Expiration Dates and What They Really Mean

Every few months, Sarah and I clean out our pantry and cupboards. We pull out absolutely every item in there, sort them into sensible groups, make sure everything in there is still good, and put the good items back in there in a sensible fashion. Usually, at the same time, we make a bunch of meal plans for the next few weeks to use up some of the items that have been there for a while.

The thing is, you’ll often find us putting items back in the cupboard that have dates on them that have already passed.

This doesn’t mean that we eat a bunch of spoiled food. It’s simply a recognition of the reality of dates printed on containers and cans and boxes: those dates actually have a whole lot of different meanings, and there’s no real standard for those meanings.

Of course, this means that not understanding the actual meaning of the dates on your containers can result in a lot of perfectly good food thrown away. If you just chuck everything that has a date on it that has already passed, I’m certain that you’re going to throw away some perfectly good food items, simply because those dates don’t mean “expiration” in any way.

Let’s dig into what’s actually going on here so you can avoid throwing away perfectly good food items in the future.

There is no legal standard for food product dating (outside of baby formula).

From the USDA’s own FAQ on food product dating:

Except for infant formula, product dating is not required by federal regulations.

Furthermore, the reasoning behind dates on food packaging is entirely up to the manufacturer (except for infant formula):

Manufacturers provide dating to help consumers and retailers decide when food is of best quality. Except for infant formula, dates are not an indicator of the product’s safety and are not required by federal law.

In other words, manufacturers put dates on products simply as guidance for customers and for retailers to determine when a particular product is “of best quality.”

“Of best quality” can have a lot of different meanings, of course, and that’s the problem. One manufacturer might interpret “of best quality” as meaning “the date by which the product is pretty certainly still edible,” or it might mean “the date by which the product is pretty certainly still very close to the texture and flavor that the manufacturer intended,” or some other meaning entirely.

Essentially, doesn’t that mean that food past whatever date is on the package is bad? Not really. Again, from that FAQ:

The quality of perishable products may deteriorate after the date passes; however, such products should still be safe if handled properly. Consumers must evaluate the quality of the product prior to its consumption to determine if the product shows signs of spoilage.

In other words, most sealed items in your pantry should be perfectly edible indefinitely. The only issue you might come across is that, over time, it may have become softer or less carbonated, and the date is a ballpark indication as to when that might begin to happen. It is up to you to judge the quality of the contents of the item.

This doesn’t mean the dates are useless, but it does mean that you have to use them for what they actually mean.

Dates on packages don’t always mean the same thing.

To complicate things further, dates are put on packages for a number of different reasons, with different meanings behind them. Let’s look at a few of those.

“Sell By” is guidance to the stores. It gives them guidance as to what date they should remove products from the shelves. Often, that date is part of an agreement between the store and the manufacturer to ensure that the store keeps buying more goods to put on the shelves. That product is going to be perfectly good at home for months (or years) afterwards and has little actual meaning for you.

“Best If Used By” (sometimes called “Best If Used Before” or “Use By”) means that the manufacturer is claiming to you that the product is going to be of peak quality if it’s used by that date. That doesn’t mean that the product is unsafe or even much different in quality past that date, particularly if it’s within a few weeks or months. Don’t throw something out the second it’s past the “Best If Used By” date.

Coded dates with no description often appear on packages indicating the date they’re manufactured. The only way to use this as any kind of “best if used by” date is to do online research and figure out how long goods of this type last in their original packaging. If you see an unlabeled date, or a date with a code you can’t interpret, this is what it means.

So, in the end, the only date with any meaning for you, the person with a food item in the cupboard, is the “Best If Used By” date, and it’s just a manufacturer’s estimate as to when a product will be of the highest quality and has little to do with actual food safety, and many products are completely fine well after that “Best If Used By” date. In other words, food dating is not quite a hoax, but it doesn’t have the deep meaning that many assign to it.

The truth is that you should really be responsible for examining food and deciding if it’s OK to eat on your own and not just rely on a date on the package. That’s because sometimes items will no longer be edible well before the date on the package, and other items will be great well after the date on the package.

So, why pay any attention to the dates at all?

Here’s why those dates do actually matter.

First of all, they provide good guidance as to when you should give items a closer look. While I check anything that I open, if I notice an item that’s past the “Best If Used By” date, I inspect it a little more carefully. Does it smell right? Does it look like I expect? Are there any unexpected bubbles? Did the package expand outward? If it doesn’t pass those kinds of inspections, I toss it. My examination is just a little more robust past the “Best If Used By” date. (I’ll get more into examining food in a bit.)

Second, the closer you are to a “Sell By” or “Best If Used By” date (or the further past it you are), the sooner you should try to use up that item. If I find something in the pantry or cupboards that’s near the date on the package, I try to use it within the next week or two. I don’t throw away something that’s shortly past the date, but I do make it a real priority to include that item in my upcoming meal plan.

Finally, you shouldn’t be wary of items that are near their “Sell By” date provided you’re going to use them quickly. Again, a “Sell By” date is really only about the manufacturer and the retailer, not about you. Stores are selling them to get them off the shelves, often because of their agreement with the manufacturer.

Here are some practical steps for using dates on packaging in a smart way.

How can you use all of this information to make smarter choices with your food products? Here are some strategies that my family follows that are in line with this information.

1. Use an item shortly after it passes the “Use By” date.

It becomes a required part of our meal planning for the next few weeks so that it gets used up. For example, we recently found a can of evaporated milk close to the date on the package. We made it a point to use it for this amazing 3-ingredient stovetop mac and cheese within a few days.

2. If there is a sale on an item because it’s close to the “Sell By” date, buy it with the intent of using it quickly.

I’ll sometimes see situations where, for example, a store is selling a salad kit for $1 because it’s very near the “Sell By” date. I’ll buy it with the intent of using it that very night for a dinner salad.

If you do this, remember that you’re going to want to use that stuff quickly, and that might mean adjusting your meal plans. I have found “Sell By” items in the store, bought several, and then readjusted my meal plan a bit around those items, sometimes stretching the days between necessary grocery store visits by quite a few days.

3. If an item is refrigerated, freeze it or use it up by the date on the package.

This is because an item might be fine in the fridge one day and pass the sniff test, but then go bad within a day or two. This is particularly true for meat, which I don’t leave uncooked in the fridge for more than two days. If it’s going to be in there for longer than that, then I freeze it without question.

4. Use your best judgment when determining safe food.

Here’s how I generally do it.

My main tool is my nose. If I open something and it smells spoiled at all, we don’t use it. I use my nose to check pretty much everything that I open for use, whether it’s from the fridge or the pantry, whether it’s been opened before or not, and if anything isn’t exactly as I expect, I’m almost always not going to use it.

I also use my eyes. I look for discoloration. I look for spots. I look for clumps. I look for any package bulging. I look for any rust. I look for unexpected dents. I look for any leaks. If I see anything that doesn’t look right, again, I don’t use it.

I trust my eyes and my nose much more than I trust the dates printed on the package because there are lots of reasons for those dates that have little to do with food quality or food safety.

5. Food can go bad before any dates on the label.

I’ve witnessed containers of milk with more than a week before the date on the package go bad without even having been opened. I’ve opened cans of soup before with a long time until the Best If Used By date and find that it’s gone bad. My eyes and my nose are my keys to trusting food, not a number on a can.

6. Convenience foods shortly past their “Best If Used By” dates are usually perfectly fine.

A few years ago, for example, I got a really nice deal on a huge quantity of canned soups — Campbell’s Yes! soups if you’re curious. I’d describe them as “better for you than a lot of canned soups and reasonably tasty,” but not super-healthy. They work in a pinch as a cheap lunch if there aren’t any leftovers around.

I picked up so many of the cans that, eventually, their “Best If Used By” rolled around and went by before they had been used up. Still, I just kept eating them until several months past that date, just inspecting each can, and I found that they were still perfectly fine all the way until the last can ran out, and the only “bad” can I found in the whole batch was before the “Best If Used By” date.

My point is this: if you’re eating canned or jarred food that’s stable at room temperature and still sealed, it’s probably going to be perfectly fine well past the “Best If Used By” date. Don’t toss a can of soup or a jar of pickles just because it’s a little past the date — just aim to eat it soon.

7. It’s OK to get rid of food that’s still perfectly edible but the texture has degraded.

I have opened up food items both before and past their date where the food inside smelled fine and looked fine but was mushier than I expected. The food was still edible but it would have made for a miserable lunch or caused the recipe to end up badly.

In those situations, it’s OK to toss it anyway. There’s no need to eat food in which the texture has degraded to the point where it’s unpleasant to eat it. The important part is that you at least check the food before tossing it. Don’t just toss a can of soup because of the date on the side — open it up and see if it’s OK first, and if it is, then you have lunch!

A little more thoughtfulness and care with your food can go a long way!

The real take-home lesson from all of this is simple: the date on a food package is useful, but it’s one piece of information; your eyes and nose are more important. Be thoughtful with your food. Examine your food before eating it, regardless of what the date says. Don’t just assume that a food item is bad because it’s past the “Best If Used By” date, especially since that date is legally meaningless.

The more in touch you are with the state of your food, the more likely you are to not toss perfectly good food and to be able to take advantage of smart sales in the store. This will cause you to waste less food and, over time, that will have a real positive impact on your food spending.

Good luck!

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