Still Good? Where Do You Draw the Line on Spoiled Food?

Here's a question we've been pondering for a while: when you're looking down at a container of food that you know is slightly...er...past its prime, how do you determine whether it stays on the dinner menu or needs to get tossed?

We often find the expiration dates printed on packages to be ambiguous or misleading. Some say to "discard by," while others give a "sell-by" date. Still others merely print a date with no information about what that date means. We tend to use the date is a reference point: we don't necessarily throw it out as soon as it hits that date, but we start looking for other signs of spoilage.

Most leftovers can be refrigerated and re-heated for seven days without fear of spoiling. We tend to follow this same rule of thumb for opened containers of things like salsa, cooked beans, cooked rice, and other meal components.

But our ultimate authority on spoilage is usually our nose and our eyes! If it smells funny, looks discolored, or we see visible mold growth anywhere, we usually throw it away. The exceptions here are things like cheese and bread, where we shave off the moldy bits and make a point of using it soon.

Of course, we're average, healthy adults and we're usually not risking much more than a stomach ache or some extra time in the bathroom. If you are elderly, are pregnant or a nursing mother, or have a compromised immune system, however, the consequences can be much more severe. These folks often need to take extra precautions to make sure their food is safe.

We all have different comfort levels on this issue. What's yours?

Related: Condiments and Expiration Dates: Pantry Cleaning Tips

(Image: Emma Christensen)