Does Cereal Expire? Is It Safe To Eat Cereal After Best By Date?

You just found a box of expired cereal in the cabinet, and you’re not sure what to do. Does cereal expire?

No matter if the bag is your children’s or yours (I eat cereals, too), now is the time to decide how to go about that.

Your first thought was probably to discard it, but then you thought: it’s dry food, can cereal even expire?

And you’re right, almost all cereals last months (if not years) past their dates and don’t ever go bad in the same way milk does. But that doesn’t mean cereal lasts forever and an old box will be just as good a freshly bought one. Far from it.

In this article, we talk about the storage, shelf life, and spoilage of cereal. If you’re ready to finally clean up that cabinet and deal with those old cereal bags, read on.

Cereal bag

Does Cereal Expire? How Long Does Cereal Last?

Breakfast cereals don’t really expire, but they also don’t retain quality forever. A typical unopened bag keeps quality for 6 to 12 months past the date on the label and at least 4 to 6 months after opening. Once you cook your cereal, it lasts for 3 to 4 days in the fridge.

Breakfast cereal doesn’t last forever, but discarding the box if it’s “expired” isn’t a good idea. The “best by” (or “best if used by”) date on the label is not an expiration date and has nothing to do with food safety. It’s only an indicator of approximately how long the product should retain peak quality.

In other words, the product doesn’t just spoil after that date, and even cereal companies acknowledge it. Here’s how Mom’s Best Cereals FAQ page answers the question of whether it’s safe to eat cereal that has passed its date (MBC):

Yes, it is safe, but since the flavor will change as the product ages, we recommend that you purchase a new package.

Mom’s Best Cereals

So, can you eat expired cereal? Yes, as long as there’s nothing wrong with them (I cover signs of spoilage below) and the quality is good enough for you.

Cocoa corn flakes and milk
Cocoa corn flakes and milk

While the 6-12 months period for unopened cereal works for plain ones (like the classics from Cap’n Crunch or Kellogg’s product line), nowadays there are also more fancy breakfast cereals with dried fruit and whatnot.

Those products might not keep quality for such a long time, and that’s why I recommend finishing them within 3 to 6 months of the date on the box. Again, they won’t spoil or anything, but they will (most likely) lose quality faster than plain cereal.

Tip

If you keep cereal in containers and aren’t sure about the dates, check them against the spoilage signs and quality checks in the next section. If they pass all of them, feel free to use them.

PantryFridge
Cereal (plain varieties)Best-by + 6 – 12 months
Cereal with fruit and other extrasBest-by + 3 – 6 months
Cereal (opened)4 – 6 months
Prepared cereal3 – 4 days
Please note that the periods above are only approximate.
Pile of cereals
Plain corn flakes

How To Tell If Cereal Is Bad or Spoiled?

As you already know, the shelf life of cereal is quite long if it’s stored properly. But in certain situations, cereal can go bad. Here’s what to look for:

  • Insects in the package. If the box sat in storage for months, take a look inside and check if there aren’t any insects. Pantry invaders like weevils and whatnot like dry foods, so your cereal is a perfect choice. If the package is infested, get rid of it.
  • Flakes are moldy. If water got its way to the cereal, there would be mold. If that’s the case, again, discard the whole thing.
  • Rancid smell. Whole-grain cereals contain natural oils, and as you probably know, oils tend to go rancid after prolonged storage in less-than-optimal conditions.
  • Anything off in terms of looks and smell. While that’s unlikely, it’s still good to take a close look at the flakes and give them a good old sniff. If anything is wrong, you will know it.
Cereals in a glass bowl
Cereals in a glass bowl

Okay, now that your cereal has passed the “is it safe to eat?” test, it’s time to talk about checking the quality. The thing to remember is that the taste and texture of cereals gradually change for the worse.

If you eat your cereal plain (e.g., with fresh fruit and a glass of milk), the latter is probably quite important to you. So if yours went from pleasantly crisp and crunchy to somewhat limp, perhaps it’s time for them to go.

If you’re more like me, on the other hand, and like to soak your cereal in milk until it’s soft, you probably won’t mind that texture alteration that much.

Info

Is stale cereal bad for you? No. The only real issue with stale cereal is that they might not taste that great. Consider giving it a try and discard the box only if the taste isn’t acceptable anymore.

Last but not least, taste. When it comes to testing that quality, all you need to do is to grab a couple of flakes and eat them raw. If the flavor is alright, feel free to use them. Otherwise, you know what to do with them.

Cocoa corn flakes
Cocoa corn flakes

How To Store Cereal

Store cereal in a cool and dry place, away from sunlight. Once you open the bag or box, keep the cereal sealed tightly. When it comes to prepared cereal, its place is in the fridge in an airtight container.

As you can tell, the rules above are pretty similar to storage practices for oatmeal.

You can keep your Cheerios (or what have you) in their original boxes or packaging, or go with fancy cereal containers. The latter is a better option if you keep them in a place that’s not exactly dry (e.g., you live in the tropics), or you like to have all the varieties organized for the kids.

Cereal bag sealed with a sealing clip
Cereal bag sealed with a sealing clip
Tip

It’s best to keep cereals that come with dried fruit (like granola) in an airtight container. If that’s your favorite variety, consider buying a cereal dispenser, or a plastic container, to keep them sealed well. This way, the fruit won’t completely dry out and will retain freshness for longer.

If you already prepared or cooked the cereal, and have leftovers, refrigerate them in a closed container.

Bowl of cereal
Bowl of cereal

Sources