You ordered Chinese takeout Tuesday night. Can you still eat it for lunch on Friday? And the leftover pizza that"s been in the fridge for almost five days -- is it still safe to eat?
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These are recurring questions: Do we risk tossing out food that"s perfectly safe to eat, or do we roll the dice with foodborne illness?
The USDA has specific guidelines on how long to keep various types of foods, but sifting through the details can be a cumbersome task when faced with the pressing question of "keep it or toss it?" So I was happy to run across www.stilltasty.com, a website that has done the work for us. It has compiled information from government agencies as well as nonprofit groups that research food storage and safety, and it also provides information directly from manufacturers regarding optimal storage conditions for specific products.
And, according to the experts, it turns out that we might not always need to be so beholden to that date stamped on the package after all.
Here"s their rundown on what those dates really mean, and just how far we can press our luck when it comes to some of the most commonly asked-about foods.
"Use by, " "best by, " "best before" and "best if used by" dates don"t indicate whether a product is safe; they"re provided by manufacturers to indicate how long an item is expected to remain at top quality. As long as a product been properly stored, however, it"s generally going to be fine to consume past the date. But use your good judgment: If there is any change in smell or appearance, it should probably be tossed out.
The "sell by" date is a guide for stores to know how long they can display perishables such as milk, cheese and meat. Again, the sell-by date isn"t a safety date. You can often still use the product past the sell-by date, as long as it"s been properly stored.
The following are shelf-life times for a variety of foods. Note that all assume a room temperature of 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit for pantry storage, a refrigerator temperature of 35 to 40 degrees, and a freezer temperature of 0 degrees or lower. Freezer times are for "best quality" only, since food kept constantly frozen at 0 degrees or below will be safe indefinitely. Taste, however, is another story.
For best quality, use raw eggs within three to five weeks after purchase. The "sell-by" date will likely expire during that time, but the eggs still should be safe.
While eggs in the shell don"t freeze well (they can expand and cause the shells to break, plus the yolks get thick and syrupy and don"t flow like a regular yolk when thawed), you can freeze raw eggs for up to a year by cracking them open first. Mix together the yolks and the whites, then add either half a teaspoon of salt or one tablespoon of sugar for every cup of raw egg (depending on whether you plan to use the eggs for savory or sweet dishes later). Store in an air-tight container.
Egg Beaters (or any type of egg whites purchased in a carton) will last about 10 days unopened in the fridge, and three days after opening. Freeze them, unopened, for about a year.
As for hardboiled eggs, they"ll stay good in the fridge for up to a week, but they don"t freeze well.
Aged cheeses like Asiago or Parmesan last up to a year whether opened or unopened. After opening, wrap them in wax paper and cover with plastic wrap. If the surface begins to mold, the USDA"s food safety guidelines say to cut away an inch around and below the spot, then re-wrap. Cheeses like Swiss and cheddar will last three to four weeks after opening (or after purchasing sliced from the deli counter), but softer cheeses like Brie or Camembert last just about a week, whether opened or not.
Milk and yogurt
Regular pasteurized milk can last up to a week past the "sell by" date, while milk that has been ultra-pasteurized (ultra high-temperature pasteurization is often used for organic milk or milk that"s sold unrefrigerated), may last as long as six months unopened, and up to a week after opening. (I"ve noticed, however, that organic milk often stays good for two to three weeks after opening.)
Yogurt is safe to eat at least seven to 10 days past the date (again, I"ve pressed my luck by an extra few weeks with Greek yogurt, and it"s been fine).
Cold cuts like sliced turkey, chicken or roast beef will last three to five days after opening (or after purchasing from the deli counter), while unopened vacuum-sealed packages of deli meat will typically stay good for a week past the "use by" date.
Meat, fish and poultry
Raw poultry, seafood and ground beef will keep in the fridge for one to two days, while uncooked beef, lamb or pork (think roast, chops, and steaks) will last three to five days. Cooked meat, fish and poultry should be consumed (or frozen) within three to four days, so that also means just three to four days of fridge time for favorites like jambalaya, gumbo and crawfish etouffee. While raw bacon lasts longer than other raw meats (two weeks after purchase if unopened and seven days after opening), cooked bacon also lasts just three to four days in the refrigerator.
Ketchup and mustard don"t have to be refrigerated after opening -- they"ll be fine for a month or so at room temperature. But they can last much longer -- about 6 months for ketchup and at least a year for mustard -- when stored in the fridge.
Once opened, mayonnaise is "best used" two to three months after the date on the package. After that, it will generally be safe if it"s been continually refrigerated, although the texture and flavor may change.
As for mayonnaise-based salads and dips (egg salad, potato salad, spinach dip), we shouldn"t push them past three or four days.
Sliced bread (white or whole wheat) should be good for at least five to seven days, whether opened or not, as long as it"s kept tightly closed in the original wrapper and stored at room temperature.
Fresh blueberries will last a week or two in the fridge, and 10 to 12 months in the freezer. Not the case with other berries, though: Raspberries, blackberries and strawberries typically last just two to three days in the refrigerator (but, like blueberries, they"ll stay good in the freezer for 10 to 12 months).
Salad dressing that"s sold unrefrigerated will last unopened for 12 to 18 months. After opening, it will still be good for six to nine months, as long as it"s been continuously refrigerated. And salad dressings sold in the refrigerated section will be good for six months, or until the date on the bottle, as long as they"re stored in the fridge at home.
And as for that leftover pizza or Chinese takeout? Both are safe to eat after three to four days in the fridge, but toss "em if they make it to day five.
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Molly Kimball is a registered dietitian in New Orleans. Her column appears every Friday in Living and her nutrition video blog appears every Tuesday on historicsweetsballroom.com/health. She can be reached at eatingright