Are Old & Stale Food and Groceries Safe to Eat?

Lately, our family has been stretching the grocery budget by visiting day old bread stores and grocery thrift markets. These after market stores sell foods that are past the “Best By’ or “sell by” dates at incredible discounts, which can save a huge chunk of cash for a family feeling the squeeze of a smaller paycheck.

While some people are grossed out at the very idea of eating “expired” food, most foods are produced with the idea of lasting much longer than the date that’s printed on the box.

What do the dates mean?

All boxed goods and bread products have dates printed somewhere on the package. The dates are usually found on the top or bottom flap of most packaged foods and are either imprinted or stamped in black ink. On loaves of bread or bakery products, the date is either printed on the tie or is somewhere on the bag, near the label.

These dates do not refer to a throw away date, but rather refer to the “Best By” date meaning that they are at their peak freshness and flavor until then. Once the food passes the “Best By” date, food quality slowly diminishes. This doesn’t mean that expired boxed food has suddenly become poisonous or anything, it just means that cereal that is 6 months past the “Best By” date is not quite as crispy or fresh as a some that’s a little less old.

pile of cardboard boxes

How long is expired food safe to eat?

Cereal manufacturers place the actual expiration date of their cereal as roughly 3 months past the “Best By” Date. Cereal that’s older than that tends to be a little dryer and crunchier, though certainly will taste the same.

As far as those boxed mixes, these usually have an additional shelf life that’s one year past the “Best By” date. After that period, food quality starts to decline. Boxed cake, pancake and bread mixes especially have a problem in that the leavening agents will not rise as high. And like the cereal, food items such as Hamburger Helper type products, pasta, rice mixes, and other prefab mixes also become just a little less flavorful. If your food item is one year past the “best by” date, then it’s time to toss it.

Fresh bread is a little more unpredictable. I’ve had certain types of bread turn stale 24 hours after the “pull by” date with others last almost 2 weeks after the expiration date. A visual inspection of the product is the key here. If it’s moldy, throw it out! If it’s not, then its probably fine.

What dangers are there in expired boxed food?

Aside from being just a little bit stale, the biggest issue in eating boxed food mixes that are past the “Best By” date is the potential of infestation by pests.

Weevil eggs are naturally occurring in all flour products, and after a period of dormancy will hatch and spread to other foods on a grocery shelf. Once weevils have hatched in a bag of flour, they burrow out of the bags leaving tiny holes in their wake. If the food product you have purchased doesn’t have a tiny hole or two at the bottom, then it most likely hasn’t been contaminated with weevils and is fine to eat.

Also to avoid are boxed food items that have been dented, soiled, or ruined by water. These items are at a higher risk for food contamination and should be thrown out instead.

If you have more questions about expiration dates, this article may help. You can also call the 1-800 customer service number printed on all boxes of food. The customer service reps know exactly how long their products are fine to eat and can tell you with certainty when it’s time to toss them in the garbage can.

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