Many people have become interested in storing larger quantities of food at home in recent years. Factors driving this trend include stay-at-home orders, natural disasters, and manufacturing shortages that have left some grocery shelves bare or with a limited variety of foods. In addition, people who do meal prepping or cook in bulk, such as athletes who work out frequently and try to stick to a healthy diet, are interested in how long they can make their bulk food purchases last. Foods with a long shelf life are especially appealing, as they can be stored in the proper environment for extended periods without spoiling or becoming unsafe.
Many foods, such as canned goods, dry ingredients like rice and grains, and powdered products such as nonfat milk have a long shelf life and are great options for long-term food storage. Keep reading to learn more about long-term food storage, foods with a long shelf life, and foods that last a long time without refrigeration.
What is a Shelf Life?
"Shelf life" means how long a food item can last in storage or on a shelf. Items that are "shelf stable" have an extended shelf life at room temperature. The term shelf stable often refers to foods that are non-perishable or don't require refrigeration until after they're opened or perhaps not at all.
Foods that are perishable, such as fruits, meats, and vegetables, must be treated by heat or another preservation technique to make them shelf stable. Preservation techniques such as canning and drying destroy bacteria that make people sick. Bacteria also causes food to spoil, so proper preservation techniques extend the shelf life of food items.
How to Determine Shelf Life
University extension centers typically teach food safety and food preservation courses and can be contacted for questions about food safety and storage. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are key government resources on food safety. Both have website guides to help determine the shelf life of common foods.
Expiration, sell by, best by, or use by dates are placed on food packages by manufacturers. They can also offer some guidance on the expected shelf life of an item when in doubt, though food items sometimes last longer than the food package indicates.
For items you're storing in your pantry, consider labeling the item with the date you added it to your storage area. This will help ensure you rotate and use items within the suggested safe shelf life.
How Long Does Canned Food Last?
Canned foods are a great option for long-term food storage. For additional safety beyond checking recommended food storage dates, do not use food from cans that are deeply dented, bulging, leaking, rusty, or rush rapidly out of the can when it's opened. Extremely cold or hot temperatures can damage canned goods, so keep canned items in a cool environment out of direct sunlight. If you're interested in home canning, follow all USDA safety guidelines for safe canning and only use established recipes.
Canned meats that are shelf stable include canned ham, tuna, Spam, and pressure canned meats. Canned meats can last as long as 2-5 years. Do not store any meat item in the pantry that says "keep refrigerated," and always refrigerate canned meat after opening it.
Other canned foods:
- Low-acid canned foods: Foods such as canned potatoes, corn, stews, and soups that don't contain tomatoes and peas. They can last 2-5 years when stored properly.
- High-acid canned foods: These foods include canned tomato products, fruits, and items pickled in vinegar. In general, these canned items stay safe for 12-18 months.
Dry Foods with a Long Shelf Life
According to the USDA, drying is the oldest form of food preservation. Many dry foods are good for long-term food storage, such as dried beans, lentils, dried milk, fruits, meat jerky, pasta, and rice. Check package labels on your specific food items to ensure they match the approximate guidelines below.
Dried beans, such as black beans, chickpeas, or kidney beans, can safely be stored for 1-2 years. Some people store them for much longer, but the quality of the beans may degrade over time.
Nonfat Dry Milk
Nonfat dry milk is a great shelf-stable item to keep on hand, as it can typically be stored for 3-5 years if kept cool and away from moisture. This dry milk is from grade A nonfat (or skim) milk. It's often sold in grocery stores in cardboard boxes but is also sold by some companies in plastic buckets.
Since it's a dry food with very low moisture, dried pasta should last in the pantry for about 2 years. Keep it away from moisture and high temperatures, and cook as you normally would when ready to use the pasta.
Rice doesn't expire, and all dry rice lasts a long time in the pantry. For best quality, though, the rice should be stored no more than 1-2 years. Flavored rice packets may last a shorter amount of time in storage since other ingredients are added, so it's best to use them within six months.
Food Storage Recommendations: Various Food Groups
The table below contains estimated food storage lengths for a variety of foods. Information in this table is based on information from FoodSafety.gov, the USDA, the FDA, and the Food Marketing Institute. When in doubt, look for a manufacturer's expiration date or "use by" date on a food item. If it's unclear how long the item has been in storage, it would be safest to discard it and not risk your health.
Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
- Apples: 1-2 days (room temp, around 70 degrees F); 3 weeks (refrigerated, around 40 degrees F); 8 months, if cooked (freezer)
- Avocado: Until ripe (room temp); 5 days (refrigerated); Not recommended (freezer)
- Cabbage: Not recommended (room temp); 1-2 weeks (refrigerated); 10-12 months (freezer)
- Citrus fruits: 10 days (room temp); 1-2 weeks (refrigerated); 10-12 months (freezer)
- Peppers: Not recommended (room temp); 5-7 days (refrigerated); 6-8 months (freezer)
- Tomatoes: Until ripe (room temp); 2-3 days (refrigerated); 2 months (freezer); shelf stable 12-18 months if canned safely
- Garlic: 1 month (room temp); 1-2 weeks (refrigerated); 1 month (freezer)
- Onions: 2-3 weeks (room temp); 2 months (refrigerated); 10-12 months (freezer)
- Potatoes: 1-2 months (room temp); 1-2 weeks (refrigerated); 10-12 months, if cooked (freezer)
- Rice: 1-2 years (room temp)
- Flour: 6-12 months (room temp), recommended to keep whole-wheat flour in the refrigerator after opening
- Pasta, dry: 2 years (room temp)
- Oatmeal: 12 months (room temp)
- Ramen noodles, dry: 1 year, follow food manufacturer guidelines (room temp)
- Egg substitutes: 2 weeks, unopened (refrigerated); not recommended (freezer)
- Eggs, in shells: 3-5 weeks (refrigerated); do not freeze (freezer)
- Lunch meats (before opening): 2 weeks (refrigerated); 1-2 months (freezer)
- Ground beef: 1-2 days (refrigerated); 3-4 months (freezer)
- Rotisserie chicken: 3-4 days (refrigerated); 4 months (freezer)
- Lean fish (cod, flounder): 1-2 days (refrigerated); 6-8 months (freezer)
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna): 1-2 days (refrigerated); 2-3 months (freezer)
- Beef jerky: 12 days (unopened and commercially-packaged); 2-3 months, after opening (refrigerated); 1-2 months (home-dried)
- Bacon: 7 days (refrigerated); 1 month (freezer)
- Peanut butter: 6-9 months (room temp); 2-3 months in pantry, after opening
- Tofu: Not recommended unless packaging indicates shelf stable (room temp); 1 week, or date on package (refrigerated); 5 months (freezer)
- Spam: 2-5 years (room temp); review manufacturer's expiration date
- Beans, dried: 12 months (room temp); 2-5 years, canned
- Butter: Not recommended (room temp); 1-3 months (refrigerated); 6-9 months (freezer)
- Cow's milk: 8-20 days (refrigerated); 3 months (freezer); not UHT processed
- Nonfat dry powdered milk: >1 year, follow manufacturer’s expiration guidelines (room temp); manufacturing varies, follow label instructions
- Cheese (blocks, hard like cheddar, swiss): 6 months, unopened (refrigerated); 6 months (freezer)
- Cheese, processed (such as American): 1-2 months (refrigerated); not recommended (freezer)
- Yogurt: 7-14 days or package date (refrigerated); 1-2 months (freezer)
- Almond milk: Shelf stable options exist, review manufacturer guidelines (room temp); follow expiration date (refrigerated); not recommended (freezer)
- Sugar: 2 years (room temp); not recommended (refrigerated)
- Honey: 12 months (room temp)
- Maple syrup: 12 months (room temp); 12 months, after opening (refrigerated); not recommended (freezer)
- Olive oil: 6 months (room temp); 4 months, after opening (refrigerated); not recommended (freezer)
- Vinegar: 2 years (room temp)
- Baking powder: 6 months (room temp)
- Baking soda: 12 months (room temp)
- Cocoa powder: Indefinitely (room temp)
- Coffee (ground, in can): 2 years (room temp)
- Pickles: 12 months (room temp); 1-2 weeks, after opening (refrigerated); not recommended (freezer)
Food safety is essential to consider when storing foods for extended periods of time. This guide will help you determine which foods have the longest shelf life and how long each food category may last in storage. When in doubt, do not use food that has been stored for an unknown amount of time or has any signs of spoilage.