Understanding Expiration Dates

Illustration of paper grocery bag with a jar of food and a carton of milk
Expiration date on the bottom of a can

When you have canned goods and food items in your house that have expiration dates on them, it doesn’t mean you have to throw them out immediately. Most of these items are still good even beyond the expiration dates posted on them. Here is a guideline to let you know how long your food items will really last.


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires a “use by” date on many products. Over time foods lose their nutritional value or become stale, so the “use by” dates are a guideline to let us know when the best time frames are for consumption of our goods before they spoil or become rotten. While the “use by” dates and expiration dates are handy, many goods, such as canned or bottled goods, are typically safe for consumption even years after “expiring,” as long as the container is intact and not damaged (bottle lids have not popped up; cans have not bowed out).


Note: Baby formula is the only exception and is not considered safe after the “use by” date.


Guaranteed Fresh Date
This usually refers to bakery items. They will still be edible after the date but will not be at peak freshness.


Sell By Date
The labeling “sell by” tells the store how long to display the product for sale. This is a guide for the retailer and is not mandatory. The issue is the quality of the item (freshness, taste, and consistency) rather than whether it is on the verge of spoiling. The “sell by” date is the last day the item is at its highest level of quality, but it will still be edible for some time after.


Use By Date
This is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product. It is still safe to eat past this date.


Best if Used By or Before Date
This refers strictly to quality, not safety. This date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.


Packing/Manufacturing Date
This is the date used by the manufacturer for tracking purposes. It is not an expiration date, nor does it relate to food quality of safety.


How Long Is It Good for After the Date?
This is a general guideline. Check foods for an off odor, flavor, or texture to determine any spoilage.

Common Expiration Dates

1 year

Items that are good for up to one year after the date:

  • Packaged food (cereal, pasta, dried beans and legumes, baking mixes, etc.)
  • Frozen food
  • Canned goods (soup, condiments, meat, fruit, and vegetables)

7 days

Items that are good for up to 30 days after the date:

  • Butter
  • Cheese
  • Eggs

30 days

Items that are good for up to seven days after the date:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cream cheese