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!

1. Sell By Date

“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!

2. 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.

3. Dairy Expirationcheck the sell by date on dairy products

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.

4. How Long Eggs Last

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!

5. How to Make Produce Last Longer

  • 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.

6. How Long to Keep Leftovers

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!

7. Red Meats Go Bad

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.

8. Fresh Fish & Fowl

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

9. General Tips and a Few Myths of Food Longevity

  • The old wives’ tale is true: reach for the freshest food, baby. Back is better.grocery store produce aisle
  • 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!

10. The Most Important Rule

When in doubt, throw it out!

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