Expiration Dates on Food – What do they Mean?

By: Julie Tredway, RD, CD PRO Medical Registered Dietitian

The lines at warehouse clubs and grocery stores have been LONG! With the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 it has made many of us stock up on food so that our refrigerators, freezers and pantries are bursting. The goal is to consume all of it before it goes bad, but the dates on packages might have us wondering when that is.

One major point to note is that except for infant formula there is no federal regulation that requires food companies put an expiration date on food. The dates on food are determined by the manufacturer and in general refer to food quality and not food safety. To prevent unnecessary food waste, which in normal circumstances is estimated to be at least 20% of food purchased, let’s clarify what those dates mean.

Sell by: This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. If stored properly, these foods can safely be consumed past this date.

Best by: Indicates peak quality or freshness of an item. After this date it does not mean the food is unsafe to eat.

Use by: Consumers should aim to eat product by this date because it means a food item may start to go bad after this date so be more alert to how it looks, smells, feels, etc.

If in doubt always throw a food out, but if food is stored properly it definitely extends the timeframe in which it is safe to eat. Examples of food and how long they tend to last past the date stamped on the package are:

  • Milk: 5 to 10 days
  • Yogurt: 1 to 2 weeks
  • Eggs: 3 to 5 weeks
  • Unopened cereal: 6 to 8 months
  • Dry pasta: 1 to 2 years
  • Canned items: 1+ years

Consider freezing extra food as a way to prevent waste. Freezing preserves food since it prevents bacteria from growing. Some food items that freeze particularly well include: meat, applesauce, butter, grated cheese, cracked eggs, herbs, nuts and cooked rice or pasta. With extra food stored in the freezer it allows you to avoid the grocery store lines a little longer.

Looking to make the most of your grocery store trips? Try our family meal hack that can make three meals from one prep. Or check out our essential pantry guide.

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