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    Aging Well Partners
  • Aug 03
  • 3 min

Is It Safe to Eat Outdated Foods?

Is It Safe to Eat Outdated Foods?

Sell By versus Use By – what’s the difference?  And why should I care?

Most of us know that 99% of our foods have an expiration date.  Canned goods have the expiration date stamped on the bottom; sauces and dressings have it stamped somewhere around the neck of the container; even mustard, which many think never goes “bad” has an expiration date.  But what does it mean?  Does it mean you need to throw it away?  Or just check for mold and carry on?

My mother’s refrigerator became a case study for me last summer as I frantically attempted to find the jar of pickles she promised me was “in there somewhere”.  First off, there was way too much stuff in there to begin with – different “tip” for a different day (just remember that an overloaded fridge cannot operate effectively or efficiently and may just call it quits in the middle of the night…oh, the mess).  But as I pulled bottles and cans and containers of all shapes and sizes out of the fridge looking for the pickles, I started noticing some dates that had come and gone several calendar pages ago.  So, I did some research.

Best if Used By or Before:  this is a suggestion based on when the quality and taste of the product will be at its peak

Use By: this is a suggestion for when you should consume the product

Sell By:  this is a date for the retailers and grocery store folks, letting them know how long they should keep things on their shelves

Freeze By:  this is a suggestion of when to freeze an item to maintain its best quality

According to the Cleveland Clinic, here are some guidelines on how long to keep foods around:

  • Milk – 7 days (tip: keep milk in the back of the fridge where temperature is typically coldest)
  • Eggs – 3-5 weeks (tip: keep eggs in the back of the fridge where temperature is typically coldest)
  • Ground meat/poultry – 1-2 days
  • Cooked meat/poultry – 3-4 days
  • Steaks – 3-5 days
  • Fresh poultry – 1- 2 days
  • Lunch meat – 2 weeks unopened or 3-5 days opened
  • Canned fruit – 12-18 months or 5-7 days in the fridge after opening
  • Dry pasta and rice – 1-2 years
  • Rice and pasta after cooking – 3-4 days in the fridge
  • Canned foods – high acidic canned foods like tomatoes and citrus fruit will break down faster than low acidic food so 1.5 years is a good rule of thumb; low acid canned foods will last up to 5 years in a can; keep in mind that the longer they are kept, the lower the quality once you open them up
  • Freezer items – you can freeze things indefinitely, but these foods also break down over time; freezer burn, no matter how you prepare it, doesn’t taste good
  • Leftovers – the dreaded leftovers should be kept in the fridge for no longer than 4 days before being consumed or thrown away; if the leftovers contain seafood or mayonnaise, they will spoil faster

Lesson Learned:  all of mom’s food items – in the fridge, freezer, and pantry – don’t necessarily need to be thrown away right away (don’t tell her that, tho) but I’m going to keep an eye on those leftovers from last night’s dinner out.

TIP:  keep a Sharpie in the kitchen and date things, so you know when you opened them, when you put them in the freezer, or when you covered them in foil with the best intentions of “eating it tomorrow”.

Here’s to your health!


Kie Copenhaver is a Certified Senior Advisor (CSA), Gerontologist, and co-founder of Aging Well Partners. Kie has worked over 25 years in the healthcare and aging industries, advocating for patient’s rights and the ability to choose what’s best for them.  She has taught at Mesa Community College in the Health Information Technology department and currently gives talks at Oasis Lifelong Learning geared towards planning ahead and aging well.  When Kie isn’t working, you can find her doing yardwork and digging in her flower beds.  Find Kie at www.agingwellpartners.com