Your freezer is likely packed with various foods, including vegetables, fruit, ice cream, meat, and prepared foods just waiting to be thawed and cooked.
If you notice that the date on the frozen food package has already passed, you may be wondering if that food is still safe to eat.
The good news is that you can eat frozen food that has passed its expiration date — although in some cases, the flavor, color, or texture may have decreased in quality (1).
This article explains everything you need to know about eating frozen food past the expiration date.
An expiration date is somewhat of a myth. In the United States, manufacturers can include a variety of dates on food products, but the only food that is mandated to include a product date is infant formula.
Here are some types of product dates you might see on your food (2):
- “Best if used by” or “use by”: the date that the product is expected to maintain its highest quality
- “Sell by”: the date that a store should try to sell the product by so that it’s purchased while the food still has top flavor and quality
- “Freeze by”: when a food should be frozen to maintain top flavor and quality
None of these dates are actual expiration dates or indicate that the food will no longer be safe to eat at that time.
Freezing food is an excellent way to maintain the nutritional value, quality, and flavor of many foods (5).
However, if the freezer is opened often and foods are allowed to reach temperatures higher than 0°F, the chances of spoilage increase (5).
While food can safely be eaten past the expiration date, some foods may decrease in quality and flavor after too much time in the freezer.
In the United States, food manufacturers add dates to products to indicate food’s freshness, but labeling regulations vary by country. Freezing food often keeps it safe to eat long after the use-by date.
While food is often safe to eat past its expiration date, that doesn’t mean you’ll want to eat it.
Storing certain foods too long can make them look or taste “off” due to freezer burn or drying out. To avoid food waste, get creative in how you use frozen foods that may have dried out by using them in casseroles, baked dishes, or smoothies (1).
If food has been stored improperly or allowed to reach temperatures above 0°F, it may not be safe to eat, even if the food is not expired. If a food has an “off” or rotten smell after thawing, it’s safest to toss it out (
Here are some steps you can take to make sure your frozen food stays safe:
- Keep a thermometer in your freezer to check that the temperature stays at 0℉.
- Avoid placing warm foods in your freezer. Always cool in the refrigerator before placing cooked items in the freezer.
- Limit the amount you open the freezer.
|Food||Length of Storage|
|Fruits and vegetables||8-12 months|
|Raw eggs (not in shell)||12 months|
|Casseroles and TV dinners||3-4 months|
|Raw or ground beef and pork||3-4 months|
|Whole chicken or turkey||12 months|
|Cured or processed meat (bacon, sausage)||1-2 months|
|Cooked fish||4-6 months|
|Raw steaks or roasts||4-12 months|
Meat, including poultry and fish, maintains quality much longer when frozen raw versus cooked. This is because of the higher moisture content in raw meat. Once cooked, it’s more likely to dry out after being frozen for a longer period of time (
The freezing time of fruits and vegetables varies based on how the food was prepared, packaged, and stored. Some vegetables like cabbage, potatoes, celery, and cucumbers don’t freeze well at all. The high water content makes them mushy once thawed (9).
The amount of time a frozen food will stay safe and maintain quality depends on how the food was prepared, packaged, and stored. The safe temperature for frozen foods is 0℉.
Besides the food itself, the way that the food was prepared, packaged, and stored will also influence how long it will maintain its quality and freshness in the freezer (8).
Preparing, packaging, and storing food correctly keeps it from spoiling quickly by limiting air exposure and the buildup of ice crystals in the food (5).
Blanching vegetables before freezing preserves their nutritional value, color, taste, and texture. To blanch a vegetable, submerge it in boiling water for a short period of time, then quickly placed it in ice-cold water to stop the cooking process (5, 8).
Store food in vapor-resistant, airtight containers or packaging to avoid exposure to air and odors that cause off-flavors in the food (8).
Freeze food as quickly as possible to avoid the build-up of ice crystals that can cause the food to dry out when thawed. Spread food out into an even layer to freeze quickly (5).
The length of time a frozen food can be stored safely depends on proper storage to keep air away from the food and the temperature at or below 0℉.
While food that has been frozen is safe to eat (provided that it was frozen properly and in a quality state), here are some obvious signs that it has lost its quality and may have gone bad:
- Freezer burn. This happens when frozen food has been exposed to air. The food is safe to eat, but may be dry and have an undesirable texture. If only small sections of the food are freezer-burned, you can just cut off the freezer-burned portions and eat the rest (
- Smell. Once thawed, give food a sniff test. If it smells foul, rancid, or otherwise rotten, it’s best to toss it (
- Texture. A mushy or slimy texture is an indicator of spoilage caused by bacteria (11).
- Color. Color is not the only indicator of spoilage since many fresh foods will change in color once frozen. Fading or darkening of a food in addition to changes in smell or texture can indicate spoilage (12).
The texture, color, and smell of a thawed, previously frozen food, can help indicate if that food is safe to eat. When in doubt, throw it out.
The expiration date, or use-by date, on food helps to estimate the expected timeframe that the food will still be at its highest quality. Eating frozen food past the expiration date can be safe, but the food may no longer have the best flavor or texture.
Keeping frozen food at or below 0℉ will help maintain the quality and safety of that food for the longest amount of time.
Be aware of the signs that frozen food isn’t safe to eat. Once thawed, inspect the smell, texture, and color for signs of spoilage.
Just one thing
Try this today: Freezing food is a great way to fight food waste. Check your refrigerator at least once a week for any leftovers, fruits, or vegetables that are close to spoiling, and move them to the freezer.
Freezing food before it goes bad saves you money and keeps food waste out of the landfill.