Because Iâm the type of person who buys a bunch of groceries at once and forgets (or just gets too lazy) to use them, Iâm frequently left wondering if my food is still OK to eat. Thatâs also because itâs not always obvious when certain items have gone bad. Sometimes a package of chicken I have is supposed to expire in two days, but it already smells and looks kind of funny. On the other hand, I often hold onto a carton of eggs well past their expiration date and have yet to have any problems.
Letâs face it: Most of us have a few questionable items somewhere in the fridge. And at some point, whatâs gross can turn into an actual danger. âThe problem is that bacteria can form, especially if you have a higher moisture level in the food,â says Christine Bruhn, food science professor at University of California-Davis and member of the Institute of Food Technologists. âThatâs going to lead to all sorts of problems, and it can make you very sick.â
Instead of continuing to wonder if my not-so-fresh ingredients might make me sick, I decided to ask a few food experts how to know if your food is most likely still safe to eat or better off tossed, no matter what the date on the package says. Here, they break down all the signs you should watch out for, depending on the food in question.
I once watched a roommate throw out an entire carton of eggs because they were one day past their expiration date, and I still havenât recovered. Food safety expert Jeff Nelkin says that most items will exceed their suggested shelf lives, and that this definitely includes eggs. So please, donât do what my roommate did.
Instead, you can find out if theyâre still good by cracking them open. Charles Mueller, PhD, RDN, clinical associate professor of nutrition at NYU, tells SELF that if eggs are runny, grey, or smelly, you definitely should toss them. But if they look and smell normal, they should be fine.
Also, itâs best to store eggs in the original cartonâthose cute little fridge inserts can breed bacteria, Bruhn advises. And if youâve already cracked them and have them stored as some kind of make-ahead scrambled egg mix, then youâve probably only got two days, tops, to use them.
Some cheesesâlike bleu cheese and brieâhave edible mould. Others, like cheddar, Parmesan, and Swiss, are pretty good at resisting mould. But even for those sturdy types, hanging out in the back of your fridge for ages can weaken the defences.
A bit of mould on your cheese doesnât necessarily mean you have to throw it away. According to the Mayo Clinic, mould canât penetrate semisoft and hard cheeses like Parmesan or cheddar, so only the piece with mould will contain any mould spores. Generally, you can simply cut off at least one inch surrounding the mouldy area and enjoy the rest. If you have any doubt, though, Mueller says you should throw it out.
With some choices like shredded cheese, cream cheese, and cottage cheese, youâre going to want to chuck it, since the moisture level in those can make mould spores spread fast.
Typically, you can tell that dairy products like cream cheese, sour cream, and milk are past their prime by the way they look and smell. Mueller says if they smell sour, theyâve separated, or they have any mould on them at all, into the bin they should go.
If youâve noticed that the ground meat you bought only a day or two ago is already a little brown, Mueller says itâs probably no big deal. A bit of browning on your red meat doesnât necessarily mean that itâs bad. If itâs tightly packaged in plastic, the colour change is likelyÂ due to a lack of oxygen. As long as it doesnât smell, itâs properly refrigerated at 40 degrees or below, and itâs not past its expiration date, he says it will be safe to eat. If it is past its expiration date, he says you should toss it.
You also want to avoid poultry thatâs turned grey. For other kinds of meat, you can often use colour as an indicator of safety: Whether youâre concerned about chicken, pork, or turkey, toss it if itâs not the same colour as it was when you bought it. You should also say goodbye to any meat that smells sour or sulphurous, and if there are any signs of mould at all, throw it away.
Bruhn says that smell is also a good indicator of whether seafood is still good or not. As a general rule of thumb, though, you should should aim to use any fresh seafood within the first day, because it wonât last longer than that in the fridge, says Mueller. If you want to hold onto it longer, tightly seal it and pop it in the freezer until youâre ready to eat it.
Fruits and vegetables
According to the USDA, you can still eat certain fruits and vegetables even if they have mould on them. Mould wonât penetrate denser, firm fruits and vegetables, like bell peppers or carrots, so theyâll still be edible as long as you cut off at least one inch around and underneath the mould spot. On the other hand, mould easily penetrates softer fruits and veggies, like peaches and cucumbers, so they should definitely be tossed. (For more info on how to deal with mouldy foods, go to the USDAâs website.)
When it comes to those slightly slimy greens in the bottom of a bag of spinach, Bruhn says they donât actually cause much of a health danger. Theyâre just incredibly gross. â[Sliminess] is simply an indication that the cell walls are beginning to break down, and the moisture is causing decomposition,â she notes. Feel free to chuck the slimy leaves and keep the rest.
One type of slime is definitely not fit for your plate: the kind that might show up on meat. Deli slices in particular tend to get slimy after about a week, since they have a higher amount of water content compared to something like chicken breasts or pork chops. Itâs around this time that they then begin to stink.
A little slime may be harmless if itâs caused by how the meat was first prepared (if it was brined, it might be that juice seeping out) but it may also be bacteria that’s forming as the meatâs tissue is breaking down. Best to be safe and eat it within three to five days.
Unlike cheese, you canât simply cut off the mouldy area of bread and eat the rest, says Mueller. Mould spores penetrate farther into the loaf than you can see, so the whole thing is contaminated even if it seems like only part of it is. If you know that youâll only eat some of the bread you bought, you can easily save the rest for later by freezing it. Wrap it up tightly and use this guide to reheat and defrost it to perfection.
Oils and nut butters
Oils and nut butters past their prime are unlikely to give you a food-borne illness, but they will taste and smell bad the older they get, says Mueller. He says if you start to notice they taste or smell sour, that means their oil has oxidised and itâs time to throw them away.
When in doubt, throw it out
The age-old wisdom isnât just some quaint saying. In general, itâs best to follow your instincts. Bruhn says, âItâs all about temperature and time when it comes to food spoilage and bacteria. Keep track of those, use your sense of smell, and if something seems suspicious, it’s not worth it. Just throw it away.â
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