11 Foods You Should Never, Ever Eat Past Their Expiration Date

In general, it’s not exactly a good idea to eat something that smells off or has mold on it. But it’s not always easy to tell when food has gone bad. For example, cheese can be especially confusing since some types of cheese are naturally moldy. And some other types of foods, like canned goods and condiments, can seem to last forever.

To keep yourself and your family safe, registered dietitians explain exactly how to read expiration dates on food labels and 11 foods to absolutely not eat past their prime.

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How to Read Expiration Dates on Food Labels

Knowing when foods expire isn’t always straightforward. Many products include several dates on the packaging, including “best by,” “use by” and “sell by” dates. Which one should you pay attention to?

“[Dates labeled] ‘best by’ or ‘best used by’ are when a product is expected to be at its highest quality. It’s not a safety date,” says registered dietitian Isabel Smith, RDN. She says that what is indicative of a food’s safety is the “use by” date and the “expires on” date.

“‘Use by’ is the final date recommended for using the product while it remains at its optimal quality. This is often used as a safety date for perishable items. The ‘expires on’ date is the date after which the product should not be consumed as it may no longer be safe to eat. This is a safety date,” she says.

Registered dietitian Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, adds to this, saying, “The expiration date is often printed on the cap, lid, bottom or side of a food package. Remember that it’s written in MMDDYY format. But it gets confusing because what we often interpret as an expiration date may actually be a ‘sell by’ date or ‘best by’ date, which are quality indicators rather than food safety indicators.” With this in mind, be sure to inspect food labels carefully to determine what the expiration date actually is.

Of course, not all foods have labels. Produce items, freshly baked bread, fresh fish and eggs purchased at a farmers’ market may not have any packaging at all. But these foods still do reach a point where they are unsafe to eat. Anything with mold on it should be thrown out.

Related: The Top 3 Packaged Foods Most Likely To Be Contaminated, According to Food Safety Experts

11 Foods You Should Never Eat Past Their Expiration Date

The dietitians emphasize that while food is sometimes still good past its expiration date, you should absolutely always exercise caution. In fact, there are several foods and drinks in particular that it’s important to completely avoid consuming after they’ve expired—and it isn’t always easy to tell when they are. Here are the ones to know about.

1. Milk

Milk is one of those items that’s pretty easy to tell when it’s no longer safe to consume. If it smells off, is discolored or the texture has changed, toss it. “Milk can be used three to seven days after the sell-by date—the higher end of that range if it has not been opened yet,” says Dana Angelo White, RDN, a registered dietitian and cookbook author.

Not adhering to this advice can have some pretty unpleasant consequences.

“Dairy provides an ideal environment for bacteria to multiply, especially as the dairy product begins to spoil. Consuming expired dairy products can result in foodborne illnesses due to the susceptibility of dairy foods to bacterial growth, including Listeria, Salmonella and E. coli. These bacteria can cause symptoms such as stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and fever,” Smith says.

2. Soft cheeses

As mentioned earlier, cheese can be confusing to know when to toss because some types of cheese are notoriously moldy. Similar to with milk, Smith says soft cheeses are particularly susceptible to bacteria growth, including listeria, salmonella and E. coli, which can lead to the same health consequences as consuming spoiled milk. If you see mold on your soft cheese, that’s a sign that it’s expired.

What about hard cheeses, like cheddar and Parmesan? White says that areas of hard cheese with mold should be avoided, the parts of the cheese with no mold are still safe to eat.

Related: These Are the 10 Healthiest Cheeses, According to Registered Dietitians

3. Bread

If you buy fresh bread from a bakery or farmers’ market, it may not be labeled with an expiration date. “Bread has a fluffy, porous texture. When combined with mold spores, it’s a recipe for food waste because you shouldn’t try to salvage a loaf once you see mold on a slice,” Harbstreet says.

White adds to this, saying that if your bread has mold on it, it’s best to throw it out. “Many types of mold are poisonous and pose a risk to health. Since consumers can’t distinguish between types of harmful versus harmless mold, the safest bet is to toss it. Even though the mold is visible on one or spots, it is likely present throughout the food,” she explains.

4. Salad dressing and jarred condiments

Salad dressings and condiments like ketchup and mustard can seemingly last forever. They can live in your fridge for literally years without giving off a noticeable smell. But all three experts say they do, in fact, go bad. “Jarred condiments and salad dressings often contain preservatives, but once expired, their effectiveness diminishes,” Smith says.

Harbstreet says that when a salad dressing or condiment expires matters greatly whether it has been opened or not. “If it stays sealed, you can usually go up to three to four months past a printed ‘best by’ or ‘sell by’ date. Once opened, these foods should be refrigerated to reduce the risk of spoilage. At that point, though, the shelf life is shortened to one to two months,” she says. She adds that the ingredients matter a lot too. For example, a mayonnaise-based salad dressing is not going to last as long as an oil-based one.

5. Raw meat

If you’ve ever bought raw meat and put it in the fridge but days go by before you’ve gotten around to cooking it, you’ve probably wondered when it reaches the point where you have to trash it, completely not used. “Raw meat generally lasts one to two days for ground meat and three to five days for steaks, chops and roasts,” Smith says. If you freeze your meat, however, it can last for months.

Related: About To Cook Freezer Burn Beef? Think Again. Here’s How Long Meat Really Lasts in the Freezer

6. Leftovers with cooked meat

Maybe you’re poking around in the fridge and you come across a leftover casserole you made with ground beef or chicken you made for dinner several nights ago. Is it still safe to eat? Smith says that cooked meat lasts roughly three to four days in the fridge. As with other foods, inspect your leftovers for mold or changes in smell, color and texture to determine whether it’s still safe to eat or not.

Related: Making Hamburgers for Dinner? Here’s How To Tell if Your Ground Beef Is Bad Before You Eat It

7. Deli meat

Deli meat is another food that can stay in the fridge for a long time before it seems to go bad, but Smith says you definitely don’t want to eat it past when the packaging says it expires. “Deli meats can harbor listeria even when refrigerated,” she says.

8. Eggs

It can be tricky to know when eggs expire, but they don’t last forever. “Eggs can lead to salmonella poisoning,” Smith warns. Eggs typically last three to five weeks from the packaging date. If it’s past their expiration date, it’s best not to eat them.

9. Pre-packaged salads

“Pre-packaged salads can quickly become breeding grounds for harmful bacteria,” Smith says.

Because of this, it’s best to eat them within days after purchasing them. If it’s past the expiration date or the lettuce has turned brown or is slimy, it’s best not to eat it.

Related: Does Your Steak Seem a Little Off? How To Tell if Steak Is Bad, According to Chefs & Culinary Pros

10. Fish and seafood

“Fresh fish is one of the most perishable foods out there,” Harbstreet says, adding that it’s best to cook it within one to two days of purchasing it. If you can’t cook it within a couple of days, she recommends freezing it so you can thaw and eat it later. “Once fish is cooked, it lasts for three to four days,” she explains.

Even abiding by this advice, Harbstreet says it’s still important to use your best judgment when it comes to fish and seafood. “Fish that is visibly moldy, highly discolored, super smelly or very slimy is probably not salvageable even with a thorough cooking process,” she warns.

11. Canned foods

You may have cans in your pantry that have been there for literally years. Aren’t they supposed to last that long? “While canned foods can last a long time, cans that are dented, rusted or swollen can indicate botulism risk,” Smith says. So be sure to inspect your cans before you open them!

To err on the side of safety, it’s best to take the expiration dates on food seriously. Additionally, inspect your foods and if they’ve changed in appearance, smell or texture, it’s best to throw them out. That way, you’re much less likely to be left with a tummy ache (or worse). When it comes to food, safety first!

Next up, here's what you need to know about "fried rice syndrome."