When Your Food Goes Out Of Date, Here’s How Long It Stays Safe To Eat

Whether the date on food packaging says “best if sold by” or “best by,” it doesn’t always mean what you might think. The suitability of any given item depends on a number of variables: including how it is packed, transported and stored. However, even if the date of a product has already passed, it may still be okay to consume. So, keep in mind the following tips before throwing good food in the trash.

1. Milk and butter

In the U.S., the date on a carton of milk can vary depending on which state you’re in. And how it has been kept since you got it home from the store will be a big factor in its longevity, too. For instance, keeping the product in a fridge running at a lower temperature than the typical 40 degrees Fahrenheit will extend its life. But if the milk is near or past its expiry, give it a sniff and decide yourself.

Butter has a much longer shelf life than milk, and when stored correctly it can last for up to nine months. Furthermore, you can extend that even more by freezing it. But once it has thawed again, it’s probably best to use it up. And if you have a fair amount left over, why not treat yourself by baking a cake?

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2. Yogurt

Yogurt can be a tricky product to read. For instance, it has a naturally sour taste so it might be hard to tell if it has gone bad. You might also see a liquid forming on the top which can put people off. Nevertheless, neither should be taken as a warning, so don’t assume it is bad just because it’s out of date.

Small amounts of liquid sometimes appear in yogurt, but don’t worry, this is just whey separating and it can be easily stirred back in. According to the Food Network, an unopened pot of the product can last up to three weeks past its “best” date if it goes straight into the refrigerator after purchase. Alternatively, you can put it in the freezer to extend its life up to two months and use it for a quick smoothie fix.

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3. Cheese

Generally speaking, hard cheese will last longer than the softer variants. Like most dairy products, its date tends to reflect when the manufacturer itself recommends that it should be eaten. Hard cheese can last a month beyond its expiry date. Furthermore, it’s still good to eat even if mold has started to form on the surface – just cut it away and enjoy.

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Soft cheese, however, should be approached with more caution. Due to its texture, it’s more susceptible to mold growth and harmful bacteria. But it can still be eaten up to a couple of weeks after its printed date. But if something doesn’t look or smell right, it’s better to be safe and just toss it.

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4. Eggs

Eggs can be a tricky product to figure out. After all, they’re contained in a shell, so you can’t see or smell them. Eggs are apparently good for up to two weeks after their date has passed. But how will you know for sure? Well, there’s a test you can conduct without even cracking them open.

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Place the egg in a bowl filled with water, and if it sinks, you’re good to go. But if it floats, it’s probably rotten, so be careful. Believe it or not, you can freeze them for up to year out of their shells, according to the website Incredible Egg. But make sure to separate the yolk from the whites, or whisk them together and make sure to cook them thoroughly once thawed.

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5. Whole intact grains

Light, heat and damp are the enemy of grains due to their natural oils, so avoiding them is the key to their shelf life. However, when stored in an air-tight container in the pantry, they’ll be good for up to six months depending on the type of grain and how they’ve been treated. For instance, refined grains tend to last longer than their whole counterparts, due to the presence of oils in the latter.

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Whole grain flours, meanwhile, are more easily spoiled than intact grains. The air can permeate the grain because it no longer has its protective layer. So expect a shelf life of up to three months when stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry pantry. However, you can double their shelf life by sticking them in the freezer.

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6. Salad

The life of a salad can depend on what ingredients it contains, whether it has been dressed or not and how it is stored. So, for example, egg, chicken, tuna, potato and macaroni salads can last for up to five days if kept in an airtight container in the fridge. Of course, they are better when protected from moisture and other foreign matter.

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However, beyond storing them well, there’s little that can be done to prolong a salad’s life. Ingredients such as mayonnaise and lettuce do not lend themselves well to being frozen. And while dressed salads may become soggy and unappealing even within 24 hours, a coleslaw will keep its crunch for longer. Green leaves will go bad quickest with a window of one to five days. However, be sure to toss any that are slimy, as they may contain bacteria.

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7. Bread

Freshly baked bread without preservatives tends to last for up to four days when stored at room temperature. The gluten-free variant, meanwhile, is better kept frozen, because it contains more moisture and therefore is more prone to grow mold. Conversely, any dried bread-based products like crackers or breadcrumbs will last longer. According to Health Line, moldy bread can produce dangerous invisible poisons known as mycotoxins, so toss the loaf if you see any signs of mold.

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However, you can revive stale bread with a few crafty hacks. According to the website Instructables, you can salvage it by wrapping the bread in damp paper towels and then either microwaving it for ten seconds, or covering it up with foil and baking it in a warm oven for up to 20 minutes. Apparently, you can also save old bread by placing it in the bag it came in with a celery stalk and leaving it in the fridge overnight. And if your bread has dried out, you can still use it to make your own breadcrumbs or as a thickening agent in soup.

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8. Dry pasta

As we mentioned earlier, mold needs moisture to grow. By its nature, then, dry pasta is among the longest lasting foods you can store in the pantry. Incredibly, it can be good for consumption for up to three years, and the cooked variant can last up for to a week in an airtight container in the fridge. Freezing is also an option, but it can become dry over time.

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You might wonder, then, what “best-by” dates are for. After all, it’s not illegal for grocery stores to sell products beyond the date stamped on them. However, some states may require that certain products, such as dairy, are sold before the expiration date. The only consumable products legally required to carry a date are baby food and infant formula, according to Eat by Date. In addition, expiration dates are merely advisory and are chosen by the manufacturer, so they may not reflect the actual shelf life of a product.

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9. Frozen food

As most of us know, freezing food will significantly prolong its life. And this is especially true of frozen fruit and vegetables. Though they may only last a matter of days when exposed to the elements, they can remain edible up to a year and 18 months respectively if kept frozen.

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Freezing works because the bacteria that spoils food can’t survive the harsh temperatures. However, just because food doesn’t go bad, it doesn’t mean that what emerges from those icy temperatures will necessarily taste very good. When food is frozen for too long, something known as freezer burn can occur. This happens when items become covered in frost – drawing the moisture out of the food. Although it will still be good to eat when cooked through, it may not look appetizing and the taste will most likely have diminished.

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10. Raw meat

Uncooked meat is of course very susceptible to bacteria, so it is imperative to get the storage and preparation of it right. However, it’s perhaps when preparing meat that the best-by date can be a useful reference tool. The product should always be kept chilled in the fridge, though its shelf life will depend on whether it has been processed or not.

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Processed meat is anything that has preserved by curing, smoking, salting or adding chemicals to it. Such foodstuffs include bacon, hot dogs, ham and sausage meat. These will last a few weeks in the fridge and should be consumed within seven days of opening. Unprocessed meat, meanwhile, will only up to about five days and should be cooked soon after it’s opened.

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11. Cooked meat

Meat in its raw state can spoil for several reasons. Firstly, as soon as an animal is slaughtered its cells break down and they no longer renew – meaning the food can quickly spoil. The flesh is also an excellent breeding ground for mold and bacteria, while fats in the meat can oxidize when they’re exposed to oxygen as a result of bad packaging. That said, you can still extend its life by cooking it.

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When it comes to freezing, the same rules apply to raw meat as any other food. However, while it will prolong the shelf life of pork and red meat in particular by up to a year, it might not keep it at its best. Perhaps, then, it might be more practical to cook it before the best-by date. If you plan on consuming the food soon, but are worried that it might spoil in the meantime, cooking it will extend its life by up to four days.

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12. Beef

The shelf life of beef can vary massively based on a number of factors. Like with other meats, the goodness of the product is measured within two systems: case-life and shelf-life. The former refers to the amount of time meat can be on display under refrigerated conditions before it undergoes a change of color. Shelf-life, for its part, refers to the date at which it becomes not particularly tasty but still safe to eat.

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However, beef can last significantly longer depending on how and where it is packaged. When delivered to the store already vacuum-packed, the meat has a window of 35 to 45 days, according to the market research group R&KM. But apparently that window almost doubles when it’s refrigerated between 28 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Nevertheless, it’s always recommended to refer to the manufacturer’s best-by date.

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13. Poultry

An estimated nine billion chickens are bred for slaughter every year in the U.S, the charity United Poultry Concerns has noted. However, though it may be an excellent source of protein, poultry is also more vulnerable to bacterial contamination. It is therefore vital to stringently follow storage and preparation guidelines, as well as observe best-by dates to avoid contracting food poisoning. And if you are in any doubt, you should throw it out.

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Raw chicken and other poultry can only be kept in the fridge for up to two days, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. And while a whole chicken can last for up to a year when frozen, it’s still important to cook the bird carefully after it has been fully defrosted. Furthermore, any leftovers can be left in the fridge for four days or in the freezer for up to six months. But if the conditions are too warm, even a well-cooked chicken can spoil within a couple of hours.

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14. Fish

When it comes to fresh fish, shelf life is as vital as poultry. So, if you plan on whipping up a quick calamari or a comforting fish pie, try and buy the ingredients the day you will cook them. However, if your plans change at the last minute, fish will last up to three days in the fridge when wrapped up well.

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Furthermore, cooked fish can last for up to four days when refrigerated properly, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That said, the shelf life does differ depending on what type of fish it is. Salmon and tuna can be frozen for up to three months, while cod can last for double that time. And the Better Fish Company has claimed that vacuum-sealed frozen seafood can stay good for two years if properly frozen.

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15. Cookies and chocolate

You’ve been watching your waistline and so haven’t dived into the cookie jar as often as you used to. But how do you know they’re still good to eat? Well, it can be pretty obvious when cookies go stale. An unopened pack can, nevertheless, be good for up to two months after the best-by date, but the freshly baked kind are better consumed within a few days of purchase.

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For its part, chocolate is an even hardier treat. Depending on the quality, if it’s stored in a cool, dry place it can be good for four months past its best date. It can last an impressive eight months in an air tight container in the fridge and a few years in the freezer, according to the Food Network. However, milk chocolate doesn’t fare as well and lasts only eight months when frozen. And if a weird splotchiness has formed on it, don’t worry, it’s probably fat or sugar bloom and is completely harmless.

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16. Chips

Like with most foods, potato chips carry a label advising how to store them to maintain optimal freshness. And if these instructions are followed, the food’s quality won’t dip until long after the best-by date. For an unopened pack of chips, they can stay tasty for a full three months later.

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As mentioned earlier, the best-by date on any food is an indicator of the product’s quality rather than the point at which it’s gone bad. However, over time chips will start to smell a little funky, or they may begin to develop an unusual look or taste. So if any of these things should happen, or if mold starts to form on the chip’s surface, then throw them in the trash.

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17. Peanut butter

Many variants of peanut butter have an oily matter which floats on top of the product. However, this is no indication that it has gone bad. In fact, the high levels of oil found in peanut butter are a good thing, and more oil will rise to the top depending on how natural the ingredients are. The liquid also works as a natural preservative and this, in turn, improves its shelf life.

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If you’ve left a jar of peanut butter untouched for a while and there’s a puddle of oil on the surface, simply stir it back in to restore its natural moisture. According to the National Peanut Board, the spread will be good for at least three months if stored in the pantry after being opened. And if you pop it in the fridge you can extend its life by up to nine months.

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18. Cereal

Cereal comes in a wide variety of shapes, textures and flavors, and a large family can stockpile many different ones depending on people’s preferences. Nevertheless, cereal will generally remain edible for as long as six months after its best-by date even if it’s been opened. But if you’ve already done the prepared oatmeal for instance, it will only last a few days in the fridge.

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On the subject of the breakfast staple, Harvard Food Law & Policy Clinic director Emily Broad Leib told Time magazine in 2013, “Cereals don’t really go bad. There is not that much of a quality issue. If you leave your cereal box open, it can get stale, but you are still not going to get sick from it.”

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19. Pickled items

Pickling is a method of preserving food – particularly vegetables – to stop them from perishing. The chosen product is put in a jar, which is then topped up with salt water or vinegar to keep the food edible for months after. Cucumber is the most common vegetable to pickle in many countries, but the British also pickle onions, beetroot, and eggs.

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Pickling is popular in Asian countries, too. For instance, China preserves radishes and cabbage among other things, while India pickles lemons, mangoes and chillis. And it’s an effective method; many pickled vegetables for instance will last up to two years beyond their expiry date, even if they have been opened. They may grow a little soggy after a while, but you can still eat them.

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20. Condiments

Because condiments are loaded with natural preservatives like salt, vinegar and sugar, they have an exceptionally long shelf life. For example, some of the main ingredients in mustard include vinegar and salt, as well as mustard seed and other spices. And the American variant is good for up to two years after its best-by date, according to the Food Network.

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Similarly, ketchup is loaded with vinegar and sugar on top of the natural acids from the tomatoes. If it is unopened, it will be good for two years after its best-by date, the website Can it Go Bad reported. It should be kept refrigerated once the seal has been broken – where it will keep for another year or so. If you prefer ketchup at room temperature, it should be consumed within a month, though make sure you check for any changes before eating.

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