Kitchen Cleaning 101: When to Throw Food Out

My family loves hot sauces and has quite the collection—Hawaiian Hot Sauce, a few we picked up in Mexico and a bottle of Lisano we bought in Costa Rico.

They’re wonderfully colorful and spicy, but I’ve always wondered, how long will they keep?

How do you know when to throw out food?

“If you have any doubts, toss it,” says Carrie Schuett, who teaches Family and Consumer Sciences at Highland Park High School. She tells her students to look, taste and smell food that’s been stored.

She also recommends calling the manufacturer if you need help interpreting a date on the package. It’s not always clear if it’s a sell by or use by date. If it’s a sell by date, the product will be fine for a few days after, but if it’s a use by date, you should throw it out, Schuett says.

And that’s for unopened foods that you’ve stored properly. Once you open the seal, the product’s lifespan shortens. Microbes are introduced as soon as the package is opened and for foods high in protein and low in acidity, like meats, pesto or hummus, the lifespan is only days even if properly refrigerated, according to Sandy Washburn, a food and nutrition teacher at Stevenson High School.

Most condiments, like ketchup, mustard, relishes and even commercial mayonnaise have enough acidity to keep for months in the refrigerator. Pantry items, like flour, cereal and pasta will go eventually go stale, but unopened, they can last for years.

Still, if something has been sitting on your shelf for years, are you really going to eat it? If you throw out lots of pantry items this year, jot down a list so you’ll remember to buy less of these items in the future.

As for my hot sauces, no need to toss them just yet. Because they’re mostly vinegar, they can last up to five years, and we’ll have used every last drop well before then.

Here are charts that give storage guidelines on almost every food in your kitchen:

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