Expiration dates are sort of like a game of chicken: How close can you push yourself toward the edge of spoilage without suffering very real consequences?
(Note: Do not eat spoiled chicken.)
This whole game is also made more complicated by vague and differing language on food packaging. While the USDA does not itself define or enforce this language, the governmental body does offer these general guidelines.
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- “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described below.
- “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
If you’re even more perplexed after reading this, well, that’s the government for you.
So here’s some straight talk: the best ways to tell when it’s time to quit playing chicken with 10 common foods, according to research and the (sometimes) helpful USDA.
How long they’ll last: five weeks.
That’s the max. Raw. In the fridge. Credit the shell, which helps fight off bacteria.
Now, if you hard-boil the eggs, they’ll only last about a week, at best. You’ll start to smell them turning sour. That’s when it’s time to toss them.
Dairy (Milk, Yogurt, Sour Cream, Cheese)
Milk is safe in the fridge for seven days, yogurt for two weeks, max, and sour cream for up to three weeks, all according to the USDA.
Cheese is more complicated.
Soft cheeses such as cottage cheese, ricotta, or Brie last in the refrigerator for one week. Hard cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss, and Parmesan can last, refrigerated, up to six months before opening the package and three to four weeks after opening.
And those processed cheese slices? They last in the fridge two months, maximum.
All this said, if you open any kind of dairy item and it smells like hell, looks lumpy, or you take a sip and it’s putrid, that’s the food telling you “do not consume me.”
The enemy here is mold, which can cause allergic reactions and respiratory problems, according to the USDA. Some molds may even been toxic.
So if you don’t see your bread growing mold, you’re likely okay despite what the date on the bag says. To extended the life of the bread by a week or more, store it in the fridge.
The general rule has always been four days from the day you cooked the dish. That’s how long leftovers last before they start producing unsafe levels of bacteria, which could lead to foodborne illness.
One important caveat: This rule applies to fridges set at 40°F. A study in Journal of Food Protection found that 59 percent of fridges run above 41°F.
Double-check your fridge temp yourself with a refrigerator thermometer.
Dry Goods (Pasta, Cereal, Cookies)
If we’re talking about that dried box pasta, then it’ll pretty much keep indefinitely because there’s no water inside the noodles. As long as you don’t see any tiny bites taken out of the box or the pasta itself, signaling rodent infiltration, you’re good to go.
Same goes for cereal and cookies, according to the USDA.
Inspect not the expiration date on the can, but the appearance of the can.
“Canned goods will last for years, as long as the can itself is in good condition (no rust, dents, or swelling),” according to the USDA.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
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Like canned goods, these have a long shelf life. Your big foe here is freezer-burn. But here’s your plan for preventing that too.
Protein powders don’t spoil the way meat or dairy does.
That’s because a dry environment within the jug makes it nearly impossible for microbes to grow within the powder, says Bob Roberts, Ph.D., a professor of food science at Penn State University.
So unless you’re storing your canisters in a warm, humid place (like the bathroom or your gym locker), you’re not going to get sick, according to previous reporting.
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