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What Food Expiration Dates Really Mean

Marinades that expired two years ago, a half-empty salad dressing bottle, special ingredients you needed for that one dish you made about six months ago: We all have foods lurking in our fridges and pantries that may not be so fresh. Even as a dietitian, I need to remind myself how to safely use and store fresh and shelf-stable foods.

What do those food expiration dates really mean?

You may be surprised to know that dates are actually only required by federal law on baby formula. That said, most states have their own laws that require foods to be stamped with an open date (calendar date) along with a definition. Let's start with a review of what those dates mean. From the USDA:

Sell By: This date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires (and stores should not sell it after this date).

Best if Used By (or Before): This is the date recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.

Use By: The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. This date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.

If you're looking for a deal at the store, buy items close to the "sell by" date because they need to get these items off their shelves. If quality is your primary concern, then go with the "best if used by" date. But if safety is your top concern, then use the "use by" date as your guideline. Here are a few examples of foods and what their expiration and sell-by dates mean to you:

Of all of the perishable products in the fridge, eggs can be the most confusing. According to the Egg Safety Center, eggs can be eaten for four to five weeks past the pack date, which will be written numerically using 001 (January 1) to 365 (December 31) and found on the short side of USDA-Grade egg cartons. An expiration date may also be stamped on the carton, which is the date that the eggs need to be sold by, though they can still be eaten past this date.

The USDA stresses the importance of safely storing eggs in the coldest place in your refrigerator (not the door!) and notes that then we can safely consume eggs within three to five weeks of the date purchased, regardless of the "sell by" date.

Sauces and Condiments
Jams, ketchup, syrups and other condiments easily end up sticking around (no pun intended) in your pantry and fridge for weeks (if not months). How long are they good for? That depends on the sugar content and other ingredients. Some may last for as little as four weeks, while others can be stored for up to six months.

Meats and Poultry
FoodSafety.gov provides a guide to storing food in your refrigerator as well as how long you can freeze uncooked meats. You may be surprised at how short the freshness window is for some common foods:

Ground meats: one to two days in the fridge; one to two months in the freezer.
Fresh steaks: three to five days in the fridge; six to 12 months in the freezer.
Fresh poultry: one to two days in the fridge; nine to 12 months in the freezer.
Deli meat: three to 14 days in the fridge; one to two months in the freezer.

A well-organized kitchen is what you need before you waste another dollar on food you won't finish (or even open). Use these strategies to ensure older items are used first and that you don't buy products you already have. Also: Before freezing food, label and date it so you know when you can eat it and when you should toss it.

Now that you know your dates and how to store your food, you’re on your way to a safer (and fresher) kitchen!


Readers -- What do you find the most confusing about food expiration dates? How much food do you throw out every month because the expiration date has passed? Do you ever eat foods that are past their expiration or sell-by dates? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Allison Stowell, M.S., RD, CDN, is the registered dietitian for the Guiding Stars Licensing Company, a company devoted to helping you find the good, better and best choices at the supermarket. A working mom of two, Allison enables individuals to make positive, sustainable changes in eating habits by stressing conscious eating, improving relationships with food and offering a non-diet approach for reaching and maintaining an ideal body weight.

Visit her blog to read more, and connect with Allison on Twitter.

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