With the holidays around the corner, you’re probably making your grocery list for the big feast. While checking your cupboards for supplies, you find a bag of stuffing mix, but the “best by” date on the package was in October. Is it still safe to use for your Thanksgiving dinner? Surprisingly, yes. In most cases, eating food that has been on the shelf—or even in the fridge—past the date on the package won’t put you at high risk for foodborne illness, says Ben Chapman, Ph.D., a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Shelf-stable foods, including most canned and packaged goods, are manufactured to keep germs, air, and moisture (which contribute to spoilage) out, but deeply dented, leaking or bulging cans or those that spurt out liquid upon opening should be discarded. Packaged products, such as crackers, could have mold or bugs but usually just turn stale.  

Rather than relying on package dates as a guard against food poisoning, it’s more important to make the right moves in the kitchen. Use these five smart kitchen safety tips, during the holidays and throughout the year. 

1. Watch Out For Mold

Some types cause allergies or respiratory problems; others can produce mycotoxins that can make you sick. Even if the mold is in one spot, discard the food. (Skip the sniff test; certain spores can be inhaled.) There are some exceptions. Surface mold on hard salami and dry-cured country hams can be scrubbed off. Also, for hard cheeses (such as cheddar and Parmesan), firm vegetables (such as bell peppers and carrots), and cheeses made with mold (such as Gorgonzola), you can cut off the mold and about an inch around it and use the rest of the food. 

2. Know How To Battle the Bad Bugs

Keep raw meat cold (37° F or colder) and cooked meat warm (140° F or warmer) to prevent bacterial growth. Defrost meat in the fridge, cook thoroughly, and refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours. Don’t let raw meat or its juices touch other foods, and wash your hands, cutting boards, and utensils in warm, soapy water.

3. Use a Meat Thermometer

Tricks such as wiggling the turkey leg, checking the color of roast beef, and piercing chicken with a fork to see whether the juices run clear are unreliable. You need to be sure that meat has reached a safe temperature: 145° F for beef roasts, pork roasts, and fresh ham (140° F for precooked hams that you reheat), and 165° F for chicken and turkey. 

4. Consider Avoiding Certain Foods

“Refrigeration slows the growth of most pathogens, such as E. coli, norovirus, or salmonella, but not listeria,” Chapman says. Deli meat is a top source of listeria. The meat may not contain enough of the bacteria to make you sick when you first buy it, but the bacteria multiply with time, so you want to eat it within a few days. Older adults, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are more susceptible to listeria infection, and the USDA recommends that they avoid eating deli meats and hot dogs unless those foods first reach a temperature of 165° F. Ready-to-eat refrigerated foods, smoked seafood, pâtés, meat spreads, and blue-veined and soft cheeses such as Brie, feta, and queso fresco are also risky.  

5. Use Your Eyes and Nose

Regardless of the package date, avoid food that’s obviously spoiled. If your eyesight or sense of smell can’t be trusted, have a friend or family member check out the food for you, or simply discard it when you’re in doubt. Never taste a food that you suspect has gone bad.