Last Updated on February 25, 2023 by Sarah McCubbin
Have you ever wondered if it’s safe to eat expired canned food? What about other foods? What can you eat and what should actually be thrown away? This practical guide will walk you through your pantry…and discount grocery stores to avoid waste, save money and eat foods that are past their best-buy date.
In a time when money is tight for many families, it is important to question what we should and should not be doing with our money…and our food. You may have heard the advice before to “not eat expired food.” People will say this and then say, “You might get food poisoning,” or “You might get sick.” While its true that people can get sick from spoiled food, there is no correlation between it being expired and it being spoiled. In fact, there are almost no federal guidelines on “best buy” dates and states have a random assortment of guidelines. Experts estimate that this leads to 20% waste of consumer food.
Well meaning people are advising us to throw away food. But for a family, what that actually means is we are throwing money in the trash. The good news is that learning what food to eat and not eat is pretty simple.
If you are trying to save money on food, here are my best tips!
Table of Contents
What does it mean when food expires?
There is no legal definition for “food expiring.” However, that term is often used to refer to foods that are past their “best if used by”, “use by” or sell by” dates.
What Do Date Labels Mean?
If you pick up packaged food, you will usually find labeling on the package that says, “best if used by”, “use by” or sell by.” However, there are no federal regulations on date labeling other than for baby formula. Usually the “best if used by” type labels are assigned by the manufacturers as their best estimate of how long their food will taste the best. It usually has little correlation to food safety. Grocery stores will often use these dates for stock on their shelves, but it is not an actual requirement.
- Use By: This label indicates the last date the product is at its best quality. On infant formula, it is also a safety date.
- Best If Used Before/By: Similarly, this indicates the when a product is the best taste/texture. That might mean a soda is still fully carbonated or cereal is still fresh and not slightly stale.
- Sell By: This label tells retailers to remove a product from the shelves that doesn’t sell by that date. That does not mean that a product is bad or spoiled at this date. With proper refrigeration, milk can last up to a week past its sell-by date and things like yogurt and sour cream can last a month or more past their sell by date.
Is It Safe to Eat Expired Canned Food…and other ones too?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, canned food is safe to eat indefinitely. As long as the can is in good condition, with no bulges, dents or rust, it will be safe past its expiration date for years.
In my personal experience, I have found that tomato products do occasionally go bad. But you will know it. The can might be bulging…or start to ooze or be rusted on the edges. In other words, the cans don’t look normal…they don’t look healthy…if there is such a thing as a healthy can. Those are the cans that I throw out when I’m going through my pantry. I keep a large inventory of canned goods and I would say this happens less than once per year….and those cans are usually several years past their “best buy date.”
What about crackers, cookies, cereal and other dry goods?
Also according to the USDA, these foods are safe to eat past their “best by” date, but their texture or taste may start to change.
In my experience, these types of foods are subject to a variety of variables. Certain oils tend to go rancid more quickly. Whole grain crackers are more likely to taste “off” more quickly than anything, “white.” In addition, things with nuts or seeds don’t last as long as other items without.
Tips For Buying & Using Expired Shelf Stable Foods
We buy a lot of expired shelf stable foods at discount grocery stores. You can read about how we save money on food and how we buy discount groceries. Below are some of my best tips on buying food past its best buy date.
Oils – In general I do not buy expired oil. If I have some in my pantry, I will taste it to see if it is good, but I don’t buy expired oil. The reason is that even at a discount, oil tends to be a more expensive item. Discount grocery stores don’t usually allow returns and I have purchased oil that was rancid. So I don’t buy it.
Crackers, Cereal, Cookies – I will buy these items past date by 2-3 months. I do not buy ANYTHING with Canola oil if it is expired as it does seem to go rancid quickly. Safflower and sunflower oil last a bit longer so I might buy those up to 1 month expired, but I try not to buy those either. Things made with Palm oil and Coconut oil are the most stable and I will buy things expired by up to 3 months.
Nuts – I will buy almonds past their date, but not other seeds. If I buy peanut butter or almond butter, I have done so 2 or 3 months past their “best by” date and had them be fine. I tend to buy in quantity, so I bring those home and put them in my refrigerator to slow down that process a bit.
Flour – I rarely find white or wheat flour at discount grocery stores. However, I have found pastry flour and it was fine…even for many months in my pantry. I also find gluten-free flour mixes and other gluten-free flours and have had them be fine for months in my cupboard too. I have never had flour go bad past its date.
Chocolate – Chocolate is usually just fine…even a year later. The bigger problem for chocolate is if it has nuts in it. Also at discount grocery stores, sometimes the chocolate has been stored some place a bit warm or cold..so it gets that white coating on it. That isn’t always the case…but it has happened. The chocolate tasted fine though.
Drinks -Drinks are fine many months past their date. Juices may have their flavor change a bit…especially citric juices. Carbonated drinks are fine but past their date may start to lose some carbonation. I often buy coffee beans past their date. I have some in my cupboard that are more than a year expired and they are just fine. Ground coffee is not something I would recommend buying past its best buy date by more than a couple months.
Protein bars – My husband and sons like protein bars…a lot. We end up buying a lot of these at salvage grocery stores at a huge discount. I’m sure some of them are expired, but it has never been a problem.
Meat, Eggs, Dairy and Produce Are Far More Perishable!!
While there are no federal standards on milk, produce, dairy and eggs, they have a much shorter shelf life. These can grow bacteria and molds that would make them very unhealthy for consumption. The good news is that before they become dangerous, they start to taste and smell bad.
A great example of this is rotton eggs. Raising our own chickens, we have occasionally cracked an egg and it was rotton. But you would NEVER miss this. They smell SO BAD! The egg inside is putrid liquid and reeks. So yes…it has gone bad, but you would not eat it because it stinks!! The same is true for meat. A couple of times, I have wondered, “is this meat still ok,” and started to cook it. But when I started cooking it, it stunk up the whole house. That was definitely a sign that it was truly going bad.
Buying Nearly Expired Meat, Eggs, Dairy & Produce
If you are wondering if it is safe to eat expired canned foods, you may also be wondering about expired or nearly expired meat, eggs, dairy and produce.
First, you can get some great deals on nearly expired meat, eggs, dairy and produce when you shop using the Flashfood App. Download the app and GET $8 off Your First $10 Order with Coupon Code: SARA3SXVK
Inside the Flashfood App, local grocery stores will list meat, eggs, dairy, produce and other items that are close to their “best buy” date. I regularly save 50-75% off.
How to Use Nearly Expired Meat, Eggs, Dairy & Produce
Whether you have perishable items in your refrigerator or whether you buy them nearly expired, there are things you can do to extend the use of these items so you don’t need to throw them away. When finances are tight, it is important to be resourceful and avoid waste as much as possible.
- Meat -Meat can be frozen or canned. If you freeze the meat, simply thaw it out the day you want to use it and it will be fine. The “best by” date is irrelevant if you freeze it.
- Eggs – Eggs can sold for up to 30 days after they were packaged. On the conservative side, they can be kept for 3 to 5 weeks past the packing date in your refrigerator. But there are no federal guidelines here. I have kept mine for longer than that without a problem. If I am in doubt, I crack eggs into a separate and not directly into my ingredients. On the off chance that one egg has gone bad, it won’t contaminate the whole bunch.
- Dairy – Milk is often perfectly fine for 5-7 days past the “best by” date. If in doubt, smell it or taste it…it will start to sour when it is no longer the best. At that point it is not dangerous. My mom would often use milk like that to make pancakes…just like you might use buttermilk. Butter can be kept indefinitely in the freezer. Yogurt can be kept refrigerated for months past its sell by date. Some dairy can be frozen but it may change the texture, so check and see before you freeze if its texture will stay the same.
- Produce – I like to buy produce that is nearly expired and either process it quickly into freezer meals or simply chop it up and freeze it. I bought a lot of pepper through the Flashfood app and came home and chopped them up to go in the freezer. I’m planning to make spaghetti sauce in the near future and will use those chopped peppers then. I’ve also bought apples that were seconds and made applesauce. Or our kids eat what’s in the box for a snack over a couple of days.
Good News! It Is Safe to Eat Expired Canned Food (most of the time) As Well As Many Other Past Date Groceries
Thankfully, knowing whether you should eat expired food is pretty easy to navigate. If the food smells and tastes right…its fine to eat. If the can is bulging or oozing..throw it away. If the packaging is damaged and you see little bugs inside, throw it out. If the raw meat smells fine, cook it up. If the meat smells off…throw it out. By using your five senses, you will start to develop a better understanding of when you can and cannot eat expired food.