When you look at the expiration date on a can of Coke and it says 2014, does that mean you should toss it? What about the eggs that were only good until yesterday? There’s a fine line between being wasteful and getting sick.
“A good rule of thumb is that if it’s organic, the shelf life can fly by lightning quick,” says Dr. Susan Albers, author of Eating Mindfully. “You must eat the food within a few days. Don’t be surprised if your organic salad begins to brown within a day or two.”
Albers also says to be mindful of the exact wording on expiration labels. “Many people don’t know that the terminology varies significantly. For example, ‘use by’ and ‘sell by’ are different—‘sell by’ giving you extra time.”
How much extra? “Usually, the product is still okay to consume for about 10 days after the 'sell by' date if stored, refrigerated and prepared properly,” says Julie Rothenberg, MS, RD, LDN. “The 'use by' date doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a food safety issue; this date is for quality control.” Meaning, if you don’t mind compromised taste, texture or color – eat up!
While there’s a lower risk associated with eating packaged foods and beverages after their expiration date (they may not taste great, but they can last years), don’t take any chances with meat, seafood, and dairy—it’s just not worth it. “The illnesses from food going bad are pretty dangerous and can be life threatening,” says Albers.
To make things easy – and safe – we asked Rothenberg to give us a cheat sheet:
Chicken: Use or freeze within one or two days. Cooked chicken lasts for about seven days. Both fresh and cooked chicken last about one year in the freezer.
Beef: Use or freeze within one or two days. Cooked beef lasts for about seven days. It can be stored both cooked and fresh for about six to eight months in the freezer.
Eggs: Eggs can actually last three to five weeks after the "sell by" date, if not cracked. To help extend shelf life, store eggs in the original container. If freezing eggs, crack them into a freezer safe container and add salt. Although this extends the shelf life of eggs, don’t expect them to do their job at 100% in baked goods.
Dairy: If stored properly at around 40 degrees, Fahrenheit milk can last about five to seven days if open and past the '"stored by" date. If unopened, skim or reduced fat milk tends to last a little longer (seven to ten days).
Baked goods: Packaged bread can last about 5–7 days, unrefrigerated. Putting it in the refrigerator will extend its life to one or two weeks. If the bread is stale it doesn’t necessarily mean the bread has gone bad, it just means it is more at risk to begin to develop mold. Check for signs of mold if using bread past the “used by” date.
Canned foods: Although they are filled with chemicals/preservatives, don’t eat these past the expiration date. Store these in a dark environment for best quality and throw them out if a can has a small opening or dent, even prior to the expiration date.
Note that while these are general guidelines, our noses are hardwired to help us detect spoiled food as a built in safety mechanism.
“Even if you’re well within the date suggested that the food product is still good, if your nose says otherwise, listen. If it smells funny, throw it away immediately,” says Dr. Albers.