The Seven Day Rule: When Should You Throw Away Food In Your Kitchen?

Profit margins are tight when you run a restaurant. Sometimes it’s difficult to make the decision to throw product away, especially when it’s a more expensive, more volatile ingredient such as meat or fish.  There is a fine line between what’s financially prudent and what’s potentially dangerous, not only for the customer, but also for your reputation.  The standard industry rule of thumb is seven days, but is that a safe bet across the board?  Are you willing to bet your business on it?

Our biggest enemy in the battle against spoilage is obviously time, but our second biggest?  The combination of oxygen and aerobic bacteria.

Produce

Produce is a pretty easy one – as it ages it will initially wilt, and then start breaking down.  Seven days on produce is a safe bet, unless you’re talking about potatoes, onions, or garlic. These tend to have a longer lifespan when held properly.  All-in-all, produce tends to tell you when it’s time to get rid of it. Watch for the signs and get rid of it when it’s the right time.

Fish

Depending on how far from the source, chances are your fish already has some “legs on it” by the time it gets to your restaurant.  If you happen to be buying your halibut from a local fisherman during halibut season, odds are you have a few extra days on the lifespan of your fish. But the majority of chefs and restaurateurs aren’t so lucky.  Assume three to four days, tops. Be vigilant about changing your pans, keeping them sealed up tight, and keeping the bulk of your product on ice under consistent refrigeration, such as in a walk-in.

Meat

If you’re bringing in pre-cut, individually vacuum-sealed portions of meat, you’ve definitely got time. But you’re also paying a premium for those extra days.  Same goes for if you’ve made the investment in a vacuum sealer (and, of course, a HACCP Plan) of your own.  If you’re bringing in primal or sub-primals and storing them properly, all you need it to trim down the oxidized meat, and you’ll be good to go. Just beware cutting those steaks too early.  Another great work-around is holding your cut steaks in oil, as it prevents oxygen from reaching the surface.  And then, there’s the tried-and-true brining method: the additional salt makes the meat a less-hospitable environment for bacteria.

Beans

One product with an unexpectedly short shelf-life that might surprise you: cooked beans.  Beans and other legumes are prone to rapid spoilage.

While we all may wish there was a  safe “catch-all” timeline within which we should use or waste product, at the end of the day, the true rule of thumb is this: if you’re not comfortable with a product, don’t serve it. Simple as that.

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Ryan Lamon

Ryan Lamon

Professional Chef/Restaurateur and Recipe Writer/Tester

Ryan, a second generation Georgia pitmaster, began his career at his father’s restaurant, Frank’s Real Pit BBQ in Hoschton, GA. After working at several restaurants in Georgia, Ryan moved to New York City where he cooked at the original Fatty Crab under James Beard Award-winning chef Zak Pelaccio. He later he earned a Bon Appetit Best New Restaurants nod in 2012 as the opening chef de cuisine of Plum Alley in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 2013, Ryan started Peaches’ Smokehouse & Southern Kitchen, a gourmet BBQ and Southern food truck, and followed it up with Poppy+Rose, a brick-and-mortar in downtown LA a year later. He is currently operating a small consulting firm, Smoke and Vinegar Co.