My ultimate “Spring Cleaning” food storage guide

As with many other aspects of our lives, our food-shopping routines have been upended in recent weeks due to coronavirus stay-at-home orders. I particularly miss my trips to the local farmers’ market to buy fresh, just-picked, local produce. But at least we can still find fresh fruits and vegetables at our grocery stores—especially if you’re not producing (or growing) your own food, as we do with eggs.

The question is, though, if we’re only shopping once a week—or even less—how long can our purchases stay fresh?

Plus, with the weather getting warmer, it’s a good idea to know which foods need to be refrigerated, which ones can stay out on the counter or in the pantry, and how long food can keep fresh in either environment.

So let’s dive right in…

Do your condiments really need to be cold?

Food manufacturers are always paranoid about someone getting sick from their products and suing them, so they err on the hyper-safe side of caution when it comes to their product’s storage recommendations.

For instance, most condiment labels recommend they be refrigerated after opening. But some don’t actually need to take up space in your fridge at all.

Sure, low temperatures slow or stop microbial action that spoils foods, as well as chemical degradation like oxidation. It’s the basic law of thermodynamics. But there are other substances that also help prevent food spoilage.

Remember the stories of how pioneers packed their meat in salt while traveling for months on wagon trains? That’s because salt is a natural preservative. So is vinegar, alcohol, honey, and to a lesser extent, sugar.

So if your condiments contain any of these ingredients, chances are you don’t have to refrigerate them after all…even after you’ve opened them.

So let’s take a look at the storage recommendations from Consumer Reports for some of the most popular condiments…1

Ketchup. Because it contains vinegar, you can keep your opened bottles of ketchup out on the table or counter, just like they do in restaurants. That said, most restaurants go through their condiments quickly. So if you rarely eat ketchup, it’s probably best to keep it in the fridge—where it can last six months after opening.

Of course, you need to pay attention to what’s in your ketchup besides the vinegar. While the concentrated tomatoes in ketchup are a great source of lycopene and other healthy nutrients, they can also be loaded with sugar. Opt for organic ketchup with no sugar added.

Mustard. This vinegary condiment can last even longer than ketchup—12 months in the fridge, and at least a few months unrefrigerated after opening.

Mustard is one of my favorite no-calorie, natural condiments and it’s loaded with nutrients! In fact, the wild mustard plant is the original source for cultivated brassica plants (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and kale).

I particularly like the “kick” mustard gives to a basic salad dressing of olive oil and vinegar, or olive oil and lemon juice.

Mayonnaise. Because this condiment contains dairy, it should be refrigerated immediately after opening. Some say it can only last two months in the fridge, but I’ve found that good-quality mayonnaise stays fresh quite a bit longer—up to a year.

Mayonnaise can be a great dressing to enhance the taste and texture of healthy foods. There’s nothing wrong with adding some good, organic, full-fat mayo in moderation. I’ve found the Sir Kensington brand to be a healthy source of mayonnaise and other condiments—as it focuses on all-natural ingredients.

Fruit basket vs. fridge: Which is best?

Now that we’ve talked about a few condiments, let’s move onto fruit. Many fruits have what I call “natural packaging”—their skins or peels. This helps keep them fresh longer than “naked” fruits, like berries.

I like to keep all of my fruits out on the counter for as long as I can (check out the chart on page 8 for more specific storage times). I personally believe the taste is better at room temperature, and biting into the fruit won’t give your teeth and taste buds a frigid shock. Plus, when fruit is stored out in the open, it’s a good reminder to grab a piece at any time throughout the day.

If you want to extend the life of your fruit, you’ll need to refrigerate it or freeze it.

To freeze fruit, peel it, cut it into pieces, and seal the pieces tightly in freezer-safe plastic bags. Label the bags with the date so you know how long they’ve been stored.

Citrus fruits aren’t great frozen, but they have the advantage of being long-lasting on their own—especially if you keep them out of the sun after picking, so that they don’t dry out.

Citrus peels are loaded with natural oils that protect against microbes, insects, and spoilage. (That’s why lemon and citrus oils are also natural, non-toxic insect repellants—plus they smell great, so keep that in mind when you go outside this summer.)

Cantaloupes and peaches are also long-lasting fruits. According to the website (an excellent resource for storage times for many foods), these fruits stay fresh in the fridge for three to five days. And they can be kept frozen for up to a year.

Bananas can be kept out on the counter for nearly a week. Contrary to popular lore, they can also be kept in the refrigerator during hot weather for up to a week. In addition, they can last three months in the freezer.

I learned this personally years ago when I was doing fieldwork in Southeast Asia. I visited the Dole banana and pineapple plantation in Mindanao, the large, southern-most island in the Philippines. They gifted me a trunk-load of bananas just picked from the edge of the jungle. When I got back to my apartment, I had no choice but to fill my entire refrigerator with bananas— literally!

The fridge—originally from the U.S.—had been salvaged from a local junkyard by a Chinese junk dealer (so to speak) named Jack Tan. He spent days tinkering with it to get it running it again.

The bananas kept for weeks, for as long as I could continue managing to eat them. (And so did many of the tropical insects, which for days, kept flying out when I opened the door!)

Storage times for vegetables, dairy, meat, and seafood

Many vegetables last even longer than fruits. Remember hearing about root cellars, where root crops like carrots and tubers like potatoes and turnips were kept in cool, dark spaces under the house for months at a time?

Well, if you don’t have a root cellar handy, most vegetables last for weeks in the fridge. And you can freeze many vegetables for up to a year, except for lettuce and potatoes. (Follow the same freezing process as I recommended above for fruits.)

When it comes to dairy, butter and cheeses are best served at room temperature. In fact, in France, cheeses are usually not refrigerated at all, but kept on the counter or on the table under a glass dome.

The French eat cheese at almost all meals, as part of a healthy Mediterranean-style diet (which the U.S. nutrition “experts” always fail to mention when referencing this diet, since it doesn’t fit with their false narrative about foods). So cheese really doesn’t stay around long enough to go “bad” in France.

But if you prefer to consume other full-fat dairy at some meals, you can store your butter and cheese in the refrigerator for a month after the “sell by” date on the package. Or you can freeze it for up to 12 months.2

Likewise, when it comes to meats, raw chicken can be kept frozen for a year, and stored for two days in the fridge when thawed. Uncooked beef can also be kept frozen for up to 12 months. Pork (including bacon and ham) can be frozen for six months. And wild-caught fish and seafood stays fresh in the freezer for three to six months.2

Despite these recommendations, you can—and should—also rely on your senses to determine if a food is nearing its expiration date. If it looks, smells, or tastes bad, toss it. Or if it seems less than fresh out in the open, move it into the refrigerator or freezer.

Safe storage times for popular fruits and vegetables

Fruit/Vegetable   Counter/Pantry Refrigerator Freezer
Apples 5-7 days 1-2 months 10-12 months
Bananas 2-5 days (or until ripe) 5-7 days 2-3 months
Cantaloupe 1-2 days (or until ripe) 3-5 days 10-12 months
Citrus fruits 1 week 3-4 weeks 3-4 months
Grapes 1 day 7-14 days 10-12 months
Peaches 1-3 days 3-5 days 10-12 months
Strawberries 1-2 days 3-7 days 10-12 months
Broccoli Keep refrigerated 3-5 days 12-18 months
Carrots Keep refrigerated 3-4 weeks 10-12 months