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When to toss out leftovers

Food waste is a problem in the United States and it doesn’t have to do with “cleaning your plate.” According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration “wasted food is the single largest category of material placed in municipal landfills” with evidence that much of that food was never prepared.

So, this isn’t food that was scraped from the plate or the little bit of leftovers that never got eaten. It is unprepared food such a produce that went bad, or unopened food items that are past the date on the package and are tossed based on the faulty assumption that the food is no longer good or even safe to consume.

Misunderstood dates

Dates on food packages such as sell-by, use-by and best-by are not terms that represent safety or even food expiration. The only food product that has a true expiration or use-by date, as required by law, is infant formula. For all other cases, food manufacturers add the dates voluntarily and it is related to food quality or freshness.

Sell-by dates are often found on fresh foods such as meats and poultry, dairy products like milk and yogurt, and eggs. This is related to freshness in its unopened state. It is not an expiration date or related to food safety. For example, milk that is near or even a day or two after the sell-by date on the carton, as long as it is unopened, it is still fine to use. However, once it is opened, the date is no longer relevant. Use it within 4-7 days of being opened. The date on the carton is a guideline. Milk can spoil before that date if it has been opened for a while or was not properly stored. It can also be just fine if it is opened after the date on the carton if it is properly stored (below 40 degrees).

Use-by and best-by dates are what the manufacturer has deemed as the best time for flavor, quality or peak freshness for a food. It does not mean that the food is no longer good or safe. With packaged foods such as canned goods, or sealed dried foods like rice or pasta, the dates are guidelines. In most cases foods in sealed packages are fine for months, even years following this date.

While people may think condiments such as pickles or jams can last indefinitely in the fridge, that isn’t true. For condiments from ketchup to bottled salad dressing, most of them should be used or tossed if they have been open for over a year.

When in doubt, throw it out

Once food is prepared or opened, dates no longer matter. But days do. It doesn’t matter what the date on the package said, once a food is opened there is a definite timeline in which the item will no longer be safe.

Two things that are not acceptable in determining whether a food is still safe to eat: when you have to ask someone to “smell this and tell me what you think” and “you can just cut out the mold and still eat it.” If you enjoy gambling, great. Just don’t do it in the kitchen.

Mold can be present even if you don’t see it. Just because you can cut around the blue-black fuzz on the block of cheese, doesn’t mean the rest is okay. If there is mold on one part of the food, whether it is bread or cheese or whatever that was in that container, there is likely invisible mold throughout the food, and it is no longer safe.

The term “when in doubt, throw it out” is a food safety mantra we use to reduce the risk of food poisoning. When it comes to leftovers here is my rule: if you can’t tell what it is, call in a HAZMAT team. More realistically, if you can’t remember when you had it, then it probably should go. The guideline is to use leftover food within four days.

Remember this by recalling that Thanksgiving leftovers should be used up by the Monday after. This is true year-round, but an easy way to remember how many days you have to use up leftovers.

Clean out the kitchen

I encourage people to do a weekly “clean out” of fresh foods and leftovers from the refrigerator. This could be the day before you do your grocery shopping or the day before trash day. Definitely do it before you have to hunt for the source of the “smell” or have to toss and entire food container because what’s inside is just too frightening.

Do an annual or biannual pantry clean out. Check the dates for foods with dates from the past. If the item has been in there this long, are you’re really going to eat it now? Again, it isn’t a food safety concern, but considering the reality of whether it will ever be used. This is a yes or no question. If yes, then use it in the next week or two. If no, don’t throw it away, but donate it to the food bank. Or use it for the white elephant gift exchange.

The USDA FoodKeeper app helps maximize food freshness and ideal storage time. Use it when you are doing your clean outs and let yourself know how long you can realistically keep food. Look for it in your app store or search for USDA FoodKeeper in your favorite search engine.

Shelley Rael, MS RDN LD is a registered dietitian nutritionist in Albuquerque and can often be found discovering new food and drink experiences in New Mexico and beyond. She is the author of “The One-Pot Weight Loss Plan” being released December 3 and now available for pre-order on You can more about her at