Knowing how to understand expiration dates can save you a small fortune since you won’t feel the need to replace things just because a date on the package tells you to. On the other hand, you may be horrified at how many things you’ve thrown out based on a relatively meaningless date stamp.
How To Understand Expiration Dates
Did you know the FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to put “use by” or “best by” dates on food packaging? In fact, the only requirement is that food being 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 infant formula, since its potency degrades over time.
All other dates are regulated by state law, with each state having its own interpretation. One state may declare that milk must be sold before it’s “Sell by” date while the neighboring state says it can be sold later, so long as it’s still fresh. You can find out more about food expiration dates at EatByDate.com and StillTasty.
So what do they mean?
In general, the dates you see printed on food packaging were set by food manufacturers. What the dates mean depends on how they’re used.
“Sell by” dates inform stores how long they can display a product for sale.
“Best by” or “Best if used by” dates reflect that, based on the manufacturer’s research, the product will lose its freshness or begin to change after that date. Artificial colors may begin to fade, for instance, or liquid ingredients may begin to separate.
“Use by” and “Expires after” dates, which are also based on manufacturer research, warn consumers that the product may not be as effective after that date.
Which doesn’t mean they’re meaningless!
So that package of ground beef you picked up three days ago says today is the “sell by” date. You’re safe waiting until the weekend to use it, right? Not necessarily, since the dates on food packaging have nothing to do with food safety.
Remember, the “sell by” date is a directive to the store, not the consumer. Regardless of the “sell by” date you should cook or freeze raw ground beef within 1-2 days of bringing it home. Why? Because home refrigerators are not as consistently cool as commercial ones, and bacteria breeds in variable temps.
How long food stays good after package date
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: 1-2 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: 5-10 days (see this list to extend)
Fresh poultry: 1-2 days fridge, 1 year freezer
Fresh fish: 1-2 days fridge, 6-9 months freezer
Fresh meat (ground or unground): 1-2 days fridge, 6-8 months freezer
Frozen fruits and vegetables: 1 year unopened, 1 month opened
Frozen meals: 1 year
Ham, cured: 1 week (bone removed) fridge, 6-8 months freezer
Herbs: 1-2 years dried, 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, 5-6 days opened
Mayonnaise: 1 week unopened pantry, 1 month opened fridge
Mustard: 1-2 years unopened pantry, 1 year opened fridge
Milk: 5-7 days after printed date
Oatmeal: Instant, pantry 1-2 years; all others, pantry 2-3 years
Oils: Corn, canola, peanut, olive, coconut: 1 year pantry, 1 year after opening. Fancy oils: 4-6 months in fridge.
Olives: 1-2 years pantry, 3-4 months opened fridge
Peanut butter: Commercial 1 year open/unopened; Natural 4 months open/unopened
Pickles: 1-2 years pantry unopened, 1-2 years fridge opened
Popcorn: Plain, indefinitely; microwave, unpopped 6-8 months pantry
Rice: White, 4-5 years uncooked pantry; brown, 6-8 months uncooked pantry
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
Sour cream: 1-2 weeks unopened, 1 week opened
Spices: 1-2 years dried, 2-3 years ground, 4 years whole
Sugar: Indefinitely (powders are best within 2 years)
Tea (bag or loose leaves): 6-12 months pantry, 1 year freezer
Tuna: 2-5 years pantry unopened, 5 days opened in fridge
Yogurt: 1-2 weeks unopened fridge, 1 week opened fridge, 1 month (open or unopened) freezer
Even following these general guidelines you should always inspect food before consumption. Look to make sure there’s no visible mold or pests, and give it a sniff for freshness. And remember, when in doubt throw it out!