Emily Racette ParulskiEmily Racette ParulskiUpdated: Aug. 16, 2022

woman Checking Expiration Dates on a jar in her kitchen at homeMAPODILE/GETTY IMAGES

Food expiration dates may not be as set in stone as you think.

I used to take food expiration dates very seriously. I froze ground beef before the “Use By” date and if my milk’s “Best If Used By” date was yesterday, I’d toss it. The boxed stuffing mix that expired last month? In the garbage. But after researching the different types of “expiration” labels, I learned that food actually lasts longer than I thought.

How to Read Food Expiration Dates

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food expiration dates refer to food quality, not food safety. Federal regulations do not require that expiration dates be put on meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, cans and boxed foods—though baby formula is the only product that requires an expiration date. They are added as a helpful guide to consumers and retailers. Here are the three most common labels:

  • Best if Used By – This date suggests when a product will be at peak quality. It will still be safe to consume after that date, but the flavor and texture quality will start to go down. You’ll probably find this on shelf stable items like canned goods, dry goods and condiments.
  • Use By – This date is usually found on more perishable items, like meat. It’s still okay to consume the product for a short period after the date, but don’t wait too long.
  • Sell By – This date tells retailers when the product should be off the shelves. Sales are one way grocery stores try to get older inventory into consumers’ carts, and it’s usually pretty effective. You’ll likely find this on refrigerated products, which the store will want to get off shelves well before they might spoil.

“Use by” dates are a great guide for people like you and me, but it comes at a price. A USDA report states that Americans waste about 30% of food every year. Part of that is because we follow expiration dates too closely and end up throwing out perfectly good food. It’s such a shame. Luckily, we can change.

How Long Are Foods Good For After the Expiration Date?

There are some foods you can keep past their expiration date, and then there are foods you absolutely shouldn’t keep after they expire. Even if you can keep them past the expiration date, the duration for which they’re safe can vary. Here are some of the common ones you need to know about.

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