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As through the week we too busy to cook we have gotten the idea of cooking a big bunch of food in the weekend, storing it in the fridge and eat it later in the week.

I am a bit concerned how long things will stay good in the fridge. For example mashed potatoes (which is prepared with milk), minced meat steaks or a cream-based sauce.

Are there any general rules of thumb that can be used to estimate how long things will stay good? And are there any 'dangerous' foods, foods that can be spoiled but not show any mold or smell strange, but are not good to eat?

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9 Answers 9

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Food tends to become unpleasant before it becomes actually dangerous. I would try to eat things within 3 days of making them, though that's just my personal guideline and isn't based on any scientific data. If you aren't going to eat it that quickly, freezing it after it's been cooked and thawing it the day you want to eat it is probably a better idea.

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The USDA says to eat refrigerated leftovers within 4 days.

Be aware that how long you leave something out before refrigeration and the size of the container can shorten the edible lifetime. The gist is the longer it's warm, the more [likely] pathogens will be able to multiply to unsafe levels. A large container holds heat longer and takes longer to reach 40°F.

There's also some other interesting information on the linked page about safe storage durations for many store-bought items as well, including recommendations for how long it will stay good in the freezer. To be fair to @Allison's answer, many of the durations listed in that chart are 3-4 days or 3-5 days, though some are longer or shorter.

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My 3 day guideline is partly just based on quality ... even if something is fine from a safety perspective after 5 days, it might not be as nice in terms of yumminess as if you froze it on day 1 and thawed it on day 5 to eat. –  Allison Feb 10 '11 at 15:35
    
The USDA site has US specific and tailored (simplified) info. e.g. most countries don't put raw eggs in the fridge. And other things are way off. I suspect this is commercially driven, rather than actual science and health! –  TFD Feb 10 '11 at 21:43
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You're free to -1 this, but the USDA is all scientifically researched and should apply just fine to any modern nation with refrigerators, which is the context of the question. –  zanlok Feb 10 '11 at 21:45
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refrigeration of raw eggs, in specific, has to do with standard practice for processing of eggs: in the US, eggs are required to be washed before sale, which removes the protective, waxy coating that makes them safe to store at room temperature. –  Dan Davies Brackett Feb 11 '11 at 0:18
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@DDav wow, that's very interesting. I did not know that. –  Earlz Feb 11 '11 at 0:55
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The point of the fridge is to slow down the sex life of bacteria. So try and cool food down as quickly as possible - put slowcooker/casserole pots into a sink full of cold water for a 30mins before putting them in the fridge. A big pot of stew can stay warm in the fridge for hours if you take it straight from the stove.

Make sure things are well cooked before you store them, if it starts off with most of the bugs dead it will take longer for them to come back again.

Biggest problem in the fridge is cross contamination. Keep everything sealed. Put anything raw/defrosting on the bottom shelf and cover it if possible.

Apart from the obvious shelfish, mayonaise risky foods - one food to be careful of is rice. Regular boiled/steamed rice can grow nasty bugs very quickly even though it looks/tastes fine. Ideally use leftover rice the next day.

Finally don't worry - unless you are have some serious existing medical problem the worst you are going to get from last week's sausages is an extended time in the bathroom. Did your grandmother have FDA approved labels on everything she baked?

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+1 for grandmother. One would wonder how generation of humans have survived. –  Izzydorio Feb 11 '11 at 8:54
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StillTasty has got lots of information about how long specific foods will keep for.

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I've lived by a simple rule for many years now: if it looks ok and smells ok, it is ok. Just use your common sense.

I can tell you from experience that I have eaten leftovers that were many weeks old, with no ill effects. As Allison mentioned, if your food was cooked properly in the first place, it will become unpleasant long before it becomes dangerous.

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I think Allison hit on the key point. Below 40 degrees F, dangerous bacteria are not multiplying anymore, but other breakdown processes are still happening. Some of these can even improve flavor the first couple days, some not so much. If it was safe when you put it in the fridge, and it doesn't smell rotten or have any obvious mold, there's minimal risk.

People have been doing without refrigeration for a long time. There's an evolutionary reason we naturally reject food that smells rotten.

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I agree with Allison. I recommend that once you cook your food, prepare packages for each night of the week and freeze. (Identify each package and note date.) It takes a short time to defrost the pkg. and heat for your evening meal. In the event you don't get home for dinner you won't have to worry about spoilage and dollars going into the garbage.

I can share with you that I grew up with a Friday "Left Over Night Dinner" which we kids called "Garbage Night"! It was always great believe it or not. My mom would save whatever left-overs from M-Th. dinners. On Friday, she would heat up the left overs and, off course, with a family of 5 she always added a fish or a pasta and what ever was left was thrown out.

It is better to be safe than sorry.

A

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ha, remind me to not get invited to your Mom's on Fridays =P –  zanlok Feb 10 '11 at 21:30
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In every professional kitchen I have ever worked in, no prepared food is kept for any longer than 7 days. Of course, depending on what it is you may want to throw it out before then, but I wouldn't eat anything that had been sitting in the fridge for any longer than that...

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  1. I have found that storing food in GLASS containers makes them last much longer than in plastic, though stick to USDA guidelines.

  2. Watch out for putting hot food in the fridge, it will warm everything else up. In the commercial kitchen I worked in, we would put the hot food (container) in an ice bath in the sink before putting it in the fridge.

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fyi re #2, another question talks about this as well –  zanlok Feb 10 '11 at 20:57
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