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Food expiration dates can be confusing– some manufacturers provide a "use by" or "sell by" date, while others stamp a date that indicates when the food begins to decline in quality. Fresh foods may not come with a suggested expiration date at all. Knowing how to tell what's good and what has to go can be important for your health.

"Expiration dates are inexact and most foods, when stored at the right temperature and fully cooked, are safe to eat a few days beyond the suggested date," says Tracee Yablon Brenner, RD, a registered dietitian at Holy Name.

With or without expiration dates, special attention should be given to fresh or raw ingredients, which carry the greatest risk of food poisoning.

Here are recommended times for when to eat these fresh foods:

  1. Meat (uncooked beef, poultry or pork): Ground meat should be eaten within 1 – 2 days and whole cuts within 3 – 5 days. Cooked meat, leftovers or take-out, should be eaten within 3 – 4 days of preparation. Discard any meat showing signs of spoilage such as a bad odor, discoloring, and mold.
  2. Eggs: Whole eggs and egg whites should be eaten within 3 weeks. Store them in their original carton and fully cook to avoid salmonella. Food items containing raw eggs, like cookie dough and cake batter, should never be consumed raw.
  3. Deli meat: All deli and sandwich meats should be eaten within 3-4 days. Changes in appearance or texture, such as discoloration or "sliminess" is a sign of spoilage.
  4. Seafood: Fresh fish, shellfish, clams, oysters and other types of seafood should only be stored in the refrigerator for 1-2 days before cooking. Anything that smells sour, fishy, or like ammonia should be discarded. Once it’s cooked, eat it within 3-4 days.
  5. Vegetables: Time will vary, but most fresh vegetables will stay good when refrigerated for 1-2 weeks. Leafy greens like spinach and kale may wilt and spoil much quicker.
  6. Fruits: Fresh fruit is best eaten within 4-7 days. Watch for mold spores which can cause an allergic reaction.
  7. Cheese: Soft cheeses should be eaten within 1-2 weeks. Hard cheeses usually last longer, about 3-4 weeks.

"In addition to the chance of getting sick from spoiled or contaminated food, the discarding of unintentionally expired food makes up 40 percent of all food waste in America," Yablon Brenner says.

"With careful purchasing decisions, meal planning, and routine checking of food expiration dates, everyone can do their part to reduce foodborne illness and prevent unnecessary food waste."

For more information about food safety or other nutrition recommendations, visit holyname.org/nutrition.