,” and a health inspector, “Helen,” as they shrink down small enough to take a close look at kitchen storage.

 No consumers or health inspectors were harmed in this process, by the way.

“Hello, Connor,” said Helen. “I understand that you want to take a look at your food storage. We will briefly shrink so we can take a close look at the food in your cupboard and refrigerator.”

“Just close your eyes, and I will see you in the cupboard shortly,” Helen said.

“This was more than I was expecting,” Connor replied. “I am ready to take a look.”

“We will begin with your cupboard,” Helen said as she activated the flashlight on her now-miniature cell phone and clasped a tiny clipboard with a list of items to check.

“I noticed some of the dates on the cans of beans and corn have a ‘best if used by date’ that expired last week,” Connor said.

“That’s a quality date,” Helen noted. “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, canned vegetables and beans are good from two to five years in your cupboard. Do you remember when you bought these cans?”

“I bought a lot of canned beans on sale about a year ago,” he said. “When do the cans expire?”

“Technically, very few foods have actual expiration dates,” Helen said. “However, infant formula and baby foods should be used by the product dates, because the amount of nutrients present can decline.”

“I will remember that if I ever have any kids,” Connor said.

“I am looking for a date you may have marked,” Helen said as she rolled a can of baked beans on its side.

“I don’t mark dates currently,” Connor said. “I have a permanent marker I could use.”

 “I’d advise you to write the date of purchase on cans and arrange your cupboards in a ‘first in first out’ order,” she said.

Helen checked if the can was damaged. She didn’t note any sharp dents in the seams or any bulging or leaking.

Connor began walking on the rolling can like a log in a river.

“Ok, Connor, let’s not go flying out of the cupboard onto the kitchen floor,” Helen said.

He chuckled sheepishly.

“Why does the Nutrition Facts label look different on some foods?” he asked.

“Back in 2021, Nutrition Facts labels were changed on all foods,” Helen explained. “If you have foods that still list vitamins A and C, those food products are getting older. The new labels show potassium, added sugars and vitamin D in place of vitamins A and C.”

Helen detected a rancid odor when she opened a bottle of vegetable oil. She also found a package of opened graham crackers that did not pass the “sniff test.”

“You need to use your sense of smell and sight, but you do not want to taste food if you are doubting its freshness,” Helen remarked. “This rancid oil will affect the flavor of the foods you eat, and I see its best if used by date is two years ago. These crackers need to be tossed, too.”

“Let’s hop over to the refrigerator,” Helen directed. “Please begin by checking the temperature of your refrigerator.”

“It’s chilly in here at 39 Fahrenheit,” Connor said. “I need a sweatshirt.”

“I am glad to see you have a thermometer in your fridge,” Helen remarked. “Refrigerators should be kept cold at 40 Fahrenheit or lower, but not so cold that you freeze the food.”

“By the way, why is there a pound of ground beef thawing in the sink?” she asked.

“I forgot to put it in the refrigerator last night,” Connor said.

“Safe thawing is an important part of safe food handling,” Helen remarked. “You can thaw in the microwave followed by immediate cooking, or you can put the wrapped meat in a waterproof bag and thaw under cool water in the sink.”

“How long can fresh meat be kept in the refrigerator?” Connor asked.

“We recommend using fresh meat such as ground beef up to two days in the refrigerator and roasts up to five days,” she added. “You can freeze for a year, but be sure the meat is properly wrapped to avoid freezer burn.”

Helen opened the drawer where Connor kept cheese. She hoisted a bag of cheese and showed Connor the mold growing throughout the shreds.“This cheese cannot be rescued,” she said. “Next time put it in the freezer if you won’t be using it.”

“I see that your milk is in the door of your refrigerator,” she noted. “I’d advise you to keep highly perishable foods such as milk in the main part of your refrigerator so you have less variation in temperature.”

“I can do that!” Connor said. “I’m wondering about the safety of some of the condiments such as hot sauce.”

“Looking at the dates, some of these foods are museum-quality,” Helen teased. “For best flavor, try to use opened containers within six months to a year. Sometimes the smaller container is the better buy if you are not going to use it within a reasonable time.”

“Are these leftovers safe? Connor asked as he opened a take-out box. “I ate in a restaurant about a week ago and forgot them, I guess.”

“Unfortunately, you should eat or freeze leftovers within three to four days of preparing them,” Helen said. “No one likes to waste food, but sometimes, we need to toss foods that could make us sick.”

“It’s time for us to resume our regular size, but I hope you learned something new today,” Helen said. “By the way, check out the Food Storage Guide and the Food Freezing Guide at NDSU Extension at Search for NDSU Extension’s online cookbook, ‘Spillin’ the Beans’ for lots of ideas for all those beans.”

Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Follow her on Twitter @jgardenrobinson