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How to Understand Food Expiration Dates at the Grocery Store

Don't feel hemmed in by "use by" and "sell by" dates. Find out what you can still eat after the stamped-on date, and how long you can wait before you toss it.


  • Step 1: Don’t be intimidated Don't let expiration dates intimidate you. They are often suggestions that have more to do with quality than safety.
  • Step 2: Decipher the labels Decipher the labels: Foods marked "sell by" remain good for several days past that date. "Use by" indicates the date the item will begin to lose freshness. Normally, food remains safe to eat a few days past then; it just might not taste as good. "Best if used by" is exactly what it says.
  • TIP: Use your nose, and your brain. If food looks, smells, or tastes funny, throw it out.
  • Step 3: Milk it You can generally drink milk for several days after the date on the carton, and eat yogurt for a couple of weeks past the stamped date. Just be sure to keep dairy products refrigerated; if left at room temperature for even a few hours, they’ll spoil faster.
  • Step 4: Enjoy eggs for a month Enjoy eggs up to five weeks past the stamped date. To maintain their freshness, leave them in their carton inside the fridge instead of placing them on the refrigerator door, where they will warm up every time you open it.
  • TIP: Test an egg by putting it, whole, into a glass of water. A fresh egg will sink and lie flat on its side; a bad egg will float and stay upright.
  • Step 5: Keep those cans Theoretically, canned goods stay good forever, as long as the seal hasn’t been broken. And, contrary to popular belief, the food in slightly dented cans is fine, as long as the can is not bulging, leaking, or rusting.
  • Step 6: Consume in a timely manner The USDA recommends that you cook or freeze meat, poultry, and fish within two days of purchase, no matter what the date on the package says.
  • Step 7: Know a food’s freezer life Know a food’s freezer life. Beef, lamb, veal, pork, and poultry are good for one year after freezing, but ground meat should be eaten within four months. Lean fishes like cod and flounder last six months, but fatty fishes like salmon should be cooked within three months. Lunch meats have a freezer life of two months.
  • TIP: Because freezing allows food to keep almost indefinitely, the recommended storage times are for quality only.
  • Step 8: Call the company If you have questions about a food’s expiration date, call the manufacturer. The number usually can be found on the product's packaging.
  • FACT: Under federal law manufacturers are not required to stamp their foods with expiration dates.

You Will Need

  • Sale-date knowledge
  • Common sense
  • A glass of water

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