Is This Still Okay To Eat? Food Expiration Dates, Explained

Food Expiration Dates - collage: two bottles of vinegar; slices of rare beef; eggs in a carton; bag of carrots in crisper drawer

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 Expiration Dates - finger pointing to expiration date on a package of baby arugula

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

Food Expiration Dates - carton of Egg Beaters

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!)

Food Expiration Dates - refrigerator door shelf with condiments stored upside down

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!

Food Expiration Dates - blue dish full of apple pieces, cut strawberries, and fresh blueberries

5. Berries

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.

Related: How To Make Fresh Strawberry Jam In Your Instant Pot

6. Meat

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.)

7. Shellfish

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.

Food Expiration Dates - collage: beef on slicer; sliced rare beef

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.

9. Leftovers

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

Food Expiration Dates - close up of brown eggs in a carton

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.

Related: How To Read The 3 Most Important Egg Carton Codes

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.”

Food Expiration Dates - bottle of pure vanilla extract

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.

Related: How To Make Gift-Worthy Vanilla Extract In Your Instant Pot

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.

Food Expiration Dates - bag of carrots in a crisper drawer

5. Carrots

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.

6. Peppers

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.

Food Expiration Dates - two bottle of vinegar, one apple cider, one white vinegar

7. Vinegar

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.)

Related: Here Are The Best Of The Best Ways To Use Vinegar

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.

9. Spices

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.

Which of the foods in these lists surprised you the most?

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Jill Nystul (aka Jillee)

Jill Nystul is an accomplished writer and author who founded the blog One Good Thing by Jillee in 2011. With over 30 years of experience in homemaking, she has become a trusted resource for contemporary homemakers by offering practical solutions to everyday household challenges.I share creative homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make your life easier and more enjoyable!

About Jillee

Jill Nystul

Jill’s 30 years of homemaking experience, make her the trusted source for practical household solutions.

About Jillee

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Food & Recipes

  • This is my question: I often see recipes that contain items with a decent shelf life and the recipe states to put it in an airtight container and use within a week. The ingredients themselves each have an expiration date well past that. Is the recipe creator just being overly cautious, OR is there a science I just don’t understand?

  • I often eat sliced fresh strawberries on my breakfast cereal, but I only eat a few each day. I keep them fresh for a week by first cutting the tops off, rinsing them in cold water and placing them on a paper towel until all are clean. Then I put a damp folded paper towel in the bottom of the original store container and gently place the berries, cut side down, on the towel. I stack the rest of the berries pointed end down in between the first layer of strawberries. Place another damp folded paper towel on top and close the lid. These will last quite a while, especially if you dampen the paper towels when they start to dry out.

  • Do you have to keep Worcestershire Sauce in the fridge? What about Ketsup, should you keep it in the fridge? I don’t because I hate cold ketsup with hot food. Thanks for all the great tips!

    • Glenda, I keep Worcestershire (“wish-your-sister-was-here”) sauce in the cupboard and ketchup in the fridge. It’s a good question about the ketchup as you’d think the vinegar would keep it from spoiling; but maybe the high tomato content is why the bottle says to refrigerate after opening(?) Maybe you could pour some into a container before a meal and let it sit out at room temperature so that it’s closer to the temperature of the food. Or microwave it, although it might turn even more liquid-y…

  • Hi Jillee! I have a great suggestion when it comes to berries. When you bring them home from the store, or even if you grow them yourself, wash them. But not just in water. Fill your sink or tub with COLD water, then add about a cup of white vinegar to it. Swish it around to mix, them dump your berries in it. Swish them around and let them sit for about half an hour, swishing them occasionally. This not only cleans off any dirt and/or debris, but actually serves as a preservative, letting their shelf life in the fridge be longer. I do this all the time, and believe me, it really works. Oh, and it does NOT leave a vinegar taste or smell on the berries. Just drain, rinse and thoroughly dry before placing in an airtight container. They’ll last for days…unless of course you eat them all first!

    Thanks for all your tips!
    Karen LeDoux

  • Great article – we throw away way too much food in this country…Another factor in the longevity of refrigerated foods is where/how in the fridge they are stored. Perishables like berries will mold faster without adequate air circulation, so I keep them on an open shelf in the fridge -where I can also keep a better eye on them – rather than in the crisper. Lettuces and other greens go in a resealable bag with a paper towel to absorb extra moisture. I reserve the crisper drawer for the denser fruits and vegetables like apples, carrots, celery, beets and radishes. And of course milk should stay in the coldest part of the fridge, not in the door.

    In general, if a food item doesn’t smell putrid and isn’t growing orange fuzzies, I’m going to eat it, or at least reinvent it in a soup, a smoothie, or something baked.

  • Love this. My dad is the worst sometimes about not letting us get rid of expired stuff. We have to sneak it into the garbage sometimes.

    • If you have a Berry keeper basket it will help to keep them from getting moldy. I gave my mom one a few years ago. It’s plastic and has a little strainer built in. Then you can just rinse , cut and store them. The device comes with a lid.

  • How long does pre-packaged deli meat stay fresh once you open the sealed packages? I know they have expiration dates, but wouldn’t the meat go bad faster once it’s been opened? I refer to packages such as Oscar Mayer or Hillshire Farm in the flat plastic tubs.

  • When living abroad (Mexico & the Caribbean) I discovered that a lot of grocery stores store their raw [in shell] eggs in the non refrigerated part of the store, so eggs really do last.

    That being said, I find the easiest way to check if an egg is still good is to fill a bowl/measuring cup w/ cold water and gently drop your eggs in the bowl;

    -If they sink and lay on their sides they’re fresh
    -If they stand on one end at the bottom of the bowl theyre usually safe to eat but could be nearing expiration
    -If they float to the surface they might be be bad and you should test the egg by cracking it open to check for discolouration or have a strong [rotten egg] odour before eating
    While this method is not foolproof, it’s always worked for me without fail.

    • I coat mine in coconut oil when I first get them home. Every time used, I do the water test. If they float, I always toss them. It means a fairly significant amount of air has gotten in there, which means bacteria. You can’t always tell by looking. Not worth the risk. I’ve had refrigerated eggs last up to 6 montgs this way.

  • If you are worried about expiration dates, do not join military and go overseas. Many foods there are out of date, but safe. They are checked out by medical and they are safe, but the dates are still out.

  • This isn’t for store-bought food, but for those with a garden. Plant a last crop of carrots the beginning of August. Do not pull them at the end of the season. Mulch well, or even use a bale of straw or hay. placed over the carrots. When you need carrots, go out and dig what you need up. They will keep all winter. Depending on how fast spring arrives, dig up what is left and put in the fridge. Don’t wash them, just wipe off the worst of the dirt. They will keep until the next crop is ready. You will be amazed at the flavor in February and March if you do this.

    • Hi Sheila! As long as the cans have been stored well (not too hot), they will last a couple years past the expiration date. The color and texture may change, but taste and nutritional value remains the same :-) If the can is rusted, swollen or dented; just throw it out.

      • My sister bought an old shop in the 80s that had been run by the same family for years. In the back of the storeroom we found an old partly rusted can of peas with a price tag of 1d – so pre 1971 when the UK went decimal. We opened it an the contents looked and smelled fine !
        We drew the line tasting them though.

  • I hate food waste and thus make a lot of soup but i have found the best way to store carrots is to make sure they are dry and then wrap in tinfoil and store in the salad drawer of the fridge, they keep for weeks!

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