Wondering which foods to stock up on that'll be good for the long haul? Or want to know whether that stash in the back of your pantry is still safe to eat? Here are some answers.

By Toby Amidor
April 20, 2020
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Toby Amidor, R.D., is a registered dietitian and a food safety expert. She has taught food safety at The Art Institute of New York City culinary school since 1999 and at Teachers College, Columbia University for a decade.

Have you ever looked at that bottle of soy sauce in the corner of the fridge that's been there for over a year and wondered: 'Will you ever go bad?!?'

Although there are only a handful of foods that are really good "forever," some foods can last longer than you realize with the proper storage. Here's a list of foods that last a long time, plus when you actually need to acknowledge those "sell by" and "use by" dates on labels to help minimize food waste in your kitchen. (Also read: Food Staples You Should Also Have In Your Kitchen)

What to Know About Date Labeling On Food

There's a lot of confusion around when to discard packaged foods stamped with a date. Important: Those "use by" and "sell by" dates listed on packages are put there by the food manufacturer and indicate the food quality, not safety. That means it's safe to consume foods stamped with "use by" or "sell by" past the date on the label, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This means that many of those unopened cans and packages sitting in the back of your pantry may actually be edible.

Note: "Expiration" dates are different. They are typically only listed on baby formula, some baby food, and some states place it on milk. You should never consume food past its "expiration date."

Regardless of the date stamped on any foods, you should evaluate the quality of the food before you eat it. Keep an eye out for signs of spoilage like an unpleasant odor, change in texture, or even mold. (Here's everything you need to know about eating "expired" foods.)

Which Foods Never Go Bad?

There are few foods that never go bad. However, the caveat is they must be stored under proper conditions. For room-temperature products, that means the temperature should ideally be between 50 and 70°F and the product should be out of the sunlight to help maintain its quality as long as possible and keep it from spoiling. (Related: 8 Kitchen Hacks to Make Your Food Last Longer)

Foods that really never go bad:

  • Commercially bottled water: Water will store indefinitely, though the taste may be impacted by storage conditions, including sunlight, items stored around it, and the containers being used to store it.
  • Sugar: Sugar never spoils if stored in your pantry under the right conditions, but for best quality, use within two years of opening.

Foods you can store a very long time:

  • Powdered milk: As long as it's stored in a cool, dry, dark place, powdered milk can last for up to 5 years. If stored in hot temperatures (like next to your stove), however, it can spoil in as little as 3 months.
  • Teabags: If unopened, tea bags can be stored for up to 3 years in the pantry. Once the package is opened, the storage time goes down to 18 months. (Note: This is for the entire box or bag of tea vs when you open each individual teabag.)
  • Soy sauce: Soy sauce can last for up to 3 years in your pantry unopened—and you can even keep it in your pantry after it's opened. Refrigeration makes sure that commercial sauces and condiments stay fresh for a longer period of time, so it's for quality—not safety—reasons that your bottle of soy sauce suggests refrigerating after opening.
  • Teriyaki sauce: Just like soy sauce, teriyaki sauce does not need to be refrigerated after opening and can last in your pantry for up to 3 years unopened.
  • Ground spices: Even after opening, ground spices like cinnamon and chili powder can last in your pantry for between 2 to 3 years.
  • Canned goods: Most unopened canned goods last up 2 years in the pantry. Low-acid canned goods (like poultry, fish, soup, beans, peas, etc.) can last up to 5 years (!!).

Foods you can store a rather long time:

  • Honey: The sweet stuff can be stored in your pantry under the right conditions for up to 2 years.
  • Vinegar: Various types of vinegar, like balsamic and red wine, can last for up to 2 years in the pantry.
  • Chocolate: Unsweetened and semi-sweet solid bars of chocolate can last up to 2 years in a pantry.
  • Dry beans: Whether it's cannellini, black, pinto, or Great Northern, dry beans, dry beans last for up to 2 years.
  • Dry pasta: Eggless dry pasta can last in your pantry for up to 2 years.
  • Shelf-stable vegetable juice: Unopened containers or cans of vegetable juice can last up to 18 months in your pantry.

Foods that can be stored longer in the refrigerator and freezer:

The refrigerator and freezer are two other storage facilities used to lengthen the shelf life of food. To have them work best, make sure your refrigerator is at about 38 or 39°F. You can place thermometers in your refrigerator to check. If they're higher than 40°F, then a certified maintenance person should be called to fix it.

Other guidelines for your fridge to maintain the proper temperature: Don't overpack it and or line the shelves with aluminum foil or other types of paper. This will decrease the airflow in the refrigerator and can lead to an unwanted increase in the refrigerator's temperature. Lastly, don't place hot food in your refrigerator which can raise the temperature of all other foods in there, which may cause them to spoil sooner. (Also see: How Long Can You Freeze Your Meals Before They Go Bad?)

Your freezer should be maintained around 0°F in order to keep your food frozen. If you have large ice crystals, it's time to give it a good defrosting and cleaning.

These foods last quite a long time in the refrigerator or freezer.

  • Beef steaks: These babies can last for up to 12 months when frozen raw.
  • Beef and pork roasts: Larger pieces of meat, like roasts, can also last for up to 12 months when frozen raw.
  • Grated or shredded parmesan cheese: When stored under the right temperature is a covered container, grated or shredded Parmesan cheese can be stored for up to 12 months in the refrigerator.
  • Hard cheese: Hard cheeses like parmigiano-reggiano, pecorino, and manchego can last unopened in the refrigerator for 6 months.
  • Margarine: Maintained at the right temperature and kept covered, margarine can last up to 6 months in the refrigerator.
  • String cheese: This softer cheese can be stored up to 5 months in the refrigerator if kept properly covered.
  • Frozen fruit and vegetables: Many frozen fruits and vegetables can last up to 12 months in the freezer; however some last a shorter period of time. (For example, asparagus lasts 5 months in the freezer and eggplant up to 8 months in the freezer.)

If you're curious about exactly how long other foods last in your pantry or fridge, you can search for foods using the FoodKeeper App and website, which is run by the USDA, FDA, and CDC.

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