A reader requested a post on this topic…so here you go! Before I start, though, I just want to point out that I’m not an expert on this subject, and it’s usually best to err on the side of safety when you’re dealing with foods that can make you sick(mostly animal products). Better to waste a bit of food than to get food poisoning!
My suggestions here are for foods in their original state…for example, what I say about sour cream will not apply to the seafood dip you made with the sour cream.
It’s important to distinguish between the types of dates you see on packages. Some are sell-by dates, which just means the store needs to sell the item by that date. Eggs are dated like this, and often they will have a “use by” date in addition to the “sell by” date.
Some other dates are “best before” dates. These can usually be found on items like oatmeal, popcorn, cereal, dried fruit, candy, tea, hot drink mixes, and crackers, to name a few. These foods are usually perfectly safe to eat after the “best before” date, but they just won’t be at their optimum freshness. For instance, dried fruit is usually pretty tough after the “best before” date, but I’ve used it successfully in things like muffins or quick breads. And crackers past their dates won’t be very crispy, but they can be useful for breading purposes.
Lastly, there are true expiration dates. These are usually found on things like meats(they’ll often say “use or freeze by”) and other very perishable items. I wouldn’t advise eating fresh meat products when they are truly expired.
Dairy foods are usually safe to eat even if they’re past their expiration date(not to be confused with the sell-by date), especially if you use them in cooking. They won’t taste good plain, but they can often be used in baking(sour cream, cream, buttermilk, and milk) or in things like pudding. Eggs can be used after their expiration date, but Cook’s Illustrated found that by the time eggs are four months old, they aren’t as good for baking, so you should probably use them for things like scrambled eggs.
Unopened canned foods are generally safe to eat after the expiration date as well, as long as the can isn’t dented, bulging, or leaking liquid. Once these foods are open, though, they can spoil, so check the can/jar to see how long they’ll stay fresh in the fridge.
When it comes to newly expired non-meat foods, it’s good to remember that it’s not as though something magical happens the day after the expiration date. Cereal that is one day past its expiration date isn’t going to taste that much different than it did the day before, you know?
Obviously, the best course of action is to manage your pantry and refrigerator in such a way that you don’t end up with many expired foods. Cleaning out the fridge regularly, taking inventory of your fridge/pantry before planning your menu and making your grocery list, resisting the urge to overbuy perishable products, and picking grocery items with long expiration dates(i.e. buying the milk with a late expiration date if you drink it slowly) will help you to avoid having expired food in your house in the first place.
I’ve gotten a lot better lately when it comes to not letting my food expire, but I certainly haven’t got this all down pat. So, don’t think I’m up on my high horse wagging my finger at you all. I’m doing pretty well when it comes to things that I store in my fridge, but I still have a ways to go on my pantry and freezer. I’m quite sure there are some expired/freezer burnt things in there that I need to deal with. Sigh. However, having the fridge well managed is progress…that used to house way more expired foods than my freezer and pantry, and who knows? Maybe this will be the year where I get my freezer under control.