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What Sell-By Dates Really Mean and Other Food Safety Tips

Photo: Twenty20

We’ve all been there: That moment you want to put the kibosh on all your take-out, but haven’t been to the grocery store in a while. You try to scrounge up the ingredients you do have into something tasty and healthy, just like the chefs on Chopped. The thing is, if you haven’t been keeping an eye on expiration dates, that pasta sauce and parmesan cheese hiding in the back of your fridge might not be your best bet — and that sell-by date might not tell the whole story.

While sell-by dates do serve a purpose — to inform stores how long to display food items — once a customer purchases the product, it’s up to them to determine how long it lasts. And the problem there: Consuming perishable foods after they spoil leads to one of the most prevalent cases of food poisoning, warns Joe Kivett, co-author of The Food Safety Book: What You Don’t Know Could Kill You.

To help you steer clear of any sickness, we talked to food experts to find out exactly how long you can keep your favorite kitchen staples.

RELATED: Can Fast Food Go “Farm to Table?”

Food Safety: How Long Your Favorite Foods Really Last

Photo: Twenty20

1. Eggs 

Typical Shelf Life: Three to five weeks for fresh and about seven days for cooked

Thankfully, for omelet lovers and healthy bakers, eggs typically last a month in the refrigerator. Pay attention to sell-by and expiration dates, but if your carton doesn’t have one of those, look for a three-digit stamp instead. This stands for the date in which the eggs were washed, graded and packed and it’s required for USDA Grade eggs (while explicit sell-by and expiration dates aren’t). “This date appears as a three-digit code representing the day of the year, beginning with 001 (January 1) and ending with 365 (December 31),” Kivett explains.

Remember to refrigerate eggs in their original package in the coldest part of the refrigerator. Have a bunch of hard boiled eggs in your fridge from meal prep Sunday or a batch of egg muffins? They’ll last about a week from when you cooked them, when stored in the fridge.

RELATED: 10 Easy Egg Recipes You’ll Crave Every Morning

2. Milk 

Typical shelf life: About a week past the sell-by date

The general rule of thumb for cow’s milk is refrigerating it for no more than five to seven days past the sell-by date. But the real key is storing it properly. “Keep milk towards the back of your fridge — never on the door, because the temperature changes when you open and close it,” says Eliza Savage, registered dietitian at Middleberg Nutrition. “With dairy milk, you will know it’s gone bad by a sour smell, yellowish tint or change in texture towards thick and clumpy,” she says. The same goes for lactose-free milk.

Nut milks usually last seven to 10 days once opened. Store unopened almond milk in the fridge to maximize shelf life, and toss at least one week after the date on the box. Amidor even suggests tossing soy or nut milks before the use-by date (keep an eye out for changes in scent or texture), as that date signifies how long the closed container lasts.

3. Cheese

Typical shelf life: Six weeks for regular; three weeks for grated

“Hard cheeses [like parmesan and pecorino] will last the longest, followed by semi-hard cheeses, such as cheddar, swiss and gouda,” explains Savage. “Sliced cheese or shredded cheese will mold or expire quicker, as there is a larger surface area for the bacteria and air to be exposed to.” Good news: Most hard cheeses will last six weeks longer than the printed date, Savage says. But shredded hard cheese, when opened, can only last for about three weeks. In general, if you see mold, toss it.

RELATED: A Case for Dairy: Why You Should Have Some Cheese with That

4. Meat

Typical shelf life: Two days for fish and poultry, about five for red meat and two weeks for unopened processed meats; two months to a year in the freezer

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has very specific recommendations for storing various types of meat. (Check out foodsafety.gov for details.) Fish, like cod, flounder and tilapia, lasts only one or two days in the fridge, but about six months in the freezer. (Pro tip: Write the date you’re freezing them on the package, so you know when to toss.)

When it comes to raw poultry, it’ll only last in the fridge for a day or two, but up to a year if you store it in the freezer. As for cooked poultry, keep it in the fridge for three to five days, and use your best judgement to determine whether or not it’s still good.

Raw red meat and pork has a longer shelf life. Store these cuts up to five days in the fridge, or in the freezer anywhere from four months to a year. Cooked red meat lasts three to four days in the cold.

Processed meats are a different ball game. Cold cuts typically last two weeks if they’re unopened. (This isn’t always the same for the fresh slices you get at the deli stand — subtract a few days to be safe.) Hot dogs are only good for a day or so in the fridge, but can last up to two months in the freezer.

5. Produce

Typical shelf life: About a week

When it comes to fruits and veggies, how long they’ll stay edible depends on the type. “Some produce is best stored at room temperature, like garlic, potatoes and onions, which can last a few weeks or more. Meanwhile others, like tomatoes and avocados, have about a week-long shelf-life when kept at room temperature,” explains Toby Amidor, MS, RD author of The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook: Easy and Wholesome Meals to Cook, Prep, Grab and Go. “You can also store whole fruit like melons at room temperature, but once you slice them open, store them in the fridge.”

Other fruits and vegetables — including apples, potatoes, ripe bananas and tomatoes — contain a naturally occurring plant hormone called ethylene gas. In general, fruits that contain this invisible and odorless gas (harmless to humans) continue to ripen even after being picked. But if you store them near the produce that’s sensitive to this gas (specifically, bananas, carrots, lettuce, pears and strawberries) it could cause them to spoil quicker. Store your fruits and veggies in separate containers or drawers, and you’re good to go.

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6. Frozen produce

Typical shelf life: Six to 10 months in the freezer

While it’s still safe to munch on frozen vegetables after 10 months, you’ll might sacrifice flavor and texture. “Frozen vegetables will remain fresher longer and preserve their taste if they are stored in freezer-safe containers at 32 degrees or less,” Savage says. Frozen fruits generally last anywhere from six to nine months if kept constantly cold.

7. Bread

Typical shelf life: One week after the best-by date (two weeks in the fridge) 

The biggest predictor in determining the shelf life of bread is whether it’s commercially produced or baked fresh. “Commercial bread will last as long as long as seven days past the ‘best by’ date when stored on the shelf, as long as 14 days when stored in the refrigerator, and three months when frozen,” says Kivett. “Bakery bread may last only two days beyond the ‘best by’ date when stored on the shelf.” But you can extend that by placing it in the freezer, too.

8. Condiments

Typical shelf life: Anywhere from two months to two years

Amidor suggests keeping mustard in the fridge for 12 months, ketchup for about six, barbecue sauce for four and opened commercial mayo for about two months. For those stored at room temperature, toss Worcestershire sauce after 12 months, baking powder after 18 months (if sealed) and un-opened vinegar and maple syrup after two years. “Once opened, these last up to 12 months,” Amidor says.

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