Here’s Why Food Expiration Dates Don’t Matter As Much as You Think

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.

Eggs Eggs usually come with a sell-by date, but they’re safe to use for 3-4 weeks past this date. If you’re worried about your egg’s freshness, try the float test.
Chicken Chicken is one of those things you should eat quickly after you purchase, no matter the cut. It should remain good for a day or two past the expiry date, but if you’re worried, look out for these signs that your chicken has gone bad.
Rice Rice is one of those foods that you might not know has an expiration date! However, uncooked rice can have a shelf life of years depending on the variety. White rice will last 4-5 years past the printed date, while wild rice and brown rice will last 6-8 months past the date.
Milk Opened milk will last anywhere between 4-7 days in the fridge past the expiration date, depending on the variety. If unopened, how long your milk lasts depends on the type.
Meat Fresh meats like pork and beef, whether ground or not, will last for 1-2 days in the fridge past the printed date. They may last up to 3-4 days in sausage form. If you want to extend their life, cook the meat—this can make it last for up to 7 days in the fridge—or throw it in the freezer, where it can last 6-8 months.
Condiments It depends on the condiment, but most have a surprisingly flexible shelf life that can go far past the expiry date. Ketchup and mustard, for example, can last for up to two years unopened and for a year after they’re opened. This is how long your condiments really last.
Butter Butter can be kept around for a while—it’ll last for up to a month after the printed date if unopened in the fridge, up to 2 weeks after it’s opened, and can be kept in the freezer for 6-9 months.
Pasta Dry pasta, which most of us are likely to have in the pantry, will last for 1-2 years past the printed date, and will then start to lose quality. However, if you grab fresh pasta, it’ll only last for 4-5 days in the fridge.

How long does canned food last?

According to the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), canned food can last indefinitely as long as the cans aren’t dented, rusted or swollen. Expiration dates on canned goods are more an indication of quality rather than safety. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind: high acid foods like tomatoes and other fruits will keep their best quality for up to 18 months if canned, while lower acid foods like meats and other vegetables will keep their best quality for 2-5 years.

How long can frozen food last?

Much like canned goods, frozen food can last indefinitely, according to FoodSafety.gov. Any printed dates on frozen food are, again, an indication of how long the food will be at its best quality.

How to Tell If Food Has Gone Bad

Expiry dates, sell-by dates or use-by dates are a guideline rather than a rule. Use your best judgment and your senses to determine whether or not food should be tossed.

Instead of looking at the date, look at the actual food. Does the color look right? Is the odor funky? Has the texture changed? Knowing what food is supposed to look, smell and feel like is a life skill we all should know. It will stop you from eating food that’s gone bad and it will prevent you from tossing food too early. Here’s how to identify spoiled food.

How to Prevent Food Waste

Food waste can affect your budget and drive up expenses, and it’s generally bad for the planet. Luckily, there’s plenty of ways to make sure that you use up your fresh food (and leftovers) in time.

Store ’em properly

It’s important to store everything according to its needs. Make sure perishable items are stored properly in the fridge and that shelf-stable items aren’t exposed to conditions that might result in denting or rusting. These products will help reduce food waste at home.

Check your temperatures

Always make sure your fridge temperature is set to 40°F and your freezer is set to 0°. Temperatures that go too far above or below these can affect the quality of your food.

Freeze or pickle food

Freezing food is a great way to extend its life—just make sure you do it the right way! Vegetables can also be turned into pickles to keep them from going bad.

Reuse leftovers

You can turn leftovers into soup or another meal! This will make sure you’re using up the oldest food in your fridge before you get started on new dishes. You’ll also never have to toss leftovers! Here are other tips for making sure you don’t have to throw food away.

Make These Ground Beef Recipes Before Your Meat Goes Bad
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Emily Racette Parulski
Emily Racette Parulski is a Senior Editor for Taste of Home, specializing in email newsletters. When she’s not writing about food, she’s baking something sweet to feed her chocolate obsession.