What Food Expiration Dates Really Mean

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Understanding what food expiration dates mean will help you stop throwing away food that’s still safe to eat, saving you money without risking your health.

Food waste is a big issue in the United States where over half of what we buy gets thrown away. In many cases, we’re tossing out perfectly safe consumables based on packaging labels without understanding what that food expiration date really means.

Confusion about food expiration dates doesn’t just lead to excess waste in the landfill. It often leads to a waste of money, too.

Understanding Food Expiration Dates

Bottom of canned food with a manufacturing and expiration date stamp

With the cost of groceries rising faster than most household incomes, we all need to make our budgets go further than ever before. One way to do this is by understanding food date labeling and product dating, so you can stop throwing away food that’s safe to eat.

Most Expiration Dates Are Not Regulated

Did you know those dates you find on the ends of cans, boxes, tubes, and other packaging aren’t uniformly regulated? They’re not even legally required — the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) simply recommends them.

The only requirement is that food sold must be “wholesome and fit for consumption,” so there’s no law preventing stores from selling food past its expiration date. The only exception to this is baby formula since its nutritional content goes down over time.

Expiration Dates Differ By State

Except for infant formula, food expiration dates are regulated by state law, and states differ on the matter. One state may declare that milk must be sold before it’s “Sell by” date while a store just across the state line is allowed to sell it later, so long as it isn’t spoiled.

As you may imagine, this opens the door to industry lobbying group’s encouraging their state’s safety and inspection services to use stamps reflecting shorter shelf life on certain food products, so their constituents can sell more.

What Do Food Expiration Dates Mean?

Since there are no uniform federal regulations controlling food expiration dates, it’s up to you — the consumer — to know what those packaging dates mean and how long food is safe to eat.

“Sell By” Dates

When a food package bears a “sell by” date, it’s a direction from the manufacturer to the store about how long they can display a product for sale. It is not a time safety date or directive to the consumer at all.

That doesn’t mean the food gets thrown away the day after the “sell by” date. Instead, the store might decide to use the item as an ingredient in custom-made foods, or they might donate it to a local food bank.

For example, you’ve probably never seen bananas turning black in the produce section, and you know how quickly that happens. You don’t see ground beef turned dull brown from oxidation in the meat cooler at your store, either.

Grocery stores would lose money if they tossed such foods out every time that happened. They’re not in business to lose money. Instead, they use those less than visually perfect foods as ingredients. Bananas with spots get used in the store bakery’s banana bread or pudding. Oxidizing ground beef goes into the deli counter’s taco salad or meatloaf.

A “sell by” date doesn’t mean the food has gone bad — it just means it’s not at peak quality, as determined by the manufacturer.

“Best By” or “Best if Used By” Dates

Manufacturers want consumers to have good experiences with their products and to think well of them. When it comes to perishable items, one way they protect their brand’s image is with “best by” or “best if used by” dates.

These dates do not necessarily indicate that the product is spoiled or a potential source of foodborne illness. Instead, they suggest that, based on the manufacturer’s research, the product will lose freshness or begin to change after that date. Artificial colors may fade, for instance, or liquid ingredients may separate.

“Use By” and “Expires After” Dates

The words “use by” or “expires after” on food packaging also don’t mean that the food is unsafe after that date.

As with “best by” dates, these deadlines are chosen by manufacturers to let consumers know the product’s look or taste is almost sure to change if the package has been opened or the food hasn’t been frozen for long-term storage.

How to Make Sure Your Food is Safe to Eat

Here’s how to ensure your food is safe to eat without unnecessarily throwing out stuff and buying replacements.

  1. Know how long food stays good in your refrigerator and freezer, as well as on your pantry shelves. (See below.)
  2. Write your own use-by dates with a permanent marker, using freezer tape for frozen items, or keep a food inventory list.
  3. Plan your weekly menus to use those foods about to expire.
  4. When you bring home groceries, stash new purchases behind what you already have, so you’re using older inventory first.

How Long Food is Safe to Eat

  • Bacon (fresh or cooked): 1 week fridge, 6 months freezer
  • Butter: 1 month fridge, 6 months freezer
  • Bread: 5 days shelf, 1 week fridge, 6 months freezer
  • Canned goods: 3 to 6 years if kept in cool, dark place and undented
  • Cereal: 3-5 months opened, 6-8 months unopened
  • Chocolate: 1 year
  • Cooked beef: 1 week fridge, 6-8 months freezer
  • Cooked poultry: 2-3 days fridge, 1 year freezer
  • Cooked sausage: 7 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer
  • Cottage cheese: 7-10 days unopened in fridge, 5-7 days open in fridge, 3 months frozen
  • Cream: 7-10 days fridge, 2-4 months freezer
  • Cream cheese: 3-4 weeks unopened, 1-2 weeks opened
  • Dried beans: Indefinite
  • Eggs: 3-6 weeks
  • Flours: 6-8 months (self-rising and wheat: 4-6 months)
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables: Varies (see how to save produce to extend freshness)
  • Fresh poultry: 1-2 days fridge, 1 year freezer
  • Fresh fish: 1-2 days fridge, 6-9 months freezer
  • Fresh meat (ground or unground): 1-3 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables: 1 year unopened, 1 month opened in freezer
  • Frozen meals: 1 year
  • Ham, cured: 1 week (bone removed) fridge, 6-8 months freezer
  • Herbs: 1-2 years dried whole, 2-3 years ground
  • Hot dogs: 1 week fridge opened, 2 weeks fridge unopened, 6 months freezer
  • Ice cream: 1-2 months opened, 2-3 months unopened
  • Jam/Jelly: 6-9 months fridge opened, 1 year pantry unopened
  • Juice: Pantry 6-9 months unopened, 5-7 days open in fridge
  • Ketchup: 1-2 years unopened, 1 year opened
  • Lunch meat: Packaged 7-10 days unopened in fridge, 2-3 months unopened in freezer, 5-6 days opened in fridge
  • Mayonnaise: 1 year unopened pantry, 1 month opened fridge
  • Mustard: 1-2 years unopened pantry, 1 year opened fridge
  • Milk: 5-7 days after printed date but give it a sniff test
  • Oatmeal: Instant, pantry 1-2 years; all others, pantry 2-3 years
  • Oils: Corn, canola, peanut, olive, coconut: 1 year unopened pantry, 1 year after opening.
  • Olives: 1-2 years pantry, 3-4 months opened in the fridge
  • Peanut butter: Regular 1 year open/unopened; Natural 4 months open/unopened
  • Pickles: 1-2 years pantry unopened, 1-2 years fridge opened
  • Popcorn: Plain, indefinitely; microwaveable, unpopped 6-8 months pantry
  • Rice: White, 4-5 years uncooked pantry; brown, 6-8 months uncooked pantry, cooked up to 4 days in the fridge, 1 month in a freezer
  • Salad dressings: Creamy (open or unopened) 1-2 months; oil-based (open or unopened) 3-4 months
  • Salsa: 1-2 months pantry unopened, 1-2 months fridge opened
  • Soda: 6-9 months unopened in the fridge, 1 year unopened in a pantry
  • Sour cream: 1-2 weeks unopened, 1 week opened in the fridge
  • Spices: 1-2 years dried, 2-3 years ground, 4 years whole
  • Sugar: Indefinitely
  • Tea (bag or loose leaves): 6-12 months pantry, 1 year freezer
  • Tuna: 2-5 years pantry unopened cans, 5 days opened in the fridge
  • Vinegar: Indefinite
  • Yogurt: 1-2 weeks unopened fridge, 1 week opened fridge, 1 month (open or unopened) freezer

Always inspect food for mold and give it a sniff for freshness. Throw away food that smells “off,” unopened jars or cans with bulging lids, and boxed items that show signs of pests. Finally, use meat and seafood within the times listed above, and cook it to the proper internal temperature.

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3 Comments

  1. Katie Berry says:

    Canned goods are somewhat tricky, Charlene. Commercially canned goods have a date stamped on them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not safe to eat long afterward. As long as the cans aren’t dented or bulging, the high heat process of commercial canning which sterilizes food in the process means they’re safe to eat for a VERY long time. Even properly home-canned foods are, too, if they’re kept in a cool, dark place. How long? Well, this article talks about 80-year-old home-canned sweet corn, and 100+ year old canned oysters, being safe to eat.

    I don’t know that I’d push my luck quite that far but, if it was me, I’d feel fine eating canned food for 5 years or so past the date. You should make your own decision on this, though. 🙂

  2. Sylvia Hanna says:

    Very good to know! Thanks! Will be printing out this article to keep near my refrigerator!

    1. Katie Berry says:

      Great place for it, Sylvia!

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