To Toss or Not To Toss: Guide to Expiration Dates

We've all been faced with the excruciating dilemma in life: you're craving a bowl of Cap'n Crunch (the kind with the Crunch Berries, obviously), but when you pull out the milk carton you notice the soul-crushing past-due expiration date, and you die a little on the inside.

Do you chance it? Do you immediately flush the milk and your cereal dreams down the drain?

Expiration dates become a big question mark in a lot of peoples' kitchens, with everyone having an opinion on the safety and shelf life of different foods. (For example, in my house my husband will eat anything that hasn't literally grown legs and walked itself out of the fridge. For the record, I do not recommend this food philosophy.)

To clear things up a little, we've answered some common questions concerning the big debate in every household: to toss or not to toss?

1. Learn the Lingo

The "use by" date is pretty self explanatory, but the "sell by" date leaves us with questions … lots of questions. The "sell by" date is basically a guide for the retailer, but you should always make sure to buy the product before that date expires (and don't just assume the store will pull it from the shelves when that date hits, either). To be safe, when you buy packaged foods always make sure to eat it within the time range laid out in THIS handy guide.

The only time you should see the term "expires on" is on infant formula and some baby foods, which is mandatory and regulated by the federal government. You should always use the product before this date has passed.

2. Cans CAN'T Last Forever

According to the USDA, high-acid canned foods (like tomatoes and citrus fruits) only keep up to 1.5 years. Low-acid foods (like veggies, meat, fish) keep up to 5 years. Canned goods can deteriorate before that amount of time though, so make sure to keep them at room temp in a dark place, and go ahead and toss it if the taste or texture seems off to you (better to be safe than sorry).

3. The Facts on Frozen Foods

The only reason items from the frozen food section have expiration dates is because they won't necessarily taste good forever; however, they are safe to eat indefinitely. When it comes to homemade meals you freeze yourself though, those should be tossed after 3 months, as they will become susceptible to freezer burn and might begin to take over other flavors in the freezer.

4. How Long to Leave your Leftovers

According to the USDA, most refrigerated leftovers last 4 days at the most. But dishes with ingredients containing seafood or mayonnaise will go bad quicker, so limit their shelf life to only a couple of days. And never let any dish sit at room temperature on the counter longer than 2 hours, as it will become susceptible to bacteria growth.

5. The Dish on Drugs

The FDA requires all drugs carry an expiration date, but critics have accused drug manufacturers of sensationalizing these dates in order to drive more drug sales. So the answer here isn't cut and dry; some drugs may be okay longer than noted, but not enough studies have been done on a broad enough range of drugs to give us a definite answer. To be totally safe, store all drugs in a cool, dry area (medicine cabinets can get hot and humid, so be aware of that), and try to stay as close to the expiration date as possible.

Basic Rules

Here are some basic rules for popular food items you probably have in your fridge and pantry right now:


MILK: Usually fine until a week after the "sell by" date
EGGS: They're okay for 3-5 weeks after you bring them home
POULTRY/SEAFOOD: Cook or freeze within one or two days
BEEF/PORK: Cook or freeze within three to five days

Still Unsure?

Check out the SUPER handy website for a thorough and comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know, from the safety of putting hot foods directly in to the fridge to a list of 10 foods you never knew you could freeze.