How Long Does Canned Food Last?

published Nov 22, 2022
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock

Have you taken a good look in your pantry lately? Chances are, you’ve got some time capsules in your stash of canned goods. You might have been saving that canned corn for Cowboy Caviar or that can of condensed milk for Magic Bars, but there are some tips to keep in mind to make sure those cans are not only still fresh, but also safe to eat.

While the USDA states that most shelf-stable foods are safe to eat indefinitely, there’s a chance you’ve got more than a few that might be better off tossed. Here’s how to tell a can-do from a can-don’t.

Credit: Sarah Crowley

How long does canned food last?

Commercially canned foods will last indefinitely, according to the USDA, although there are some exceptions to this rule. If cans are stored near stoves, under sinks, or are seriously dented and rusted, this will not only affect the taste of the food inside, but also the safety of the food itself.

“Even with [the USDA’s guidelines], I say a good rule of thumb is to use canned food within two years,” says Rachael Narins, a chef and certified UCCE master food preserver. “Ideally, more like one year, but we all know some things get purchased in bulk or end up in the back of the cupboard and are forgotten about. It happens.” 

And if you’ve got a collection of canned condensed milk ready for the holidays, Narins suggests it can be stored for “up to 18 months at around 70°F and the cans should be inverted every two months.” So if it’s been a minute since you purchased those cans, be sure to give them a flip.

Another thing to be mindful of are certain canned meats, such as ham, as some may be marked as “keep refrigerated” on their labels. Canned ham that requires refrigeration can be stored safely in the fridge for six to nine months.

Credit: 97/Getty Images

So what’s the deal with expiration dates?

If reading expiration dates feels more like a game of riddles, you’re not alone. Expiration dates aren’t regulated (save for baby formula), which is why you’ll see a variety of phrases, including best-by, sell-by, and use-by.

“The dates on canned food are use-by or sell-by suggestions. The food does not magically go bad when it hits that date,” says Narins. “I know it freaks some people out to hear, but even at 10 years old, the food inside should be fine. The quality of the contents may be diminished, but it’s most likely still edible.”

When in doubt, your nose is always your best bet. If something smells off, toss it.

Credit: Icons: Shutterstock; Design: Kitchn

How long do open cans of food last?

If you’ve already opened up a can (but have leftovers), low-acid canned foods will keep for three to four days after opening, while high-acid foods will last for five to seven days. It’s safe to store leftovers in the opened can, but for optimal flavor it’s best to transfer the food to a sealed glass or plastic container.

“Once you open any canned food, leftovers should be transferred to another container, with a lid, and refrigerated,” says Narins.

And the same is true of that stockpile of pumpkin and canned condensed milk you’ve picked up for the holidays: “Like most perishable foods, pumpkin, condensed milk, etc. should last up to two weeks if stored properly in the refrigerator. If you don’t think you’ll be using the rest of that pumpkin purée within a week or two, go ahead and freeze in a labeled bag or container,” Narins suggests.

Credit: Peter Colin Murray/Kitchn

What about home canned food?

Got super into canning this year, but want to make sure your stock is still safe? Thankfully, home canned goods, when stored properly (at room temperature, in a cool, dry place), last for up to a year. The USDA also recommends transferring home canned goods to a pot and boiling them for 10 minutes (or more, depending on your elevation) to prevent the risk of botulism.

If you want complete guidelines on how to safely can and preserve fruits and vegetables, check out the USDA’s comprehensive guide to safe home canning.

What about donating canned goods?

When it comes to donating past-due canned goods, similar guidelines (and ethical questions) should be kept in mind.

“People receiving donated food usually have fewer choices about what they receive than people purchasing groceries at a store,” says Leah Butz of Hunter College’s NYC Food Policy Center. “By giving someone past-date food, you are limiting their ability to decide whether or not they are comfortable eating that food.”

The Utah Food Bank suggests only donating canned or jarred foods within a year of their sell-by dates. In general, if you wouldn’t serve the canned food to your family, don’t donate it. Be sure to check with your local food bank to see their individual requirements. (Not sure where your local food bank is located? Feeding America has a handy tool that will help you locate the food bank nearest to you.)

Credit: Kelli Foster

Where can you find more information about food safety and storage?

In an effort to help consumers limit their food waste, the Food Safety and Inspection Service collaborated with the Food Marketing Institute and Cornell University to update the online Foodkeeper storage guide, which contains storage information on a wide variety of foods, including canned foods. When in doubt, check the Foodkeeper app. You might be able to keep your seasonal stockpile of canned pumpkin after all!