When you read labels at the grocery store (which you should be doing, FYI), you probably pay close attention to the sell-by date. Basically, the sell-by date lets customers know when the food product is at peak quality and freshness. But eating food before the sell-by date is not exactly a hard-and-fast rule.
“Keeping an eye on the use-by date is important, but you don’t have to toss your food," says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, a nutrition expert and author of the upcoming The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook. While it obviously depends on the food item and how much time has elapsed since the expiration date, in some cases, you can still eat food a few days past its use-by date, "which can help minimize food waste and help minimise your food dollar,” she says.
Wondering whether you should toss that cereal or jar of salsa? Here are 4 foods that are usually OK to eat past their sell-by dates.
As a general rule of thumb, "the more refined and processed a food is, the longer you can keep it past the expiration date,”Alan Aragon, M.S., previously explained to Men's Health. That applies to canned foods as well, provided they've been stored in a cool, dark area to minimize decay, says Amidor.
That said, you should watch out for signs of spoilage, which you’ll notice either on the exterior of the can or upon opening it, says Amidor. A bulging top or bottom, a leaky seal, dents, or rust on the can itself are usually a sign that you need to throw it out.
You should also take a good look at what's inside the can: “The signs of botulism are a bubbling and frothy texture at the top of the can that you don’t want to taste,” she says.
Per the USDA, dairy products like yogurt, milk, and cheese are usually "safe until signs of spoilage are evident," says Amidor. In the case of milk, this can be up to five days past the sell-by date, while cheese (especially hard cheese) can last for a little bit longer.
Nonetheless, you should always check for signs of spoilage, such as bad odor or clumpy or chunky consistency.
Cereal and Other Grains
Per the USDA, it's usually OK to eat cereal, pasta, or cookies past the sell-by date, says Amidor (though they might taste slightly more stale). If it emanates a strong odor, however, or there are bites or tears in the package, that could indicate rodent contamination, and you should toss the package immediately.
Frozen Fruits and Vegetables
For the most part, it's totally OK to eat frozen fruits and veggies past their expiration date, even if they have freezer burn (that might affect the taste of the item, but it'll likely still be safe to eat.) That said, says Amidor, do not defrost an item and refreeze it: "that's a potential hazard for harboring bacteria," she says.