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When to Toss it? Food Expiration Guidelines


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When to Toss it? Food Expiration Guidelines

Not sure when you should toss your food? Take a look at our quick go-to food expiration guidelines to get started!

In my house, I am constantly asked, “Are you sure this is still good? It says that it expires today!” And no matter how much I explain that the dates on packages don’t come straight from the mouth of God, no one seems convinced! Finally, here’s the item-by-item food expiration guidelines on when to hold ‘em and when to walk (or throw) away (with apologies to Kenny Rogers). And be sure to check out what some of the terms actually mean in our other new article coming soon (hint: when reading a package label, “sell by” doesn’t mean “use by”!). So when should you really get rid of those refrigerator and pantry staples?


Eggs refrigerated immediately after purchase can be kept 3-5 weeks, which will likely surpass the sell-by date- this is OK! Forget the old-school way of placing the egg tray on the fridge door! Store eggs in their original carton, in the body of the fridge where the temperature is coolest. Once the egg is cooked in a dish like a frittata or a quiche, toss after 3-4 days. Hardboiled eggs are good for 1 week. Love eggs? Try this low-cost family recipe for southwestern baked eggs.


Milk should be consumed by the package use-by date, but do the smell test! Pour some into a glass and smell from there. This helps twofold. By pouring into a glass, you can see if the milk has curdled (time to toss), and you won’t get a false positive — meaning you’ll think it’s gone bad when it’s actually still good. Secondly, the sour odor can come from dried up milk on the rim of the container and not from the still-fresh milk itself. As with eggs, storing milk on the shelf instead of on the door can help make it last longer. Milk can even be stored in the freezer for up to 3 months.


Unopened yogurt will still be good 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator after purchasing or 1-2 months in the freezer. But still do the smell test in addition to these food expiration guidelines!

Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese, a healthy snack choice for kids, lasts 2 weeks after purchasing in the refrigerator unopened or 1 week in the refrigerator after opening. As with all soft cheeses, we do not recommend freezing.

Whole-wheat Flour

Whole-wheat flour can be stored at room temperature for 3-6 months or 6-8 months in the refrigerator after opening. White flour, on the other hand, can be stored 6-12 months without opening at room temperature (6-8 months after opening) or up to 1 year in the refrigerator after opening. This is because the nutrient-rich germ left on the whole-wheat flour has natural oils that become rancid with time.


Oats can be kept at room temperature for up to 4 months or up to 8 months in the freezer.


Dry pasta will keep in the pantry for up to 2 years.

Canned Foods

Never purchase or use canned goods that are dented, bulging, or oozing! These are telltale signs that the food has been contaminated and may cause botulism. Otherwise, canned goods stored in a cool, dark place can often be eaten years after their expiration date, as long as the can is intact. The length of time depends on the amount of acid in the can’s contents.

  • Canned goods with high acid (e.g., fruit, pickles, tomato soup, etc.) can be stored at room temperature (without opening) for 12-18 months. After opening and transferring to a glass or plastic container, you can keep the contents of the can in the refrigerator for 5-7 days. 
  • Canned goods with low acid (e.g., meat, corn, peas, beans, etc.) can be stored at room temperature (without opening) for 2-5 years if under 85 degrees F. After opening and transferring to a glass or plastic container, you can keep the contents of the can in the refrigerator for 5-7 days. Beans are great to keep in stock so you can whip up quick and easy dishes to bring to barbecues.


Commercial jarred salsa will keep at room temperature up to 1 year if unopened. Once opened, you have about 1 month to consume if refrigerated. Homemade salsa, on the other hand, has a shorter fridge life. Homemade salsa can be eaten within 7 days, depending on the ingredients. Speaking of salsa, try this tasty homemade mango salsa.


Mayonnaise, if opened and stored properly in the fridge, will last up to 2 months. If unopened and kept at room temperature, most brands last 3-6 months after purchase.

Deli Meat

Deli Meats, like ham and turkey, unopened and refrigerated, will last up to 2 weeks. If it’s been opened, you have 3 to 5 days before the cold cuts start declining in quality. Deli meats without preservatives (e.g., nitrites) may only last 2-3 days in the refrigerator after opening. If you’re buying in bulk but don’t plan on using it right away, keep only what you need in an airtight container in the fridge and freeze the rest for up to 2 months.


Ever have days where you forget that you were defrosting chicken breast for dinner? Good news! You can still use thawed chicken for up to 2 days as long as it was refrigerated properly. Can you re-freeze thawed chicken breast? If they were defrosted in the fridge (kept at a temperature below 41⁰F), then you’re good to go. Upon re-thawing, you have 2 days to consume the chicken breast. If you initially defrosted the chicken breast under running water, then do not re-freeze—use it by the next day. If you purchased already frozen chicken, it will last up to 9 months in the freezer.

Ground Meat

Ground meat is tricky because it has a ton of surface area for bacteria to grow on. If refrigerated immediately, your ground meat will be safe to use for up to 2 days after the sell-by date. We make it a habit to cook it the same day! Frozen ground meat will keep up to 4 months after the sell-by date. Try this turkey or lean meat Bolognese with veggies and pasta that your kids will love.

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables have a lot of variability in terms of how long they stay fresh. Check out this resource to learn more about when to toss specific fruits and vegetables, but know that chopping them up will speed up the spoilage process (remember: more surface area = more space for bacteria!). Typically, cut-up fruit is good for about 3-4 days and shouldn’t be frozen after it’s been cut for 4 days, frozen veggies will last up to 8 months in the freezer, and frozen fruit will last up to a year. Fruit usually has about a 3-5-day shelf life once ripened. To increase the shelf-life of fresh veggies, store them away from fruit: fruit releases a ripening agent that can cause vegetables to ripen too quickly and spoil.

Now that you know when foods actually expire from these food expiration guidelines, write down the date when food was opened on the label with a permanent marker. This is especially useful for soy milk, soups, mayonnaise, salad dressings, and other foods that aren’t completely used right away. You can even tape this list to your fridge as a friendly reminder of when to hold and when to toss away. Now that you know when to toss and when to keep, you’ll have a better answer for the non-believers who insist that an expiration date is a law (unless, of course, it’s on baby food—in which case, yes, toss it out!).


  1. Storing Food for Safety and Quality by Sandra McCurdy, et al. 2009. University of Idaho.
  2. Food expiration dates: What do they really mean? By Ann Pietrangelo. University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service. 2010.
  5. University of Wisconsin Extension
  8. Site Food Share
  10.  Servesafe Coursebook , 6th Edition. National Restaurant Association.  N.p.: Pearson College Div, 2012. Print.
  15. Answers for Egg Packages, 2016. American Egg Board.
  16. Milk Expiration Dates: How to Keep Your Milk Fresh, 2016. National Dairy Council

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About the Author

Melissa is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with a masters in nutrition education. She is founder of SuperKids Nutrition Inc. where she is “saving the world, one healthy food at a time.” Read more about her Super Crew children’s books and her experience as a registered dietitian on the founder’s page. Discover how nutrition can help you live your best health potential through her on-line courses and subscribe to her blog, Melissa’s Healthy Living, for nutrition updates.


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