Trash It or Eat It? The Truth About Expiration Dates

How long is it really safe to keep foods?
Egg with expiration date stamp

The label on the eggs in your fridge says “best by” yesterday’s date. Is it safe to make one last omelet? You hate to waste the eggs, but you also don’t want to get sick.  

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Registered dietitian Anna Kippen, MS, RDN, LD, offers up some food safety guidance for all your food groups.

Navigating food expiration dates

You’ll see dates on many perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. But you might be surprised to learn that they aren’t usually about food safety.

According to the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, manufacturers put “best by” or “best if used by” dates on their products to let retail stores and consumers know how long their products are expected to maintain their best taste and texture.

These dates aren’t required by federal law (though some states require them) and don’t necessarily indicate a product’s safety (with the exception of baby formula). In fact, perishable products are usually safe to consume beyond their “best by” date if they’ve been handled and stored properly.

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But there’s no hard and fast rule here — it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether it’s a good idea to go ahead and make that omelet du jour, or to toss the eggs and opt for a bowl of oatmeal instead.

Check your food for these surefire signs of spoilage:

  • Smells “off.”
  • Is moldy.
  • Has a different texture than you would expect.
  • Has an unpleasant taste.

General guidelines for freshness

These items should be safe in the fridge or pantry for the following amount of time:

  • Milk: 7 days (Tip: Keep milk in the back of the fridge, where temperature is typically coldest.)
  • Eggs: 3-5 weeks (Tip: Also store eggs in the back of the fridge, where the temperature is coldest.)
  • Ground meat/poultry: 1-2 days.
  • Cooked meat/poultry: 3-4 days.
  • Lunch meat: 2 weeks unopened, or 3-5 days opened.
  • Dry pasta: 1-2 years.
  • Steaks: 3-5 days.
  • Fresh poultry: 1-2 days.
  • Canned fruit: 12 to 18 months, or 5 to 7 days in the fridge after opening.
  • Rice and dried pasta: 2 years, or 3 to 4 days in the fridge after cooking.

Tips for freezing

If you aren’t going to be able to eat something in your fridge before it goes bad, consider tossing it in the freezer. You can safely freeze almost any food at or below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, with the exception of canned food and eggs in their shell, and it will not significantly reduce the amount of nutrients in that food.

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“Freezing food can be a wonderful way to extend shelf life and keep quick, easy, healthy options on hand,” Kippen says.

To preserve the food’s quality as much as possible, wrap it in heavy-duty aluminum foil or airtight freezer bags. If your food becomes freezer burned, that doesn’t mean it’s unsafe to eat. Simply cut the freezer-burned portions away before you cook the food.

For the best quality, recommended freezer shelf life is:

  • Hamburger and other ground meats: 3-4 months.
  • Chicken or turkey (whole): 1 year.
  • Soups and stews: 2-3 months.
  • Lunch meat: 1-2 months.

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