9 Foods You Might Be Throwing Away Too Soon
You get home from a long day at work when the sad realization hits you: You haven’t been grocery shopping in weeks.
Stomach rumbling, you begin the all-too-familiar ritual of rifling through the fridge and pantry, looking for any combination of grains, meats, and/or vegetables that could pass for a reasonable meal.
Behind a forever-unopened, industrial-size box of raisins, you find a plastic parcel of dried spaghetti. It’s a start.
Then you remember that the little glint of red you’ve been seeing in the farthest corner of your fridge for the past three weeks was once a freshly popped jar of marinara sauce.
That’s the golden ticket—it would turn your sad bowl of noodles into a full-fledged, respectable meal. But the sauce is already a week past its “freshest by” date, and after wrestling off the cap you notice some blue-black, fuzzy spots of mold on the rim of the jar.
What do you do? Do you eat a sad bowl of sauceless spaghetti, or do you defy the numbers and run the risk of consuming mold just for a serving or two of garlicky veggies?
Well, according to Dana Gunders, staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the forthcoming book Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, saucing up that pasta may not be the worst idea.
“If you see mold on the pasta sauce and it’s just on the rim, and the sauce tastes fine, it probably won’t hurt you,” she said. “If something is really bad, say you drank putrid milk, your body would force a gag reflex to throw up the potential toxins, but that wouldn’t necessarily give you food poisoning.”
Gunders said sickness from food contamination typically does not correlate with the age of the food, and has nothing to do with the expiration dates listed on the packaging. If you’re going to get sick from that marinara sauce—or milk, eggs, or lettuce—it’s not going to be because it’s been sitting around for too long.
The dates on the packaging are typically listed under the terms “use by” or “freshest by” because food companies want to retain quality control of their products.
Still, each product has a tipping point when quality starts to decline, even if it is still safe to eat. That isn’t to say you should be throwing the food away after the “use by” date—food waste is still a massive problem in America—but rather that you should trust your senses. If it tastes good, eat it.
Here are nine common foods and when they start to taste undeniably funky.
Eggs: Fresh, 3–5 weeks; frozen, 12 months
If you’re not sure how long your eggs have been sitting in the fridge, you can always do the float test. Put the questionable egg in a bowl of water; how quickly it rises to the top directly correlates to how old it is. If your egg sinks to the bottom, your omelet will be extra fresh.
Lunch Meat: Unopened, 2 weeks; open, 3–5 days; frozen, 1–2 months
According to Gunders, lunch meats may be one of the worst foods to gamble with. Since they tend to be highly processed and filled with preservatives and salt, their age might not show from taste and smell. However, if a strain of E. coli were to contaminate your honey ham, it would have a long time to develop more bacteria colonies.
Milk: More than 1 week past “sell by” date
Even though milk will remain fresh for about a week after the “use by” date, there are rules you should follow to keep it as fresh as possible: The Dairy Council of California recommends keeping it refrigerated at 38 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and not letting it sit out on the counter for more than a few minutes at a time. The bacteria that create the signature “spoiled milk” smell and taste reproduce much more quickly in warm environments.
Bread: Counter, 5-7 days; freezer, 6 months
The best practice is to store bread in a cool, dry place—the coolest and driest is your freezer—to prevent bacteria from forming and turning your kaiser rolls into a mold factory. One common mistake people make is storing bread on top of the fridge, which is actually quite warm and creates condensation.
Peanut Butter: Open, 6 months; unopened, forever
Because fat is a natural preservative and peanut butter is filled with loads of tasty oils, bacteria and mold have a hard time forming in your jar of Jif. Oxidation is the true enemy of flavorful peanut butter, but the process only starts to happen months down the road.
Canned Soup: Open, 1 week; unopened, 5 years
Keep in mind, after five years your soup hasn’t necessarily gone bad; it’s just not going to taste very good. If preserved properly and stored at the right temperature, canned goods can last more than 100 years without developing significant microbial growth.
Yogurt: Open, 10 days or more; unopened, 3 weeks
Even though yogurt is produced by the bacterial fermentation of milk, it can still go bad. One of the main ways to tell, other than seeking out an extra cheesy smell, is by the separation of curds and whey. This is normal, to an extent, but when the yogurt at the bottom is looking like cottage cheese and the surface is full of puddles, your smoothie might have a little more funk than you intended.
Cheese: Soft cheese, 1–4 weeks; hard cheese, 1–10 months
The reason soft cheese tends to go bad more quickly than hard cheese is because of moisture content. Bacteria love hanging out in water, and that can jump start the formation of mold as well. You might be saying to yourself, “Moldy cheese! I love Gorgonzola!” Penicillium, the mold that cheesemakers use for Roquefort, Stilton, and Cambozola, isn’t harmful. The standard mold that grows on your block of medium cheddar is.
Fresh Fruit and Veggies: 5–7 days after purchase
One thing that Gunders pointed out is that you never know exactly how long it took your vegetables to be transported to the store, how long they sat on the produce aisle shelves, or how much heat they took on while sitting in your car. So rather than trusting dates, use your brain! Knowledge is power.