Before You Use These Foods, Check The Expiration Date

“Expiration,” “use by,” and “sell by” dates get confusing. On the one hand, people may waste food if they throw it away before it goes bad. On the other hand, expired food could have dangerous amounts of Bacteroides and E. coli, says Dr. Clare Morrison of MedExpress.

To stay safe, you may want to eat or toss some foods before their expiration date. You may be surprised–even condiments, juices, and protein substitutes don’t last long. Keep reading to learn which foods you should eat before or soon after the date on the packaging.

Which Dates Should You Pay Attention To?

A printed date is seen on the bottom of a coke can.
Pixabay/Hans
Pixabay/Hans

Before obeying the printed date, know that all dates–“sell by,” “best by,” and “expiration”– are different. Consumer information specialist Mindy Costello says that “use by” and “expiration” are the strictest dates. Generally, you should eat or throw away your food by this date.

“Sell by,” dates tell a store how long to display their item, Costello says. Many foods last beyond this point. Meanwhile, “best by” dates suggest how long food lasts if you don’t open it. After you open the package, the food may not last as long.

When In Doubt, Here’s A Quick Tip

A grocery store customer scans the expiration date on gallons of milk sitting on a cooler shelf.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fortunately, there’s a shorthand you can use to know whether the printed date matters. Dana Gunders, a lead food waste expert and senior scientist of the Natural Resources Defense Council, has some tips. “The shorthand I usually give people is that foods they tell pregnant women to avoid are good foods to pay attention to the date,” she explains.

These include processed meats, pre-packaged meat, eggs, raw fish, unpasteurized dairy products, and unwashed produce. Keep an eye on every food that has not been fully cooked. Even if it’s partially cooked, bacteria could enter it.

Why Soft Cheeses Are So Soft

A man removes a slice of cheese from a wheel.
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images
Ben Birchall/PA Images via Getty Images

Hard cheeses, such as cheddar and Parmesan, can stay fresh for two to four months in the fridge. But keep a close eye on your soft cheeses, such as brie and mozzarella. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics asserts that they will only last for three to four weeks. When in doubt, heed the expiration date.

Why are soft cheeses so… soft? According to Dr. Ailsa Hocking, an Australian health official, soft cheeses let in more moisture. When water sits inside the cheese, it will mold faster. To extend its shelf life, wrap soft cheese loosely in wax or parchment paper.

Eggs Last Longer Than Egg Substitutes

Beaten eggs are in a bowl with a fork.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Eggs often last longer than their expiration dates. Egg substitutes, however, do not. According to the USDA, egg substitutes last for up to ten days in the fridge when left unopened. After you open them, they only stay fresh for three to five days.

On the official Egg Beaters website, the company advises that you always use these products by the “sell by” date. Dried egg products should also be placed in the refrigerator after opening. If you want to keep these products for longer, you can freeze them for up to one year.

Condiments Don’t Last Forever

Discarded Ketchup and Mustard bottles sit on a concrete floor.
Tim Whitby/BFC/Getty Images
Tim Whitby/BFC/Getty Images

Although it seems like condiments such as ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise can last forever, they don’t. After you open the lid, bacteria can get into the condiments, says registered dietitian Jessica Crandell. If you dip a knife or spoon into the condiment, it will go bad even sooner.

According to the USDA, the longest-lasting condiment is mustard, which stays fresh for one year. Ketchup and chili sauce last for six months, BBQ for four, mayonnaise for two, and salsa for one. The dates on the jar should guide you on the lifespan.

How Brown Rice Is Weaker Than White Rice

Brown rice sits in a white bowl.
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Although white rice and pasta last for years, brown flour doesn’t survive as long. When manufacturers refine grain, they remove many of the oils and fat in bran. Because brown rice still contains these natural oils, it goes bad within the year.

Brown rice lasts for around six to eight months. It can last for up to three months beyond its “best by” date because the printed date represents its peak quality. To make it last longer, store it in the fridge or freezer.

Sprouts Never Stop Growing

Soybean sprouts stand tall from a pile.
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Sprouts are different from many other vegetables because they continue to grow until you eat them. If you see a “best by” or “expiration” date on a package of sprouts, heed it. These vegetables have a brief shelf life of only two to three days.

Some vegetable packages don’t include a printed date. If that happens, use your sprouts within a few days of purchasing. You can lengthen its shelf life by refrigerating it in a plastic bag. If sprouts smell rancid, develop mold, or appear “off,” throw them away.

Keep An Eye On Baby Formula And Food

A bottle is filled with baby formula or heated water.
Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Baby formula can expire, and most packages come with a “use by” date. Unopened packages of baby formula generally last for a year. Benjamin Chapman, a food safety extension specialist, says that the date does not have to do with food safety. Rather, the nutritional value will decline over time.

That said, baby food can become unsafe after a while. Chapman says that you can use them up to a few days after their expiration date. After you open the jar or pouch, throw the leftovers away.

Cold Pressed Juices Don’t Survive As Long As Regular Juices

Fresh juices are available at a vegan food festival.
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When juices are cold-pressed without preservatives, they don’t last long. Their “best by” date may reflect that. After you open a bottle, bacteria may enter, and you should drink it within the first three to five days. However, some juices with high-pressure processing (called cold pasteurization) can remain fresh for 30 days.

When you buy a bottle of juice, you’ll want to adhere to the “best by” date. Also, keep in mind that after opening, the juice will lose 40% of its nutritional value within the first day, according to Juice Station.

Got Milk’s Expiration Date?

A person pours milk from a glass bottle into a mug.
Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

You may need to heed the date on a milk carton depending on what the label is. Lindsey Pasieka, an investigator for ConsumerSafety.org, says that the most pressing label is “expires on.” That indicates when the milk will begin to deteriorate, even when left unopened.

After you open milk, bacteria will gradually deteriorate it. If you store it well, milk can usually last four to seven days after its “best by” date. Alternative milk, such as almond and soy milk, can remain edible for longer. If you’re unsure, check the smell or consistency.

Potato Salad: Eat It Or Toss It

A bowl of potato salad is piled high.
Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

If left unopened, potato salad should be discarded by the “best by” date. After you open the container, you have to use it within three to four days, says Idaho Potatoes. The same goes for leftovers. If the potato salad has eggs in it, then it may have an even shorter shelf life.

If you leave your potato salad out at room temperature, you should throw it away after two hours, says the USDA. You will know when potato salad goes bad; it may develop an “off” odor or appearance, or it could grow mold.

Eat Fish Before It Gets Fishy

Seafood is displayed for sale at a market.
Roman BalandinTASS via Getty Images
Roman BalandinTASS via Getty Images

If your seafood package has a “use by” date, follow it. Fish will go bad within a few days, even shellfish, which has a longer shelf life. With the exception of canned fish, the dates on the package will tell you when you need to throw it out.

According to the University of Rhode Island, you should cook fish within one to two days after buying. Even after cooking, you only have two to three days to eat fish. Keep it sealed and refrigerate to stay fresh longer.

For How Long Can You Add Cream To Your Coffee?

A diner coffee cup sits on a table with a spoon and tiny cups of cream.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Most coffee creamers have a “use by” or “best before” date. Non-dairy and refined creamers, such as coffee mate, last longer than half and half. For these, your best bet is to follow the printed date. Some creamers can last up to a week beyond the “best by” date.

Pure dairy creamers, such as half and half, survive for up to a week after opening. Also, heed the printed date on powdered creamers. If the powder develops wet spots or clumps, throw it away. Those tiny sealed cups of creamer remain edible for months beyond their “best by” dates.

If Your Berries Have A Date, Congratulations!

A close-up shows strawberries in a blue container.
Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images
Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images

Not all berry packages include a “best by” date. If yours does, you’re in luck. The printed date is a solid indicator of when you should throw away berries, says registered dietitian and nutritionist Jessica Levinson. Because berries go bad quickly, you should keep a close eye on them.

The shelf life of berries depends on how they are stored, but usually, they last for five to ten days. Don’t wash your berries right after you buy them. The extra moisture will prompt mold to grow and decay the fruit more quickly. Instead, wash your berries right before you eat them.

Barbecue Hot Dogs Before They Go Bad

A boy holds a plate of two hot dogs with ketchup.
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Most hot dog packages have a “sell by” date that tells employees how long they should stay on the shelf. Even so, you can check the date to learn when to throw them away. Hot dogs may stay fresh for one week after the “sell by” date, says Still Tasty.

According to the USDA, you may want to eat hot dogs before the “expiration,” “use by,” or “best if used by” dates. After you open a hot dog package, eat it within seven days. When hot dogs turn dull, slimy, or sour, they’ve gone bad.

When It’s Time To Cook Raw Chicken

A chef places raw chicken into a frying pan.
Ben McCanna/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Ben McCanna/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Raw chicken often doesn’t have a “use by” date; most provide a “sell by” date instead. As a general rule, cook and consume chicken within a few days after the “sell by” label. According to the USDA, you can use chicken within three to four days, regardless of the printed date.

To extend chicken’s shelf life, store it in the refrigerator, even while marinading it. You can freeze whole chicken for one year, parts of a chicken for nine months, and ground chicken for four months, explains the USDA.

Pre-Washed Greens Still Have Bacteria

A close-up shows a bag of salad mix.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, pre-washed greens don’t last longer than normal greens. Although they’ve been washed, bagged salad mixes may still contain bacteria. In 2010, a study by Consumer Reports found bacteria on premade greens that were washed three times. Hence, they can still go bad by their expiration date.

If your leafy greens container has a “best by” or “use by” date, follow it. Examples include bags of spinach, arugula, romaine lettuce, or mixed greens. Your vegetables may even go slimy before the “use by” date. If that happens, toss it.

Check The “Sell By” Date Of Pre-Packaged Lunch Meats

Ham and bologna lunch meats are displayed at a grocery store.
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Pre-packaged lunch meats that you pick up at the deli often have a “sell by” date. Although this isn’t the same as an expiration date, it can tell you when to throw out meat. According to Eat by Date, deli meats last for up to ten days beyond their “sell by” date.

If your meat comes with a “use by,” “expiration,” or “best by” date, heed those instead. After you open the packaging, it’ll only stay fresh for three to five days, according to the food safety specialist Londa Nwadike.

Cook Your Beef Fast

A butcher cuts raw beef.
Mustafa Ciftci / Anadolu Agency
Mustafa Ciftci / Anadolu Agency

When it comes to food safety, beef is fickle. Whole beef survives for three to five days in the fridge. According to Michigan State University, you should cook beef before the “use by” or “expiration” date. If you see a “sell by” date, you’ll have more flexibility.

Regardless of the “sell by” or “packaged on” dates, beef lasts for three to five days in the fridge. Ground beef only lasts for one or two days. If you cook the meat within a couple of days after purchasing, you should be fine.

The Not-So-Long Life Of To-Go Coffee Drinks

A man pours canned cold brew coffee into a glass.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

If you’ve ever picked up a to-go can of coffee at the gas station, you might have consumed it right away. But how long do those cans last? In short, it depends on what kind of drink you buy. The printed date on the can is a reliable indicator of how long it lasts while unopened.

If the drink has milk in it, then it has a shorter shelf life. After you open a container of coffee with milk, it can last for around a week. Black coffee can last much longer, but it will gradually lose its flavor.