If you're like most of us, you have a few boxes of pasta or cans of corn lingering in the back of your pantry, stamped with dates that have long since passed. Turns out you may still be able to use a lot of these items, since food expiration dates or best by dates are actually not a hard-and-fast rule.
In fact, federal law doesn't even require expiration dates on food (except baby formula), according to the USDA, and up to 30% of the food supply is wasted due to people throwing away food that has passed its expiration date but is actually still safe to eat. The key is knowing which foods are your best bet, how to tell whether they are still good, and how to store these items to preserve them long after their expiration dates have passed.
Canned Vegetables and Soups
That can of corn we mentioned earlier? It's good for a really, really long time. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) suggests canned fruits and veggies can last for many years (long past their dates) if they are stored in optimal conditions and don't have damage to the can. You might notice some loss of flavor over time, however, especially with foods that have high acid content (like tomatoes).
Store canned food in a cool, dry place. Heat is your biggest enemy when it comes to keeping these foods fresh, and moisture can cause the cans to rust over time.
The upshot of all this is that those extra cans of beans you bought during the pandemic are still good and will be for quite a while. If the cans are in good shape, use them at your next taco night with no concerns.
Dried Pasta, Rice, and Beans
That box of expired mac and cheese in the back of your pantry is probably totally fine, too. You'll know when you open it. If pasta looks chalky or discolored, it may not be as good. The FSIS says pasta, rice, and other dried foods are good for at least two years, so don't stress about serving your kids something that expired six months ago. They have a long shelf life after the best before date.
Keep dried foods in a dry place, since moisture will wreck them even well before the expiration date. If you have problems with pantry pests, keep these foods in sealed plastic bags too.
Tuna in Pouches or Cans
If you discover a can of tuna in your cupboard that's past its food expiration date, don't toss it right away. Fish in cans or pouches is good for at least 18 months, according to FSIS (stored in a cool, dry spot), so mix up some tuna salad.
Spices and Herbs
The date stamped on that container of cinnamon isn't a food expiration date. It's usually the date the spice was packed or sometimes a "best if used by" date. Either way, spices and herbs can stay good a lot longer (especially if they're kept dry and cool). They'll lose their potency over time and may not be worth using after a few years, but they won't hurt you.
Even if there's a date stamped on your package of salt, it's not going to expire. Table salt is good indefinitely if it hasn't been opened. If it's open, moisture can get in and cause it to clump. Still, remember that salt is used to preserve things, so you've really got all the time in the world to use up that Morton's container in your pantry.
Milk, Yogurt, and Dairy Products (Kind Of)
Dairy products often come with a "sell-by" date, which is not the same as an expiration date. That means that the date stamped on your gallon of milk is usually the last day the store should have it on the shelf. After that, it's still safe to consume if it's been kept cold, but it won't last forever.
Eating yogurt or drinking milk that's a day or two after that stamped date is safe. Use your nose and taste buds as a guide. If it tastes off, toss it and get a new one.
The date on most peanut butter is actually a quality assurance date, not when the product expires. You can use that unopened peanut butter to make your PB&J long after the date has passed. Just use your best judgement on the smell, taste, and consistency.
Opened peanut butter can get moldy, though, especially if there are crumbs of bread or toast that get in it. It's best to toss it out if you have any concerns.
Cereal, Crackers, and Cookies
Dry, packaged items like cereal, crackers, and cookies also have a quality assurance date instead of a food expiration date. As long as the package hasn't been opened, they can be good for much longer than the date stamped on them. Again, use your judgement. If it seems stale, it probably is.
Like salt, honey actually has a long history as a preservative, and it doesn't really expire. You may notice that the consistency changes over time and it becomes solid, but you can microwave it for a few seconds to make it liquid again. Any date stamped on the honey is not really a food expiration date.
Canned ham is another food with a super long shelf life — two to five years to be exact. You can use it long after the date on the can — just check the smell and color if it's older. Keep it cool and dry, and it will last a long time.
Bottled Vanilla Extract
You know how the liquor in your cabinet really doesn't go bad? Well, most vanilla extract is 40% alcohol. It's good indefinitely, just like vodka.
Your Senses Are a Better Guide Than Food Expiration Dates
Because there's no requirement to include food expiration dates on most food and there are lots of different things these dates can mean (sell by is different than a quality assurance date or best by date), it's easy to get confused and throw something away when it's still perfectly good. Use your own senses as a guide. If something seems off, don't eat it. Otherwise, if you've stored it well, it's fair game.