When Do Foods Really Go Bad?

Ever wondered how long certain foods – dairy and eggs, for example – really last? What does the “sell by” date really mean? How long should leftovers be…left over? You asked, we’re answering!


Muffet Flickr Photo (CC)

10. Sell By

“Sell by” is simply a voluntary date many food manufacturers use to let grocers known when to pull a product. It has to do with taste, however, not quality. Most products are good for at least a week after the “sell by” date. However, their nutritional value decreases, and that – not safety – is the real issue!

9. Use By/Best If Used By

Again, this indicates best taste and peak value, not safety. Food expiry dates do not label according to when the foods will approach the brink of rottenness! Food labeling is actually completely voluntary in this country, but manufacturers do it to indicate best taste, not safety. Most foods have at least a week, if not more, of “safety” beyond the date.

8. Dairy

If you buy raw dairy, you’ll want to be extra careful about refrigeration and cleanliness. In general, it’s fairly easy to tell when dairy has gone south: look for texture and odor changes. Even then, the product may still be safe, but that doesn’t mean you should eat it! Cream, milk, cottage cheese, and sour cream are generally safe for about 10 days after the date on the label. Cheese and butter last much longer but it’s best to consume them within 4 weeks of purchase.

7. Eggs

Eggs drop a grade a week but are entirely edible for much longer than most people assume – 3 to 5 weeks from the date of purchase!

Probably don't want to eat it.

Steffe memorializes moldy fruit for us (CC). Gee, thanks.

Just a guess, but you may want to toss this.

6. Produce

– Wrap produce in a paper towel – don’t keep it in a plastic bag. This will give your veggies an extra day or two of crispness.

– Tomatoes, bananas, citrus, avocados and berries should stay on the counter, not in the fridge. Northern fruits like apples and pears can go in the fridge.

– It’s also wise to buy less. Many of us buy groceries only once every week or two, and our best-laid vegetable intentions go the way of the trash. Buy enough produce for 3-5 days at a stretch, at the most. Get used to actually using that celery and those cucumbers!

– Fortunately, it is fairly easy to detect vegetables and fruits that have gone bad: you’ll see mold spots, they’ll smell “off”, or they’ll be limp and uninspiring.

Some Guy Named Will Pate’s Flickr Genius (CC)

Refrigerator marketing: yes, it’s clever, but will it convert?

5. Leftovers

The other day our editor, Sara, shared a picture of the contents of her fridge and asked you to share yours. Bradford noted that his fridge contained “some black/brown stuff half wrapped in foil”. Let’s be honest, we’ve all discovered forgotten relics in the back of the fridge and wondered “what on earth is this?!?”

Here are some guidelines for leftovers:

– Baked dishes, soups, and stews can last a week provided they are meat-free. If they do contain meat, 5 days is perfectly fine if the meat was fresh. If the meat you used was previously frozen, you’ll want to eat the leftovers within 3 days.

– Vegetables and legumes tend to outlive dairy and eggs by at least a few days. Use up your dishes with animal protein before Sunday’s stir fry or Saturday’s guacamole.

– That said, salads and fruits quickly turn to mush (though they are perfectly edible!). To keep these things fresher longer, keep the dressings and sauces in separate containers and simply add to individual portions as needed.

– Try to get into the habit of “less is more”. Mark advocates planning your meals ahead and preparing what you can on Sunday. For example, chop up veggies and have snack packs ready to go; bake an entire batch of chicken breasts for 3-5 days of dinners. That said, try not to go beyond 5 days of food. Fresh is best and less really is more. The more fresh, whole foods you eat, the less you’ll have to worry about spoiling.

– Get creative with your leftovers. Reader Crystal tosses dinner’s veggies into breakfast’s eggs. Smart!

4. Red Meats

Use or freeze fresh meat within 3 days. If you buy frozen meat and thaw it, do not refreeze! Cured meats last longer – about a week. Treat pork like red meat – it may be the “other” white meat, but it rots like red.

3. Fish & Fowl

Use or freeze within 2 days. The same refreezing rules apply.

Here, fishy fishy!

The Trial’s Flickr Photo (CC)

2. General Tips and a Few Myths

– The old wives’ tale is true: reach for the freshest food, baby. Back is better.

– Choose the third or fourth carton of any dairy product – less prolonged exposure to light means better nutrition.

– It’s a myth that you shouldn’t eat seafood on the weekend. Most fish and seafood comes to us from very far away, and all of it is either frozen or kept very cold. Lousy fish can and does turn up just as easily on a weekday. Instead of going by the days, pay attention to your grocer’s source and the actual quality of the fish flesh: it should be firm, supple and not even remotely mushy (and no fishy odors allowed).

– In general, with all meats and seafood, note the “packed date” and choose the most recent. It’s also a good idea to avoid anything “previously frozen”, not for matters of safety, really, but for best nutritional value and flavor.

– Canned goods last about a year (some up to two years), but why eat canned? Go fresh.

– Though we tend to think in terms of safety, this isn’t really an issue. We should buy the freshest foods possible, not for safety, but because it’s best to eat foods at the peak of their nutritional availability. Week-old milk or three-week-old eggs will not harm you, but the nutritional value fades. Eat fresh!

1. The Most Important Rule

When in doubt, throw it out!

What are your tips?

Further Reading:

More Tuesday 10 Posts (Tons of Helpful Health, Diet & Nutrition Tips!)

13 Timeless, Simple Kitchen Hacks (Prevent Stains, Smells, Cuts, Burns & More!)

Sources: WebMD, Safety.com

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29 thoughts on “When Do Foods Really Go Bad?”

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  1. Hi Mark! Thanks for this post. I’m such a germophobe that I wind up regularly throwing out food that is probably perfectly fine. I’m usually even afraid to eat food that is approaching the sell-by or use-by date. This post helped alleviate some of that fear. I’m sure my wife will read this and tell me “I told you so” as she’s been telling me this information about food safety and freshness for years, but it always helps to hear it from someone else too. At least in my case.

  2. An Update on the fridge:

    Last Friday, after a final look at my desultory food supply, I headed to Ralph’s. It was time to make a salad. I bought heirloom tomatoes, a bag of garden greens, olives, feta cheese, carrots, celery, chicken, and some blue berries.

    Normally, when I head to the checkout line, I become paranoid the checkout guy is judging me. He looks at me across the conveyor belt with his patronizing checkout clerk eyes, disapproving of my choice to buy the 36 pack of frozen taquitos and a diet coke. But this time I laid down a salad.

    What’s more (and this is entirely true), the guy in front of me was buying ten bottles of gatorade and a 12 pack of frozen snickers bars, and the guy behind me was buying a bottle of wine and two pints of Haagen Daaz. They stared at my produce. That’s right Mr. Alcoholic-mocha-almond-fudge, I’m Mr. Lettuce-and-tomatoes, bitch!

    Now my fridge is a little happier, though my wallet is considerably lighter, and my four day old salad is soggy. But a healthy kind of soggy.

  3. Bradford-I’m paranoid too. Sometimes I run into people at the grocery store and they comment on my food or their own. I always check out other people’s carts. Have you noticed that most people look like the food they’re buying?
    I know of a guy who has canned food from the 1960’s and was wondering if it is o.k to eat. “When in doubt, throw it out”!
    The best expiration dates are on the back/bottom, right hand side.

  4. Thank you for the post. I’m a sissy when it comes to dates. I always throw away food that looks fine but that I’m afraid to use.:)

  5. I must be buying less because i eat everything i buy. No waste at all. I know how much i eat and that’s how much i buy.

  6. I have one of those electronic “freshness savers” for want of a better name. I paid a lot for it, considering it’s battery-powered small-size, but it seems to help keep fresh things longer. I hope I’m not fooling myself.

  7. My mother-in-law keeps everything for way to long. Like mustard from 1984 was the worst. But she doesn’t believe sauces specifically go bad like Catalina dressing expired in 1995, Mayo expired 8 months ago! I believe it is dangerous and I want to know for sure and if so, some information I can send her to let her know it is?

  8. Tammy, yes, that’s absolutely too long. Food is what we put in our bodies – it shouldn’t be years and years old by the time it gets there. Fresh is essential to good health. At most, canned and glass goods should be eaten within a year.

  9. i have a question?? i got this new cheese free to try out on a pizza and it was bagged it smelled very good and tasted good but when i checked the experation date it was from 3 years ago?? me and some friends tried it, i was fine but my friends feel sick?? so is the cheese bad?

  10. My mother-in-law gave me a can of pumpkin to use to make a pumpkin pie but the use by date says april 2007…i dont know if i should use it or if i should just get me a new one??

  11. hiia 🙂 🙂

    i am doin a school project on italian foods and things ABOUT italian foods can you help me …………. PLEASE xx

    🙂 MWAH 🙂

    XX Amana XX

  12. I bought some spam a few months ago. Last month, the weather got very hot. I noticed the cans in the cupboard were very warm. I put them in the fridge. Are they still good after being so warm for a few days?

  13. I cooked shrimp gumbo (no Meat just vetgies and shrimp, and last night It came out of the freg at seven for dinner but I forgot to put it back in freg after dinner. I found it on the the stove at ten this morning. Where is my brain? Can I still use it.

  14. I cooked 60 pounds of pork roast for a party tonight. I put it in 2 containers and put in the fridge at 11;00pm last night. This morning the inside was still slightly warm. Is this meat ok to serve today.

    1. Probably not since its been in that “danger zone” between cold and hot. Next time spread it out in flatter containers (rather than a giant pot or corningware that insulates it from the fridge and keeps heat in). You could even try putting it in the freezer to give it a head start, though that much hot food might unfreeze whats in your freezer.

  15. I’m now not certain where you’re getting your information, however great topic. I needs to spend a while studying more or understanding more. Thanks for wonderful information I was looking for this info for my mission.

  16. Eggs should never go bad. My friend took Poultry Science classes at Auburn University in which the professor took a case of farm fresh eggs, left them on his desk all semester, and cooked and ate them on the last day. Eggs also don’t require refrigeration, but once they have been cooled its best to keep them cooled.