Expiration Dates: Are They Really Set In Stone?

No one likes to throw out food, but what else can you do when the expiration date has come and gone? As it turns out, there are certain foods that don't play by the rules.

December 8, 2016
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You’ve probably been in this situation before—you come home looking for a specific snack or you reach for a particular ingredient for a recipe, and you notice that the expiration date says it’s gone bad. Most of us grew up thinking that an expiration date was basically a set-in-stone deadline for when our food needed to be thrown out, and that anyone brave enough to try something past its prime was essentially giving themselves a one-way ticket to the bathroom. However, that’s not the case at all. Unfortunately, expiration dates are a large contributor to the millions of pounds of food waste that Americans create year after year. Coupled with the fact that one out of every six people in the country go without food every single day, it’s astounding to think of the amount of perfectly good food that we probably throw away each week.

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Truthfully, expiration dates can refer to the date that a product with begin to spoil, but they commonly point to the date that a product will start to lose quality when it comes to flavor. Common sense goes a long way when it comes to determining if something has actually gone bad, and one simple rule to follow is that if you’re really not sure if something’s still fresh, safe is always better than sorry. If it smells terrible or starts to look noticeably different, there’s no question that it’s time to toss. Thankfully, there are a few different foods and drinks that are typically safe to consume after their noted expiration date has come and gone—and, yes, you can just slice that moldy spot off your block of cheese and keep on snacking.

Milk, Cheese, and Yogurt

Milk is one of those things that, when it’s gone bad, it’s not hard to tell. We hope you’ve never been unfortunate enough to take a swig out of the gallon of milk in your fridge, only to discover it’s gone bad after it’s already hit your tongue. However, milk is something that typically stays food for at least a few days after the expiration date printed on the container, though you’ll still need to give it a good examination before you use it. Milk that’s gone bad usually has a noticeably sour smell, might look slightly yellow in color, and may even develop a chunky texture. If it’s still good, though, you really shouldn’t smell anything when you give it the sniff test, or really notice anything off about it.

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If you’ve got any expired yogurt on your hands, you can pretty much check it for freshness the same way you would milk—just make sure it smells normally, check for spots of mold, and then make yourself a smoothie if it’s all good.

Cheese is another dairy product that has an amazing shelf life, and it makes sense once you think about how cheese is actually made. Though it contains additional ingredients, cheese is essentially just aged milk, and most cheeses can last for up to four weeks past their expiration dates even if they’ve already been opened. Pieces of brick cheese that develop a mold spot can still be eaten, just as long as you make sure to cut the mold away before you eat it—moldy shredded cheese might be a different story, though, as it could be a little more difficult to make sure you’ve actually removed all of the mold.

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Meat

Most packages of fresh meat you’ll see in the grocery store will come stamped with a “sell by” date, which is essentially what lets a retailer know when it needs to pull that item off its shelves. When it comes to keeping fresh meat in your fridge, like steaks or chicken, it can typically be kept fresh for a couple of days after the date on the package before it’ll need to be either cooked or frozen for later use. Contrary to what you might think, fresh meat that begins to look a little discolored after a few days isn’t necessarily bad—for example, raw ground beef often turns slightly brown after a few days due to exposure to light and air. Just like milk, if you suspect your meat has gone past a certain point, the truth will lie in the way it smells.

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Fresh meat that’s still good can be put into the freezer to prevent it from going bad, and it’ll actually make it last for much, much longer. When it’s stored correctly, meat that’s been frozen can be stored for a year or more, so it’s never a bad idea to stock up on your favorite products when you see there’s a sale going on. Processed meats like hot dogs and bologna can sometimes last beyond their expiration date, especially if they haven’t been opened yet. It’s best to consume these types of products within 10 days after the sell-by date, and within three to five days once the package has been opened. When something like this has gone bad, it’ll typically take on a pretty funky smell and might even look sort of slimy on the outside.

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Eggs

Would you believe us if we told you that Americans are some of the only people in the world that actually bother to refrigerate their eggs? It’s pretty much required to due widespread factory farming practices, as well as certain regulations that require eggs to be washed a certain way before being sold. Because salmonella isn’t uncommon in many factory farm setting, eggs must be power-washed before being sold, and it’s this process that removes the natural barrier the egg has when it’s first laid. Like an food product, eggs always come with an expiration date, but you can use it as more of a guideline for when your eggs are actually bad, as opposed to a concrete date of when they should be tossed. Typically, raw, whole eggs will be good until about four to five weeks after the date that is printed on the carton.

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A good way to tell if an egg can still be used is to place it in a bowl of water—you can still eat it if it sinks to the bottom, but it’s time to get rid of it if it floats to the top. Once an eggs has been hard boiled, you typically have about one week until it won’t be good anymore. Peeling can also affect this timeline, as a hard boiled egg that has been peeled with often go bad up to two days before a hard boiled egg that still has its shell on. It’s not recommended to keep pre-scrambled, raw eggs in the refrigerator for more than a day or two unless you bought them pre-packaged, as this type of product is typically made to last a while. 

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Bread

Who hasn’t reached for the loaf of bread on their counter, the one they just bought three days ago, only to find that one of the slices has mold on it? It’s easy to think that bread goes bad fairly quickly, but that’s actually not the case when it’s stored properly, and you can eat whatever bread you have as long as it’s not moldy or hard. Packaged bread should be stored out of the sun and away from any potential sources of moisture—it’s when moisture makes its way into the bread bad that mold has a chance to form a ruin an entire loaf. Those who live in high-humidity environments often store their bread in the refrigerator to keep the moisture at bay, though the fridge can easily dry the bread out. Freezing bread, however, is typically the best option, as it won’t dry your bread out and it will actually help it keep for a much longer period of time.

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If your family goes through a lot of bread each week, definitely consider stocking up the next time you see a sale at the store and freeze what you can’t use right away. For anyone who’s thought about checking their local bakery or farmers market for a great deal on day-old bread, you can rest assured that they’re not selling old bread because there’s something wrong with it. In fact, it’s often cheaper because it’s not as fresh as something baked that day, but it has plenty of uses, many that work even better when you’re using bread that’s a little more dry. Day-old, crusty bread is excellent to use when it comes to things like French toast, croutons, or bread pudding.

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Pasta

You might not think too much about your box of pasta expiring, and that’s because pasta can be used way past the date printed on the side of the box. This is definitely good news for all of us, as most people use just half a box of dried pasta for a recipe, and then end up throwing what’s left back in the pantry until they need it again. Because pasta is considered a dry good, it is typically given a shelf life of around one to two years, though it can last far beyond that because it doesn’t contain any water. As long as it’s stored in a place that’s both cool and dry, it can actually last for up to another two years before you’d want to consider tossing it out. Who are we kidding, though—does anyone actually let pasta go unused for that long?

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If you do have any dried pasta that’s been sitting around the house for a while, there’s a simple way that you can test the pasta to see if it’s got much life left in it—just give it a quick glance to see if it’s discolored, smell it to see if it smells off at all, and try cooking a few pieces to see if the texture feels off. You should also never store dry pasta in the refrigerator, as that could help it absorb moisture and cause it to spoil. Fresh pasta, however, should always be refrigerated, and has a much shorter shelf life than dry pasta. Fresh pasta will typically last for a couple of weeks past the date on the package, though it’s important to toss it out if it starts to smell funny or discolor.

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Condiments

Condiments often get pushed to the back of the fridge for weeks at a time, or they’re only bought for a specific recipe and then never used again. It can sometimes be tough to use condiments by the time their containers say they expire, especially for a single person trying to make it through something like a squeeze bottle of fancy mustard all by themselves. Thankfully, most condiments will still be good for up to three to four months after the expiration date listed on the packages if they are opened and have been properly refrigerated. However, just make sure to give anything you plan on using a quick sniff before you eat it, and also check for spots of mold, dryness, or discoloration. Condiments that are still sealed can be stored in your pantry for quite a long time as well, since oxygen is not able to enter the package.

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For anyone who keeps condiment packets from fast food and takeout restaurants, those also have a shelf life, too, though any expiration dates will typically tell you when they will start losing flavor.Things like ketchup and mayonnaise packets should be tossed out after about a year if you want the best flavor, but they won’t necessarily be bad after that. Condiment packets for things like hot sauce, mustard, and parmesan cheese should be used within two years for the best taste. No matter what’s in them, these little packets do have real expiration dates, though they’re listed on the box that was sent to the restaurant, not the packet itself. It’s probably best that, if you don’t actually remember when exactly you got one of the packets, you should probably toss it out.

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Canned Goods

Canned food was invented as a way to ensure that food products could still be consumed long after they were done processing. These days, using canned food often gets a bad rap for many reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the actual food itself. Though there are some who aren’t too fond of the texture and flavor of canned food, others choose to stay away because of the materials in the cans themselves, including BPA (bisphenol A). In addition, frozen produce is often just as affordable as canned, which leads people to buy people the food that they perceive to be fresher. However, it’s worth noting that studies have shown canned foods to contain just as much fiber and just as many vitamins as their fresh and frozen counterparts, and sometimes even more. Fortunately, we have some good news for anyone who’s a fan of canned goods—their expirations dates are pretty much meaningless.

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Food that has been canned will typically for last for years after label says it expires, because there is no way for oxygen to enter the can and affect the food. This is exactly why so many people like to keep plenty of canned food on hand in case of an emergency—you just have to make sure to remember a can opener. Believe it or not, there’s also a proper way to store canned goods, even if they’re not open. Cans should be kept in a cool, dry, and dark place for the most effective storage, and should never be frozen. Meat and fish that has been canned will typically not last longer than one year, and shouldn’t be kept for more than a few days once opened.

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