The FDA says that 30% of food tossed because of expiration dates is actually still safe to eat.
Safety isn’t really the main question, though. Spoiled food or contaminated food are serious food safety issues. But chicken doesn’t come to you with no salmonella bacteria and then get infected with salmonella because you kept it a day too long.
Use the government’s cold food storage chart to determine whether it’s okay to cook that chicken. In general, meat should be fine in your fridge for a few days after you buy it. Milk is good for seven days in a cold refrigerator. Time spans like these are what led to the traditional weekly shopping habit. If you shop once a week, then it makes sense to try to use up your perishables during that week.
But not all foods follow this pattern. Eggs can be stored for several weeks, sauerkraut for several months. Fresh fruits and vegetables vary a lot, but are usually safe to eat as long as they’re not moldy. Vegetables that are not quite as crisp as they were can still be great in soup. Fruit past its first blush is still fine for pies or fruit crisp.
The foods you’re probably uncertain about are not the perishables, which change their look and smell if they get too old, but the nonperishable ones in your cabinet or pantry. These are the items that often have an expiration date stamped on the box. And those are the dates that you might hear people say are “just suggestions.”
How seriously do you need to take those expiration dates?
Sell by dates
When a product has a “sell by” date, that is the last day on which the store should sell the item. Obviously, that doesn’t mean that it is the last day it will be safe to eat. You can assume that you have another week at least during which you can expect the item to be fresh enough to enjoy.
Best by dates
These are the dates at which a product is no longer guaranteed to be at its peak of freshness and flavor. That doesn’t mean that it becomes poisonous on the following day.
So the first thing to consider is not whether it is safe to eat, but whether you mind eating something which is not at its best any more. Manufacturers choose these dates, and their goal is to make sure that you enjoy their food enough to buy it again. They have to take into account the fact that people will not all store their foods in the best possible way, so they need a date that will work well for people who leave their bags of nuts out on the sunny counter, not just for people who keep them in the refrigerator.
Some items, like baking soda or cake mix, might not work as well after the “best by” date. Old yeast or baking soda won’t produce the chemical reaction needed to leaven your baked goods. Old herbs won’t have the same depth of flavor as fresher herbs.
You can test them before you use them, though. Rub the herbs between your fingers to make sure they still have the characteristic scent. Put a bit of that yeast in warm water for five minutes and make sure it gets active before you use it to bake with. If the items are no good, toss them. Otherwise, go ahead and use them.
White rice, dried pasta, and sugar will last indefinitely. Refined (white) flour is fine if kept in a cool, dry place. Whole wheat flour, brown rice, and other less refined ingredients contain more fats and therefore will not last forever. However, they will usually smell a bit off if they have gotten old. In fact, they continue to be safe to eat unless they are moldy. The off smell may mean there will also be an off taste. If not, go right ahead and use them.
Things like crackers, cookies, chips, and breakfast cereal will get less crisp over time. Again, if they are not moldy and they don’t smell bad, they’re safe to eat. They just might not be as enjoyable.
Check expiration dates when you clean out your pantry or cabinets. If you’re getting close to the expiration date, make a point of using the item in question soon. If you’ve had that box of cereal for more than a year, that might be a clue that your family doesn’t really like it and you should not buy it again.
But while you should be serious about food safety in your kitchen and throw away perishable foods that show signs of age, expiration dates on dry goods are about quality and not safety. Use your senses to decide whether your pantry products need to be replaced.
Keeping your kitchen clean is much more important to food safety than whether you have an out-of-date can on your shelf. If you know you need some help, let A Beautiful Day take care of your ongoing cleaning needs, or do your deep cleaning while you take the time to reorganize that pantry.