Find Out What The Dates On Food Packages Really Mean
After checking the expiration date, if you’ve still wondered whether something that’s been in your fridge for a while is okay to eat, you’re not alone! The answer to this age-old question depends on multiple factors, like freshness, flavor, texture, smell, and more. It’s a complex question with complex answers!
While I can’t look into your fridge and tell you what to eat and what to throw away, I can offer some helpful guidelines you can use to figure it out on your own, and that’s exactly what we’ll be discussing in today’s blog post!
But before we get into what you should or shouldn’t eat, I think it would be helpful to start with an overview of the different types of dates that appear on packaged foods. People often assume that any date appearing on food packaging is an expiration date, but that’s not necessarily true!
Food Package Use-By Dates, Explained
The four most common dates that get printed on food packages include:
- Sell-By Date – the latest date the seller should display or sell the product
- Use-By Date – the date when the manufacturer predicts the product will peak in quality
- “Best If Used By” Date – the latest date you can expect peak flavor, texture, or quality
- Closed-By or Coded Dates – a packing number used by the manufacturer
What’s interesting about these dates is that none of them are expiration dates, and neither do they indicate anything about food safety. In fact, the FDA allows almost any food to be sold past these dates (with baby formula as a rare exception).
Another detail worth noting is that food manufacturers aren’t required to put any of these dates on their food—the decision to do so is entirely up to them. As I said before, the seemingly simple question of “Can I still eat this?” isn’t so simple to answer!
While there’s a bit of wiggle room with many foods you may find yourself debating whether to eat or not, others should be given special consideration. The 9 foods below should never be eaten past their marked expiration date (or use-by date) date, and for each one, I’ve offered some suggestions for storing and eating them safely.
9 Foods You Shouldn’t Eat Past The Expiration (Or Use-By) Date
1. Liquid Eggs & Liquid Egg Substitutes
Once an egg leaves its shell, its lifespan will shorten considerably. So if you use liquid eggs or egg substitutes that come in paper cartons, make sure to throw them out once the expiration date has passed.
2. Soft Cheeses
Ricotta, cream cheese, goat cheese, and other soft cheeses are susceptible to mold and bacterial growth. You should toss them out on the expiration date or at the first sign of spoilage, which ever comes first. (If you anticipate you won’t be able to use them up before they expire, you can always toss them in the freezer!)
3. Jarred Condiments
While most condiments stay good for a long time, jarred condiments are exposed to bacteria every time you dip a knife or spoon into the jar. If you want a longer-lasting option, choose condiments in squeeze bottles, rather than jars. (You can also keep condiments fresh longer by storing them upside down, which creates a vacuum that helps keeps air out.)
4. Cold-Pressed Juices
Unlike the juices available in grocery stores, fresh, cold-pressed juices aren’t pasteurized. That means they will spoil quickly, so you want to make sure to drink them within a day or so of bringing them home!
Berries like raspberries and strawberries will only keep for about 3 days or so after purchase. After that, they’ll start to get soft, mushy, and much less appetizing. Blueberries are a bit sturdier, so they tend to stay fresh for about a week.
Fresh meat and fish should be refrigerated or frozen as soon as you bring it home from the store. If you’re going to cook it within a day or two, you can safely keep it in the fridge. If you won’t get around to cooking it for a few days, you’re better off freezing it instead. (That way, you won’t have to worry whether the meat is past its expiration date.)
You need to act fast when it comes to fresh meat and seafood, but you should act even faster with shellfish! Shellfish should be eaten or stored in the freezer within 24 hours of bringing it home.
8. Deli Meat
Whether you can eat deli meat past the expiration date depends on where it came from. Fresh-sliced deli meat only lasts about 3-5 days, while pre-packaged deli meat may last considerably longer. So if you prefer the fresh stuff, make sure to only buy as much as you plan to eat in the next few days.
Leftovers should always be eaten within 1-2 days of when the food was originally cooked. Be especially careful with foods that have been scooped out of a large container, like potato salad or pasta salad, which are more likely to have been exposed to bacteria.
While it’s important to be cautious with these foods in particular, as I mentioned earlier, not all foods have the same risks! In fact, there are plenty of foods you can store for quite a while before eating them, even after their expiration date.
9 Foods You Can Still Eat After The Marked Date
1. Whole Eggs
Are eggs still good after the expiration date? Most egg carton are actually marked with a sell-by date, but will generally remain safe to eat for about 3 weeks after that date if refrigerated.
Many egg producers treat the shells with a thin layer of mineral oil to seal the porous surface and preserve freshness. (Keep in mind that rinsing or cooking your eggs will remove that protective layer of oil, so hard-boiled eggs should be eaten within a few days.)
2. Dry Pasta
As long as you store your dry pasta in a cool, dry place, you can eat it whenever you like! It may lose some of its flavor over time or taste a bit stale once cooked, but it won’t really “go bad.”
3. Vanilla Extract & Other Extracts
Vanilla extract (along with other flavored extracts like almond, coffee, etc.) consists largely of alcohol, so they’ll keep almost indefinitely, though the flavor and aroma are best within the first 5 years. Store them in a cool, dark, non-refrigerated location.
4. Worcestershire Sauce
Like alcohol, salt is also an effective preservative, which is why unopened bottles of salty sauces like Worcestershire sauce will stay good for up to 10 years! Once opened, Worcestershire sauce will stay good for 2-3 years if stored in a cool, dark place.
Due to their low respiration rate, carrots can stay fresh for weeks in your refrigerator. Just cut off the tops first, as they can steal moisture and nutrients away from the actual carrot. Store carrots in an unsealed ziplock bag in your crisper drawer for maximum longevity.
Peppers last longer in the fridge compared to other kinds of produce, thanks to a gene that prevents their cell structures from breaking down. Green peppers in particular can last a surprisingly long time, up to about 2-3 weeks. Once your peppers start to look limp or wrinkled, toss them.
The high acidity of vinegar acts as a natural preservative, inhibiting bacterial growth to the point where they can stay good almost indefinitely. Distilled white vinegar won’t change over time, but other vinegar varieties may experience changes in color or clarity (but these changes shouldn’t affect the taste or quality.)
8. Hard Cheeses
Hard cheese like cheddar, Swiss, and Parmesan will last quite a while in your fridge, and they’ll last even longer if you only handle them with clean or gloved hands. If you notice a spot of mold on a hard cheese, you can cut it off and still eat the cheese safely — just cut 1” around the mold spot on all sides.
Do spices go bad after the expiration date? Not really. Dried herbs and spices will become less potent and flavorful over time, but they won’t “go bad”. It can be tempting to buy dried herbs and spices in bulk containers to save money, but buying them in smaller quantities makes it easier to use them up before their flavor starts to suffer.
I hope the tips in this post are as useful to you as they have been for me, and that having sell-by and use-by dates explained to you helps you feel more confident about making judgment calls about what to eat and when.
10. Peanut Butter
Peanut butter has such a low water content that it doesn’t really go bad per se. The oil in peanut butter can go rancid after a while, so just use your nose. Unless it smells bitter or rancid, it’s perfectly ok to eat peanut butter after the date on the jar.
More Useful Food Storage Tips
Which of the foods in these lists surprised you the most?