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Decoding dates: What to toss and what to keep

We’ve all ruined a perfectly good bowl of cereal with a sour milk bath, or found a container of leftovers covered in mold in the back of the refrigerator. At times, the fridge can seem like a scary place full of items we’re not sure we can eat.

Woman smelling milk

While dates are a good indicator of a food’s freshness, they’re not the only one. Some foods can be eaten past the date, while others probably shouldn’t be. Read on to find out what you should keep and what you should toss.

Make an informed decision next time you clean out your fridge using these guidelines.

Is it expired?

Most foods don’t actually have “expiration” dates. There are several terms used when dating packages, such as “sell by” and “best if used by,” which are different from expiration dates. These dates are more for the grocery stores than for us, as they pull items from shelves according to these numbers. Although the freshness and quality of the food may suffer a bit once past these dates, it is still safe to eat. But don’t push these dates too far — items should be used soon after. For milk, use within a week of the sell-by date. Use fresh poultry and seafood within a day, and use beef within three to five days.

Learn how long eggs stay good in the refrigerator >>

Has it changed?

Whether the date on food has passed or not, it’s also a good idea to check for other signs that it might be spoiled.

  • Mold is an obvious indicator, and most any item that gets moldy should be tossed. Hard cheeses are the exception and are considered safe to eat if you cut away at least an inch from the mold. (Soft cheeses that get moldy will be contaminated throughout.)
  • Smelling foods for signs of spoilage can often give you a good idea if they are still good. Fish, poultry and pork will have natural, clean-smelling odors, but should not have strong smells. If they do, throw them out. Other items, like leftovers, can carry bacteria even if you can’t see or smell it, so eat these within three to four days.
  • Meat will start to change colors and become shiny and iridescent when bad, but if beef has turned from red to brown, that does not mean it has spoiled.
  • Some foods, like produce, will change consistency as they get older. As produce sits in the fridge it loses water, causing it to become limp. Vegetables like celery, carrots and green beans will become bendable, but are perfectly safe to eat. Produce that becomes slimy, like lettuce, should be thrown away.

Does it taste bad?

Even if your food has passed all the other tests, if you taste it and it doesn’t seem right, throw it out!

If you answered yes to these questions, be safe and toss it! Not only will your stomach thank you, but the fresh replacements will taste a lot better.

Tell us

Do you rely only on dates for food freshness, or do you use other indicators? Share in the comments below!

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