Do You Really Have to Throw Out That Expired Food?

Expiration dates don’t indicate food safety—they’re more about food quality and how long products can be displayed at grocery stores.

The foods in your fridge and pantry sometimes last longer than you think. Whether it’s a carton of milk or fresh fruit, you can use your senses and spoilage estimate tools to determine if it’s still safe for consumption.

Spoiled food often looks, smells, and feels spoiled: Think about those cucumbers in the back of your produce drawer that got soft and slimy, or the fish that started smelling “fishier.”

We spoke with food safety experts to make it easier for you to decide how long your foods can stay beyond expiration dates.

Infant formula is an exception

You should always follow the expiration date for infant formula. It is the only food product with an expiration date regulated by the FDA. All infant formula should be thrown away after that date.


Unopened milk lasts about a week in the fridge after its expiration date. Plant-based milk, like soy and almond, can last for 10 days beyond the expiration date when stored in the fridge.

Once it’s opened, dairy milk lasts about five to seven days afterward, while plant-based milk lasts seven to 10 days in the fridge, according to Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Keep milk in the coldest part of your fridge, usually in the back of the bottom shelf, to help it last longer. If the milk smells sour, or if the carton looks bloated, it’s time to throw it away, Maples said.

Illustration by Mira Norian for Verywell Health

Heavy cream is a tricky one. It’s usually good for 10 days based on the expiration date label, but the high-fat content might keep the cream from going bad for as long as a month.

“Some dairies will use ultra-high processing to allow the cream to last longer. Look for UHT (ultra-high temperature) on the label,” Maples said.

Butter, the star ingredient in butter boards, can last for up to two months if you refrigerate it from the date of your purchase. It’s OK to leave butter out at room temperature, but the flavor can go rancid within two days. You can also store butter in the freezer for up to nine months.

All soft cheeses, including cream cheese, ricotta cheese, and goat cheese, must be refrigerated. They can last for about a week in the fridge, but cream cheese can last longer, for about two weeks.

Hard cheeses, such as cheddar, American, block and grated Parmesan, don’t need to be refrigerated, but they will last six months in the fridge if unopened, or three to four weeks after opening. If the cheese you bought was shredded, it’s only good for about a month after opening.

A little molding on hard cheese isn’t a problem. “You can safely cut mold off firm cheese, because the moisture content is low—the mold doesn’t spread to other parts of the cheese,” Maples said. “The issue is more about taste and food quality, not food safety. Throw out the whole container when a soft cheese is moldy.”

Yogurt stays fresh in the fridge for about two weeks after purchase. The liquid and solids might start to separate, but you can just stir those back together unless you notice any mold, according to Maples.


Those eggs you recently spent a fortune on can stay fresh in the fridge for three to five weeks past your purchase date.

If you aren’t sure, you might be tempted to do the good old egg float test: If an egg floats to the surface in a glass of water, it’s bad. But this test isn’t always accurate. An egg can float when its air cell becomes larger to keep it buoyant—it just means the egg is old, but it might still be safe to eat.

The best way to test whether an egg is still good is to crack it into a bowl and sniff it. Discard it if it smells rotten or looks funky. 

Meat, Poultry, and Seafood

Illustration by Mira Norian for Verywell Health

Ground beef and pork are good for one to two days in the fridge from the date of purchase, or you can keep them in the freezer for three to four months. For plant-based meat like Impossible Burger, you should finish it by the “best by” date or within three days of opening—whichever comes first.

Chicken breasts and thighs can stay fresh for nine months in the freezer, but only one to two days in the fridge. Pork chops can keep in the fridge for three to five days and up to a year in the freezer. Bacon and uncooked chorizo should last about a week after opening if refrigerated, and about a month if frozen from the date of purchase.

You might notice browning on your meat after a few days, but color change alone is normal. You’ll know the meat is spoiled if feels sticky or slimy, and smells sour or ammonia-like. Spoiled poultry will turn dark, feel slimy, and smell like rotten eggs.

Seafood follows a similar pattern as meat: it usually keeps in the refrigerator for one to two days, but cooked fish can last twice as long. Fatty fish like tuna and salmon are good for two to three months in the freezer, while lean fish like cod and flounder can last up to eight months. Maples said that spoiled fish will develop slimy skin, a strong “fishy” smell, and the eyes will start to look glassy.

Shrimp and squid can last half a year to 18 months in the freezer. For fresh clams, mussels, and oysters though, finish them within five to 10 days from the date of purchase, and the USDA doesn’t recommend freezing them at all.

Fresh Produce

You might already rely on your senses when it comes to fruits and vegetables since most produce doesn’t come with an expiration date anyway. Moldy berries clearly need to be composted, but how should you judge the rest?

Apples can last in the fridge for four to six weeks from the purchase date, but you’ll know they’re spoiled when they start to smell bad, feel very soft, or the skin peels away easily. 

Lemons, limes, oranges, and other citrus can be refrigerated for about three weeks, or until they’ve become smelly, moldy, soft, or dried out. You don’t have to throw them away if there’s a little bruising on the skin as long as the inside smells and looks fine.

Illustration by Mira Norian for Verywell Health

Store whole ripe avocados in the fridge to keep them fresh for three to four days. But don’t store cut avocados in water as some TikTokers suggested. Instead, squirt some lemon or lime juice on the flesh, wrap it in plastic wrap, and eat it within two days.

Bagged leafy greens stay fresh for three to five days if unopened. They’ll keep longer once opened if you wrap the leaves in dry paper towels. 

Most fresh herbs will last for about 10 days in the fridge, especially if you keep the stems in a jar of water covered with a bag to maintain moisture.

Carrots can stay in the fridge for two to three weeks, while onions can be refrigerated for two months from the purchase date. Even if your onions or garlic start to sprout, they are still safe to eat until they get moldy, soft, and discolored. 

Bread and Flour

Bread might seem like a pantry item, but it lasts longer when chilled. Freeze bread for up to three months or keep loaves in the refrigerator for up to two weeks after opening. Bread might start to go stale in the fridge, but you can pop it in the toaster unless it smells bad or has started growing mold.

Refrigerating flour can extend its shelf life, but you’ll want to trust your senses on this one. Whole wheat flour stays fresh in the fridge for six to eight months after opening, while white flour lasts up to a year. If you notice the flour starting to clump or smell sour, it’s time to part with it.

Most other baking staples don’t benefit from refrigeration. Even though sugar never goes bad, it’s best to toss it two years after opening. Ground spices can stay fresh in the pantry for two to three years, and whole spices can last an extra year. But remember to clean your spice containers from time to time—they’re some of the germiest items in the kitchen.

Is Your Fridge at the Right Temperature?

Always remember to put your grocery away as soon as you get home. Stick to the two-hour rule: Never allow foods that require refrigeration to sit at room temperature for more than two hours (one hour if the air temperature is above 90 degrees).

To slow bacteria growth, keep your fridge at 40 degrees or below and your freezer at 0 degrees.

“If the foods are refrigerated at lower temperatures than the standard home refrigerator (upper 30s to 40 degrees), this could add a bit more shelf life,” said Archie Magoulas, a food safety specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

But the lower temperature might only stretch the freshness for a day or so, Magoulas explained, and it depends on what type of food you have in your fridge.

Some foodborne bacteria are unavoidable

Unfortunately, sometimes your senses alone aren’t enough to gauge whether a food is safe to eat or not. Listeria, which causes more than 200 food poisoning deaths in the United States each year, is a bacteria that you can’t smell or taste.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Department of Health and Human Services. FoodKeeper app.

  2. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Does all cheese need to be refrigerated?

  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. How long can you store eggs in the refrigerator?

  4. U.S. Department of Agriculture. What does it mean when an egg floats in water?

  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture. The color of meat and poultry.

  6. U.S. Department of Agriculture. How can I tell if chicken is spoiled?

  7. Food and Drug Administration. Selecting and serving fresh and frozen seafood safely.

  8. U.S. Department of Agriculture. How long can I store bread?

  9. Food and Drug Administration. Are You Storing Food Safely?

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Listeria (listeriosis).