Meal Planning Basics: How Long Does Prepped Food Last?

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You're making a valiant effort to make food prep more than a goal in your life; you want to make it part of your weekly routine.

And for good reason: food prep is one of those meal planning basics that saves you time and keeps your healthy meal plan on track, whether you define “food prep” as cutting and chopping fruits and vegetables, mixing a marinade, or preparing a vegetable casserole so that all you have to do is pop it in the oven.

It's downright fun to see your kitchen counters resemble an assembly line—and a sure sign of your growing skill and confidence with meal planning basics. But before you get too carried away, be sure that you know how long prepped food will last in your refrigerator. After all, you don't want your time and efforts to go to waste, literally.

Storing prepped food wisely begins with mastering smart washing and wrapping techniques—some of which may prompt you to alter some longstanding kitchen rituals.

Wash with wisdom

For many people, washing produce such as lettuce, spinach, grapes and strawberries under a stream of cool tap water is practically second nature. It's a smart habit to maintain because washing can remove bacteria and reduce the risk of food poisoning. Take the extra step of drying produce with paper towels—they are a better choice than cotton towels because you'll throw away the paper towels (and any trace of bacteria) when you're finished.

For just as many people, washing produce with inedible peels seems unnecessary. After all, you're going to discard the peel before consuming the fruit or vegetable anyway. But the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics points out that dirt and bacteria on the peel can travel from it to the inside of the produce as you cut into or peel it. For this reason, the academy recommends washing all produce, even if the peel (like those on squash, avocados and bananas) is inedible.

The academy also debunks another kitchen pointer—one that is espoused even by some top chefs—about rinsing raw chicken. The goal is to remove bacteria, but the academy cautions that the act of splashing water can actually spread the bacteria around your kitchen.

If you're prepping a roaster kitchen, there's no getting around the reality that it may contain salmonella or campylobacter. “The only way to kill those pathogens is to cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees,” the academy says. It renders the same advice about prepping raw fish, since washing “increases the chance of cross-contamination to other foods, utensils and surfaces.”

Wrap it up right

With your food properly cleansed of bacteria, you can move on to the next step of meal planning basics: wrapping prepped food properly.

Aluminum foil, plastic bags and airtight containers are largely a matter of preference; all are good choices for ensuring that prepped food stays fresh. “Open dishes may result in refrigerator odors, dried-out foods, loss of nutrients and mold growth,” says the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Be sure to store your prepped food quickly; perishables shouldn't stand at room temperature for more than two hours. You will however benefit from letting your freshly cooked food cool down as your meal preps can bring down the temperature in your refrigerator. Take the extra precaution of placing raw meat, chicken or fish on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator so that if by some chance the container leaks, the juices won't drip onto other food.

Heed the day

With your refrigerator set at 40 degrees or below, you're ready to store your prepped food so that it will be ready when you need it. Following is a list of common prepped foods and their expected lifespan once properly contained in the refrigerator.  The more air tight you've contained them, the better.  This is one of the many reasons we prefer to use glass meal prep containers.

Meat

  • Raw, ground meat: 1 or 2 days
  • Raw chops, roasts and steaks: 3 to 5 days
  • Sausage (pork, beef or turkey): 1 or 2 days
  • Cooked meat: 3 to 5 days

Chicken

  •  Fresh chicken: 1 or 2 days
  • Cooked chicken: 3 to 5 days

Fish

  • Fresh fish (such as salmon, tilapia and other whitefish): 1 or 2 days
  • Fresh shellfish (such as shrimp, crawfish and lobster): 1 or 2 days
  • Cooked fish: 3 or 4 days

Fruit

  • Citrus fruits: 2 to 6 weeks
  • Grapes: 1 to 3 weeks
  • Melons: 1 week
  • Peaches and nectarines: 2 to 3 weeks
  • Pears: 1 to 3 months
  • Other fresh fruit: 3 to 5 days

Vegetables

  • Asparagus: 2 or 3 days
  • Broccoli, brussels sprouts, green peas, green onions, greens, lima beans, mushrooms, rhubarb, summer squash: 3 to 5 days
  • Cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, snap beans and tomatoes: 1 week
  • Beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes, turnips: 2 weeks

Eggs

  • Eggs, hard-boiled: 1 week
  • Egg-containing products (such as sauces): 1 or 2 days

Remember that these are guidelines only. For many of your meal preps, if you're planning further in advance you may consider freezing them.  This is especially useful when preparing soups or crock-pot dishes in advance.  For items that may lose their appeal after a few days in the refrigerator, such as fish, you also may want to construct your meal plans to eat these foods earlier in your meal prep weekly schedule.  

Above all else, consider this admonition of the United States Department of Agriculture to be another one of your meal planning basics: “If in doubt, throw it out."  Trust in thy sniffer!