If you’ve ever wondered whether drinking milk past its expiration date or eating canned soup that haunted your pantry for years was going to make you sick, you’re not alone. Consumers throw away about half of the $218 billion worth of food wasted each year in the US—or about $375 per person—often because they're confused about the dates stamped on their food.
“Most consumers think you shouldn’t eat food past the expiration date,” said Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union. “But that’s not true because the best by dates just address food taste or quality, not safety.” While you should never eat mold, illnesses caused by e.coli, Listeria, and Salmonella are typically a result of improper food handling, improper hand washing or eating undercooked meat.
Most food is safe for a lot longer than you think. Shelf-stable and frozen foods can last indefinitely so tossing that frozen pizza from last year is a huge waste. Same for dry foods like pasta, crackers and nuts. When in doubt, use your sense of sight, smell and texture to determine if your food is still good, Jessica Crandall, a registered dietary nutritionist in Denver, Colorado, suggests.
Here’s more common sense advice from the Mayo Clinic, the New York Times, and CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, among others, on how long you can safely keep food, how to keep it fresh longer, and when it's time to toss it.
- Bacon: safe up to one week after package is opened
- Bread: toss when moldy. To make it last longer, freeze slices and toast them to defrost.
- Canned food: up to five years
- Cheese: hard cheese like cheddar or swiss is safe to eat even if there is a spot of mold (just cut it off). Soft cheeses should be tossed if visibly moldy.
- Cereal: safe indefinitely
- Chicken: raw chicken breasts are good in the refrigerator for up to two days, cooked chicken breasts should last four days. If it smells bad or looks slimy, throw it out
- Eggs: refrigerate more than a month (here’s how to tell if you have a good egg)
- Fruits and vegetables: unless it is clearly spoiled (slimy or moldy) there's no need to toss it
- Hard salami: cut off mold and use
- Honey: safe to eat indefinitely
- Hot sauce: good for at least a year or more
- Meat: discard if meat is slimy, sticky tacky to touch or has an off odor. Color change does not always mean the meat has spoiled
- Milk: five days after the date stamped on the carton, sour milk is still good for baking
- Oils: olive oil is good for one year if stored in a dark cool place; vegetable oil is good for a year
- Spices: safe for many years
- Yogurt: good for a couple weeks past date on carton if no mold
If you want to preserve food that is about to go bad a little longer, freeze it or check out this guide for turning browning bananas into banana bread, using watermelon rind to make soup, and making tea from apple core and peels.
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