Food poisoning is an all-around unpleasant experience, and the last place you want to get it from is your own home refrigerator. But when trying to save money (and prevent food waste) it’s tempting to try and nibble on something that may or may not have gone bad.
There are a few reasons you might be tempted to eat something that’s been in your fridge for a while. Maybe you splurged on some fancy cheese and don’t want to let it go to waste. Maybe you chopped some vegetables and it pains you to toss them. Or maybe last week, you headed to the grocery store, loaded up on everything you planned on cooking with that week, and then just didn’t.
Does all that food have to go to waste? Or can you repurpose it still into another meal? Some foods can last far longer than you’d expect in your refrigerator. Others have a harsh expiration date that you do not want to cross. Eating food after it’s gone bad can result in more than just indigestion.
It all depends on the kind of food you’re eating. Some foods can cause nothing more than a little discomfort if you eat them after they’re past their prime. Other foods can result in infection by parasites, Listeria, or even E. coli. Clearly broken down by each type of food — including both leftovers and fresh ingredients — here’s a simple guide for how to tell what’s still good in your fridge.
Of all the foods on this list, bread might be the easiest to tell when it’s gone bad. One of two things will happen: Either the bread will grow mold or it will go stale. If there is mold on the bread, which is usually visible, do not eat it. And don’t just pick out the moldy slices and eat the rest, either. Toss the whole loaf. If the bread has gone stale, eating it won’t do you any harm. It won’t be the best tasting thing in the world, but if you use this hack for reviving stale bread, your loaf can be as good as new.
You probably don’t go through sticks of butter all that quickly. But if you leave it in the fridge (or on the counter) for too long, your butter can expire. First, you should always store your butter in the fridge or freezer. Both heat and light can cause butter to oxidize more quickly, accelerating its expiration. Refrigerated butter should last a couple of months. It lasts even longer if you freeze it — a stick can stay good frozen for nine to 10 months. There’s a simple trick to tell if your butter is still good to eat. Slice off a thin piece. Is the coloration the same on the outside and the inside of the stick? If so, it’s still OK to eat. Additionally, butter will begin to taste sour when expired.
Cheese — especially the fancy kind — is one of those delicacies you’d hate to go to waste. Plus, it’s surprisingly healthy! But eating rancid cheese would taste and feel truly awful. All cheese can be sort of stinky (some cheeses are smellier than others), so it’s tough to tell if your cheese has gone bad simply by the smell. You definitely want to check for mold. Some cheeses are meant to be moldy on the exterior. That’s not a problem. The mold you want to look out for is the kind that grows after you’ve purchased the cheese. This mold can have veins that grow into your wedge — spoiling the entire thing. If even a small corner of the cheese has grown mold, the entire block has gone bad. Even without mold, though, cheese can still expire. Hard cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, etc.) can last for up to six months in the fridge. Soft cheeses, on the other hand (brie, ricotta, etc.) typically last about a week.
There are different rules for chicken, depending on whether or not it’s been cooked. Uncooked chicken can only be refrigerated for two days before you should toss it. To keep it longer, freeze your uncooked chicken until you’re ready to whip up a tasty weeknight meal. Visible signs that raw chicken is expiring are a change in color from pinkish to dull gray, a foul odor, and a sticky or thick layer of goo surrounding the piece of meat. Cooked chicken has slightly different signs of expiration. If the chicken has a sulfur-like smell, toss it. If it looks gray, is moldy, or tastes off, you should also toss it. Generally, cooked chicken can last in the fridge for three to four days.
You might think that condiments like ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise last forever, but they do expire. Luckily, these sauces last longer than most food. However, you should definitely double-check before using that bottle you found buried in the back of your fridge. The rules are different for each condiment. But here are some common rules of thumb to follow. Ketchup keeps for about six months. Mustard, though, stays safe for up to two to three years. Mayonnaise needs to be watched more closely — its expiration date is usually just a few months past when you bought it. Soy sauce lasts for years, so you’re probably OK. Salad dressings typically last up to four months (though cream-based dressings don’t last as long!). When in doubt, check the date printed on the package and watch for any discoloration. Ketchup that’s clumpy or brown is not OK to eat!
You cooked a delicious meal, packed away your leftovers, and proceeded to leave them sitting untouched in the back of your fridge. It happens. But how can you tell that your leftover food is still safe to eat? So long as you stored them properly, leftovers can last up to four days. But there are some sure signs of spoilage you should watch out for. Mold or a slimy film growing over the food is your most obvious clue. However, some food-borne bacteria are invisible — and can still make you sick. If your food has been left out in temperatures over 40 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours, you should toss it. If you aren’t sure, smell the food before eating. Does it smell off? If it smells off, tastes off, or has been in your fridge for more than four days, throw it out.
Everyone knows the signs that regular milk has gone bad. But dairy-free milk is different. It doesn’t curdle. The signs of spoilage are slightly more subtle. Before it’s opened, shelf-stable cartons of plant-based milks can last up to a year (again, check the packaging to be sure). After they’re opened, however, these milks’ expiration clocks start ticking. You’ve got anywhere from a week to 10 days to finish that carton. Signs the milk is no longer OK to drink include a strange smell, a sour taste, or visible clumping. Simple separation of the milk, though, is no reason to panic. Lots of plant-based milks naturally separate. Just shake the carton and you’re fine.
Deli meat might be more processed than other kinds of meat you can buy at the grocery store, but it can still turn foul quickly. Lunch meat, when bought prepackaged and sealed, usually has a sell-by date. You can eat the meat for up to seven to 10 days past the sell-by date. However, if you buy it sliced from the deli counter, you may not have a date to go by. After it’s been opened, deli meat typically lasts about four days in the fridge. Signs your meat has expired include a slimy film on the outside, mold, or a smell similar to vinegar.
Eggs can last a while; with so many health reasons to eat them, we recommend using up your carton by cooking nutritious meals with eggs throughout the week. But say you’ve left a carton untouched for longer than a week or two. Are the eggs still safe? Typically, egg cartons will have a printed sell-by date. If that date hasn’t passed, the eggs are probably fine. If there is no printed date or that date has passed, there are a few tests you can conduct to tell whether your eggs will make you sick. Foul eggs have a distinctive smell. If you catch a whiff of them, don’t eat your eggs. A cracked egg isn’t safe to use; neither is one with a slimy or powdery shell. This could indicate bacteria or mold. Any discoloration of the inside of the egg is also a clear tip that the egg has spoiled. There’s one simple trick, however, that doesn’t take a bit of expertise. Simply perform a float test. Take your uncracked egg and place it in water. If the egg sinks, it’s fresh. If it floats, it’s past its prime.
Rotten fish has a serious stench. Don’t eat rotten-smelling fish, ever. But there are a few other rules to follow as well. If your fish is cooked, it can remain sealed in your refrigerator for five to six days. Frozen, store-bought uncooked fish can last six to nine months. Signs of spoilage include a slimy film growing on the fish, a horrific stench, or any sign of discoloration. Salmon, for instance, can take on dark or white spots as it expires. Cooking fish that’s gone bad is a surefire way to ruin an otherwise delicious salmon dinner.
The signs of overripe fruit vary depending on the fruit. Bananas are a special case — overripe bananas can be delicious, and have all kinds of creative uses. But if fruit is overly mushy, brown, or has grown mold, that’s a sure sign it’s too ripe to eat. Insect holes can also indicate that another critter has munched on the fruit before you have — potentially depositing dangerous bacteria. Some fruits, such as grapes and berries, become wrinkly when they’ve been kept too long. Fruit that’s just bruised, though, is totally fine to eat. Just make sure it’s actually just bruised and not rotten!
Fresh herbs can be pricey. Even though you might only use a couple of leaves at a time to elevate a home-cooked meal, you have to buy them by the bunch. There are two types of herbs — soft herbs and hard herbs. Soft herbs have a bendy, soft stem. These include plants such as basil or cilantro. Hard herbs include rosemary and thyme, which have a tougher stem you can snap. To store soft herbs for optimal freshness, trim the stems and store them in shallow water, like a bouquet of flowers. Then, cover with a plastic bag in the fridge to prevent them from drying out. To store hard herbs, wrap them loosely in a damp paper towel. Then, place them in the fridge in an airtight container. You can tell that your herbs have gone bad if the leaves turn slimy, the leaves have dried out, or the herbs have changed from green to yellow or brown. To make herbs last longer, you can freeze them!
Pretty much everyone has a jar of jam or jelly on hand, but not everyone eats that much PB&J. Can you still use the jar hiding in the back of your fridge? There are a few ways to tell. Mold is a good first clue — and don’t just scoop out the moldy bits, either. Even one spot of mold means the entire jar has been compromised. If your jar is mold-free, the other way it could have gone bad is by fermentation. Sugar-free versions can actually ferment faster than their sugary counterparts. You can tell if fermentation has occurred by tasting. You won’t die if you eat a tiny bit of fermented jelly — you’ll just experience a sour, off-putting taste.
Lettuce is one of the foods most likely to give you food poisoning — so you should really take this vegetable’s signs of expiration seriously. If you bought a whole head of lettuce, you can tell it’s gone bad by spotting discoloration. Greens that are no longer green are no longer good. The same goes for spinach, kale, and other greens. But if you’re looking at bagged or otherwise packaged lettuce, there are more subtle signs to watch out for. Soggy, limp, or slimy greens should always be thrown out. Additionally, lettuce that’s gone yellow or has been in the fridge for more than seven days should be tossed. But no matter what, make sure you always wash your lettuce before you use it.
The rules for takeout are similar to the rules for your home-cooked leftovers. Make sure the food isn’t left unrefrigerated for more than two hours. After that, the food is usually still good for around four days. Just watch out for signs of spoilage — mold, an odor, or a slimy film are a couple of clear clues.
Spilled milk might not be something to cry over, but spoiled milk certainly is. That stuff is gross — and can make you violently ill. The good news? It’s fairly easy to tell. Give your milk carton a sniff before sipping. If it smells foul, it is. Chunks forming in your carton are another tip-off that you should pour it down the drain. If your milk is about to expire but you couldn’t possibly drink it all in time, use one of these simple recipes to finish off the gallon.
This one’s tricky, since not all the signs of a spoiled onion are visible. But the taste of accidentally using a spoiled onion just once will make you cautious for life. There are a couple of physical characteristics that can notify you your onion has turned. If there are brown spots or areas of the onion that are soft, the vegetable is in bad shape. Mold is also a clear indicator you shouldn’t use it. If you’ve already cut the onion (can you do it without crying?), its expiration accelerates. While a whole onion can sit on the counter for four weeks, a chopped onion can last in the fridge for less than one week.
Both dry and cooked pasta can go bad. Dry pasta obviously lasts much longer. Pasta that’s past its expiration date can become tasteless when cooked — tragic, since home-cooked pasta dishes are so delicious. Check the box before boiling. Cooked pasta is much more fickle. Once you cook it, pasta can really only last a couple of days in the fridge before becoming mushy and inedible.
Since it’s such a common late-night order, people often make mistakes when storing their pizza. Pizza, like all other cooked food, can’t sit out of refrigeration for more than two hours. After that point, it’s at risk of growing food-borne bacteria. Once refrigerated, however, pizza can last for five days and still be eaten. Cold pizza for breakfast, anyone?
Red meat that’s no longer red? Surprisingly, it might still be OK to eat. Red meat can sometimes react to air exposure by changing color. You might see that the meat has turned partially brown or darkened in the middle. This is fairly normal and shouldn’t be alarming. However, if the meat has faded in color or is especially dark, you shouldn’t trust it. Spoiled meat also will emit a distinct smell and can sometimes feel slimy in texture. You don’t want to ruin burger night with rancid meat! But so long as your meat is safe, these 50 recipes for burgers are downright fantastic.
Uncooked rice lasts basically forever — as long as you keep out pests and bugs. There is one notable exception, though. Brown rice has more oil than other rice varieties like white or wild. Therefore, brown rice can go bad in your pantry in as little as three to six months. In your fridge once it’s cooked, however, all rice is fairly similar. It’s good to go (unless it’s been unrefrigerated for more than two hours) for around four to six days. If it appears dry or crunchy, it’s time to toss it.
Bad shellfish can be a really bad time. You’re going to want to err on the side of excessive caution. Bad shellfish has a strong odor; anything that smells off-putting should not be eaten. Discoloration, a mushy texture, or dryness are other signs.
Fresh vegetables can take any home-cooked meal to the next level, but you’d better use them quick. These foods can go bad sitting idle in your refrigerator. While each vegetable has its own signs to watch out for, some basic signals include mold, mushiness, or a slimy film growing on the vegetables’ exterior. Ugly vegetables, on the other hand, are nothing to fret over. Produce that’s misshapen or otherwise imperfect are often totally fine to eat — and doing so can actually prevent food waste! If you want to be eco-friendly, you should always buy these odd-looking vegetables — as well as these other environmentally friendly grocery items.
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