Eat This, Toss That: How Can You Tell When Food Is Spoiled?

How long has it been since you cleaned your spice rack? Or checked on those frozen pieces of steak? Food often sits in your refrigerator, freezer and pantry for a long time. Then one day, a light bulb goes off and you start contemplating if the food is actually still edible. Hopefully, these tips will motivate you to toss the old and replace it with new – and hopefully healthier –foods.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 31 to 40 percent of food in the United States is wasted after it’s harvested, with a majority of the food being tossed by consumers. In my house, I make it a habit to clean my refrigerator, freezer and pantry regularly so I can minimize food loss (and money lost).

Food Label Confusion

What do all those terms mean on your package? Believe me, you’re not the only one who is confused. And what’s worse, the United States Food and Drug Administration does not control whether products have expiration dates or whether they’re sold after they’re expired, except on baby formula. The dates listed are more for the benefit of the store selling the food – not you, the consumer. Here’s what some of the basic phrases you have probably seen on food labels mean:

  • “Sell by”: This date tells the store how long the food can be displayed on its shelves. Although the food can still be safe and tasty even a few days after the sell-by date, it’s best to purchase it before then.
  • “Use by” or “best if used by”: This date refers to the last day to use the product for the highest quality, including taste and texture. The date is set by the manufacturer. It does not refer to the product’s safety.
    Expiration date: This date tells you the last day the food is safe to eat. If a food passes its expiration date, it should be tossed out.
  • “Guaranteed fresh”: This label is typically found on baked goods. It tells you when the food will be at its peak of freshness.
  • An interesting fact to note is once these dates (except the expiration date) have passed, you don’t have to toss the food as long as you are storing the food at the proper temperatures. The best way to tell if you’re doing that is by investing in a food thermometer. They start at around ten dollars.

If, however, a food smells or looks funky, then toss it out immediately. There is no need to take one for the team. A few years ago, my brother-in-law insisted on eating some funky-smelling chicken, and he ended up in the emergency room with food poisoning and severe dehydration. If you have a shred of doubt, then toss out the food in question.

How Long Can Food Stay on the Shelf?

The shelf life of some foods depends on whether the package is open or closed, or if it is frozen versus refrigerated. Here’s the shelf life of some common foods:

In the Refrigerator

  • Eggs: If purchased before the sell-by date, you have three to five weeks from the time you brought them home to eat the eggs, assuming you placed them in the refrigerator immediately after you purchased them. Your refrigerator should also be at the correct temperature, around 37 or 38 degrees Fahrenheit. To keep eggs fresher longer, store them in the coldest part of your refrigerator – not in the door.
  • Milk: Drink your milk for up to seven days after the sell-by date. If it starts to have an abnormal odor, texture or color, trash it right away.
    Butter: If stored in the refrigerator, butter is good for one to three months. Stored it in the freezer? You’ve got six to nine months to use it.
    Deli meat: If it’s vacuum-sealed in a package, eat the meat within two weeks, so long as you refrigerate it properly. If you purchased freshly-sliced deli meat, use it within three to five days.
  • Poultry and seafood: After purchasing, freeze it immediately or store it in the refrigerator wrapped (so the juices don’t leak), and cook it within one to two days.
    Beef and pork: After purchasing, freeze it immediately or store it in the refrigerator wrapped, and cook it within three to five days.
    In the Freezer

Ice cream: This treat can be stored for two to four months. If you see large ice crystals, the quality has been compromised and it won’t taste as delicious.
Frozen dinners: These quick meals can be stored for three to four months.
Frozen fruit: Year-round smoothie alert! Frozen fruits can be stored up to a year.
Frozen vegetables: Peas, carrots and other frozen veggies can be stored up to eight months in the freezer. If you put them in the refrigerator, they’ll last between three and four days.
In the Pantry

Canned foods: Store canned goods in a cool, dry place, but toss them if the can is rusty, bulging, leaking or dented. As a rule of thumb, store canned foods for up to a year. Once you open a can, remove its contents and place them in a properly-sealed container in the refrigerator.
Flour: Unopened, enriched flour can be stored between six and 12 months in a cool, dry place. Once it’s opened, store it in an airtight container. Other specialty flours, like whole wheat, will not last as long.
Coffee: Unopened coffee can be stored for up to two years. Once it’s opened, it will last about two weeks.
Sugar: You can keep sugar around for up to two years. Once you open it, seal it in an airtight container.
Peanut butter: For the best quality, don’t keep it longer than six to nine months.
Vinegar: Unopened vinegar will last up to two years. Once you open it, though, it can last up to 12 months – as long as the cap is tightly closed.


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