Instead of treating the sell-by or use-by dates as hard-and-fast rules for whether food that’s been sitting in the fridge or on the shelf is still fresh enough to eat, you might be better off using your own method of scientific research — the smell test. “Sell-by dates and use-by dates are not expiration dates,” explains Martin Bucknavage, Senior Food Safety Extension Associate at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. “Both are an indication of quality, so there’s some leeway.”
Sell-by and use-by dates are manufacturer-created suggestions that better indicate quality instead of safety. In other words, they want their products to be consumed when they taste best to preserve their reputation. In general, it’s best to stick as close to possible to use-by dates — especially in the case of meat and dairy products. With sell-by dates? You’ve got some wiggle room. So we asked Bucknavage to supply us with guidelines for how to handle the “eat or toss” decision when it comes to sell-by dates. Of course, if a food looks weird, smells off, or has managed to grow tentacles, get rid of it — whether or not it’s past the sell-by date or not.
YOGURT: A FEW DAYS
Because yogurt’s a fermented product, it can last a bit beyond it’s sell-by date. If the package is open, use it within a week.
DELI MEATS: UP TO 1 WEEK
Slimy meat can indicate bacteria growth. Unless you’re a sadist who enjoys feeling sick and getting violently ill, toss it.
PACKAGED OR PROCESSED CHEESE: 1 TO 2 WEEKS
Once it’s open it’s subject to mold growth. But in its original packaging, cheese you’re good for a week or so.
BREAD: 2 WEEKS TO 1 MONTH
Put the loaf in the freezer to prevent mold from growing on it.
EGGS: 3 TO 5 WEEKS
In order to maximize their shelf life, keep the eggs out of the fridge egg cups; the door opening and closing exposes them to temperature fluctuations. Instead, store them toward the back of the fridge in their original carton to keep the temperature stable.
MEAT (FROZEN): 6 WEEKS
Bucknavage notes that the quality of the food will decrease over time. So if you’re planning to freeze meat, look for a sell-by date that’s as far in the future as possible.
CEREAL, PASTA, BROWNIE MIXES: 1 YEAR
The longer they stay on the shelf, the less flavorful they’ll be. But stale pasta is still safe to eat past the sell-by date.
CANNED GOODS: 1 TO TO 5 YEARS
Highly acidic canned foods like tomatoes and most fruits go bad in a year or so. Lower acidic foods like green beans, meat, poultry, and seafood will last up to five years.