It's Usually Safe to Eat Food Past the Expiration Date—Here's How to Know When It's Ok (2024)

There's no standardized system for food dating in this country. So is it really any wonder why dates on packaged foods are a bit, baffling? Approximately 40 states require dates on some perishable foods, like meat and dairy, so nowadays, you're likely to see your groceries labeled. But spoiler alert (pun intended): Food products are safe to consume past the date on the label, according to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).

In order to reduce food waste, FSIS recommends that regardless of the date, consumers should evaluate the quality of the food before deciding to eat it or throw it away. (The one exception: Federal law requires a date on all infant formulas for safety and it should always be followed.) So what exactly do expiration dates mean then, and how long is food really good for?

RELATED: How Long You Can Store (Almost) Anything in the Fridge and Freezer

With help from experts and product manufacturers, Real Simple compiled this simple guide to reading expiration dates and when to worry about food safety, so you can shop smarter and waste less.

It's Usually Safe to Eat Food Past the Expiration Date—Here's How to Know When It's Ok (1)

How to Read Expiration Dates

Depending on where you live, you may see different dates on your food and each has a different purpose. Here's a bit of clarity based on information from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) and FSIS.

Best If Used By/Before: This is a quality assurance date and serves as a "suggestion" for when the taste and quality of food are at their peak. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Use By: This is the suggested date by when you should eat the food. But just because it's a day or two past the use-by date doesn't mean that consuming it will make you sick, although you should evaluate the quality of the food yourself after this time. It is not a safety date, except when used on infant formula.

Sell By: This is not a safety date, but rather a date for retailers that helps them determine how long an item should remain on the shelf. According to the IFT, "one-third of a product's shelf-life remains after the sell-by date for the consumer to use at home."

Freeze By: According to the USDA, this date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

RELATED: 7 Foods To Consider Freezing Right Now

How Long Are Foods Good After the Expiration Date?

"With an exception of infant formula, if the date [on your food] passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident," according to FSIS. You can tell if a food is spoiled if it has an off odor, flavor, or texture.

With that in mind, here are the recommended expiration date guidelines for common foods thrown away too early.

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Food Expiration Date Chart

EggsEat within 3 to 5 weeks when refrigerated
YogurtEat within 2 weeks when refrigerated; within 2 months when frozen
MilkDrink within 1 week (opened) when refrigerated; within 3 months when frozen
ButterEat within 3 months when refrigerated; within 6 months when frozen
BaconEat within 2 weeks (unopened) or 1 week (opened) when refrigerated; within 1 month when frozen
Cold cuts, packagedEat within 2 weeks (unopened) or 5 days (opened) when refrigerated; within 2 months when frozen
Hot dogsEat within 2 weeks (unopened) or 1 week (opened) when refrigerated; within 1 to 2 months when frozen
KetchupEat within 6 months (opened) when refrigerated; can store in pantry for 1 year (unopened)
MayonnaiseEat within 2 months (opened) when refrigerated; can store in pantry for 3 months (unopened)
Jams and jelliesEat within 6 months (opened) when refrigerated; can store in pantry for 1 year (unopened)
Rice and dried pastaEat within 2 years
Beer, bottles and cansDrink within 1 day (opened) when refrigerated; can store in pantry for 9 months (unopened)
Soda, bottles and cansDrink within 2 days (opened) when refrigerated; can store in pantry for 6 months (unopened)

How Long Does Canned Food Last?

Yes, canned food can go bad. According to the USDA, high-acid canned goods, like tomatoes and citrus fruits, will keep for up to 1.5 years. Low-acid canned goods—that's pretty much everything else, including vegetables, meat, and fish—will last for up to 5 years, which makes them some of the top emergency foods to stockpile.

Canned foods are sterile, so they won't host bacteria, but eventually, the taste and texture of the items inside will deteriorate over time. Keep them at room temperature in a dark place (as you would with oils and spices), like a cabinet or a pantry, and avoid buying bulging, rusted, leaking, or deeply dented cans as they have a higher chance of being spoiled. Using an organizing tool in the same vein as a spice rack can help you keep track of your canned food to ensure proper rotation.

How Long Does Frozen Food Last?

Items from the freezer section are safe to eat indefinitely. They have expiration dates because they won't taste good forever; flavor and texture break down over time. Once you open a bag of frozen peas or corn, pour out a portion rather than reaching in with your hand, which can introduce bacteria. (Bacteria can't grow in the freezer, but they can survive. If you don't cook an item after you defrost it, the bacteria could still be dangerous.)

RELATED: 7 Major Mistakes You're Making With Your Freezer

How Long Do Leftovers Last?

Have a giant pot of chili that would feed a team of football players? Invite them over. According to the USDA, most refrigerated leftovers last 4 days, tops. Dishes that contain seafood or uncooked ingredients, like mayonnaise, spoil faster; so be sure to eat them within a couple of days. Don't let uneaten food linger on the counter for more than 2 hours. The longer a dish sits at room temperature, the more susceptible it is to bacteria growth. It's fine to put warm food in the refrigerator or freezer. When handling a dish that will take many hours to cool fully—a huge stockpot full of stew, say—transfer it to several smaller containers first.

Meanwhile, leftover meals you freeze yourself should be tossed in 3 to 4 months. After that, they can become icy and start to take on the flavors of other foods in the freezer.

RELATED: How to Reduce Food Waste in Your Home

Are you still concerned your food has gone bad? Consult our handy food storage guide, and find out how long everything lasts in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. You can even print out the version below and put it up on the fridge for future reference.

It's Usually Safe to Eat Food Past the Expiration Date—Here's How to Know When It's Ok (2)

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the standard expiration date format for foods?

    The standard format is MMDDYY, where “MM” refers to the month, “DD” refers to the date, and “YY” refers to the year. So if a product says 101525, it means that the product expires on October 15, 2025.

  • Is it safe to buy food on its expiration date?

    Generally speaking, yes, it is safe to buy food on its expiration date. Expiration dates have more to do with the food's overall quality and texture instead of when it is safe or not safe to eat. As long as there are no signs of spoilage, you can eat it, but it might not taste as fresh as it once was.

  • What foods can you not eat after the expiration date?

    While most shelf-stable foods are safe to eat much longer than their expiration date. The same goes for frozen foods, as bacteria cannot grow in the freezer. But things like milk, cheese, fresh vegetables, and fruit should not be eaten past their prime because they can harbor bacteria that can be dangerous to your body, This is caused by the natural breakdown of organic matter. You'll also be able to tell that these foods have gone bad based on their appearance and smell.

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Sources

Real Simple is committed to using high-quality, reputable sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we fact check our content for accuracy.

  1. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, Food Product Dating. Accessed Jan. 18, 2023.

  2. Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), ScienceDaily, The Difference Between "Use-By" "Sell-By" and "Best-By" Dates. Accessed Jan. 18, 2023.

  3. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Shelf-Stable Food Safety. Accessed Jan. 18, 2023.

  4. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, Leftovers and Food Safety. Accessed Jan. 18, 2023.

It's Usually Safe to Eat Food Past the Expiration Date—Here's How to Know When It's Ok (2024)

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