You’ve been craving a grilled cheese all day long, only to come home and find that your bread expired 3 days ago. Or maybe it was that bowl of cereal you poured just before realizing your milk has been expired for a week. We’ve all been there.
When the expiration date strikes, you have two choices: keep or toss. For some, the expiration date is practically a trash can timer. Others will eat the expired food and stay true to the classic “there are starving kids in Africa”.
The truth is that expiration dates don’t actually have anything to do with how safe it is to eat the food. Just because your food has technically expired, that doesn’t mean eating it will make you sick. The dates you see are really just an estimate of peak freshness. That’s right, an estimate.
The way you should interpret expiration dates really depends on what type of food you're eating and how that food is stored. Let's break it down using the infamous 5 food groups.
The validity of expiration dates tends to vary with dairy products. Generally, liquid dairy products are more perishable than solid ones. This means your expired cheese or yogurt is probably okay, while you might want to take a whiff before drinking that expired milk.
In fact, solid cheeses could last for months past their expiration date. Even if some mold develops, you can simply cut the moldy parts off and still get cheesy. Milk, on the other hand will only last about a week past its expiration date before it turns sour.
One factor you may want to consider before tossing your expired dairy is whether the packaging has been opened or not. Unopened yogurt tends to last for weeks past its expiration date, while an opened yogurt will start to degrade sooner. This same principle applies to products like cheese or butter.
When it comes to eggs, the expiration date isn’t a reliable indicator for whether you should eat them or not. Eggs tend to last for up to 5 weeks past their expiration date. A better way to test egg freshness is to place the egg in water. If it floats to the top, it’s rotten. If the egg sinks to the bottom, go ahead and make the omelet.
Carbs are very important part of life and throwing them out just because they’ve passed a suggested date is just a waste. Your main concern with keeping grains after they reach “peak freshness” is that they can become stale. Even then, most of them are perfectly safe to eat.
Packaged grains like cereals and crackers will fine to eat for months after their “best by” date. Just make sure to seal them up tightly to prevent them from going stale too quickly. Likewise, foods like dry pasta or rice have an extremely long shelf life and will last for months past their projected date.
On the other hand, fresh pastas contain moisture will spoil much easier. They will still last a few weeks past their expiration date, but you definitely want to be aware of any mold or funky smells developing.
Bread is also be fine to eat after it has expired. A little stale bread never hurt anyone, right? However, moisture may cause bread to become moldy over time and you certainly don’t want to consume any mold. If you’re really desperate for some toast, it’s totally fine to just cut the moldy parts off and enjoy the rest.
With protein foods, expiration dates can be more critical. Mainly, when raw meat or seafood pass their peak freshness, its a one way trip to funky town.
Unfortunately, these products usually have a “Sell By” date instead of a “Best By” or Use by”. The purpose of the this is to let the seller know when the product should be off store shelves. It ultimately has nothing to do with when the product should be eaten.
Regardless of what the date says, it’s good to use these products within a few days of purchasing them. If that’s not possible, it’s best to store them in the freezer. Raw meats, like poultry or beef will stay fresh for up to a year in the freezer. Freezing raw seafood will keep it fresh for around 4-6 months.
It’s also important to watch expiration dates when it comes to deli meats. These sandwich staples are vulnerable to a type of bacteria called Listeria, which will thrive in cold environments like your fridge. It’s best to use deli meats for no more than a week past their expiration dates. Once they start to get slimy, you may want to consider tossing them out.
When it comes to fruits, how long they last really depends on how they are stored. Unfortunately, fresh fruits are not going to stay fresh for very long. A lot of them won’t even have printed expiration dates. They generally last 5-10 days in the fridge or even less if they are left out on the counter. However, if you freeze your fruit, they will stay fresh for months at a time.
#SpoonTip: Wash your berries right before you eat them to help them stay fresh longer. Washing them any sooner will cause them to get soft or moldy much faster.
Buying already frozen fruit is also a good option. Those bags of frozen fruit will last for up to a year past their expiration date. Your only obstacle in this case is that dreaded freezer burn. Sealing the bag up tightly after use will help prevent this.
The expiration dates on canned fruit mean next to nothing, seriously. Let them sit 1 or 2 years after their printed date, and they will still be fine. The process of canning fruits utilizes extremely high temperatures for sterilization that will preserve the fruit for extremely long periods of time.
Fresh vegetables are another highly perishable food. Even so, products like carrots, cauliflower or broccoli will remain fresh a few weeks past their expiration date. Once they start to go bad, they will become slimy or even develop brown spots. For fresh vegetables without printed dates, they will generally last around 1-2 weeks in the fridge.
Although the process of freezing vegetables can be tricky, it will help them to stay fresh much longer. Once you learn how to freeze your vegetables properly, you can keep them around for an extra 6-8 months.
For prepackaged salads or salad greens, the expiration date is actually a good indicator of when you will want to toss them out. Items like chopped lettuce or spinach tend to get slimy or rancid very quickly, so it's best to use them up before the printed date arrives. It will be obvious when these products take a turn for the worst.
Just like canned fruits, canned vegetables are ageless wonders. You can keep them around for 1-2 years past their expiration date without worry. Whether it’s a canned corn, green beans or even canned kale, these vegetables are well preserved and prepared to survive a few years in the back on your cupboard.
#SpoonTip: If you really want to figure out if your food is safe to eat, skip the expiration date and just use your senses. There’s a lot to be said about the look, feel or smell of food.
Never let the haters or the expiration dates have power over you. Just be smart and store your food properly to make it last. With more food for you and less trash to take out, you really can’t go wrong.