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Why You Shouldn’t Live by the Term "Expiration Date"



Many of us regularly check the dates on our food products to determine if they should stay in the fridge or pantry, or get chucked. However, if you find food labels to be a bit confusing, you aren’t alone. The truth is that there are no universally accepted dating descriptions, and so there’s a variety of dating terminology used on our food products. 

Though expiration dates can be useful for consumers, many of us don’t realize that commonly used food dating phrases indicate when a product has reached its best flavor or quality — not when it can no longer be safely consumed. In fact, research has found that 20 percent of consumer food waste is caused by date labeling confusion. 

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Expiration Dates as Guidelines, Not Hard Rules

Most food products can be kept past their dates if they are handled properly, so resist the urge to toss out expired food without checking to see if it’s still perfectly good.  Here’s a list of 10 food products that are fine to eat past the expiration date as long as they’ve been properly stored: 

  • Canned goods 
  • Hard cheeses 
  • Eggs
  • Yogurt 
  • Bread
  • Dry pasta 
  • Cookies
  • Crackers
  • Chocolate 
  • Peanut butter 

Benefits to Understanding Your Food Labels

From “best if used by” and “sell by” to “expiration date,” getting a better grasp on exactly what the various terms on your food packaging mean can be beneficial in more ways than one. Check out our article, “Food Education: What the Dates on Your Food Really Mean” for deeper explanations of food label terminology. 

Here are three perks of understanding your food labels: 

Cost Savings 

Using expiration dates merely as a rough guideline and knowing what to look for to make sure your food items are still completely safe to eat will result in your grocery store overhaul lasting longer in your household. By using up most of if not all of the food that you purchase, the amount of money that you spend on food will be lower in the long run. 

Reduces Food Waste

So much perfectly good food is thrown out in America on a daily basis. In fact, the U.S. ranks as the second most wasteful country in the world, wasting 150,000 tons of food each day.

Spreading public awareness about food label terminology and their meanings, knowing how to properly store food items, and understanding that many foods are fine to eat past their dates can significantly reduce food waste. 

Helps the Planet 

Growing and shipping food uses a massive amount of resources, including water consumption and carbon dioxide emissions associated with transporting food and raising livestock. According to the USDA, agriculture uses 80-90 percent of water consumption in America. With stats like these, it’s easy to see how the consequences of food waste impact the planet. Reducing your food waste will reduce your carbon footprint and benefit the environment. 

Related: Not all of the dates you see on food packages are expiration dates.  Learn more in our Food Dating Guide →

7 Ways to Make Your Food Stay Fresh Longer

There are many things you can do to ensure that your food stays fresh for as long as possible. Check out these eight easy tips for prolonging freshness: 

  1. Refrigerate edible items that require cold temperature storage promptly.
  2. Avoid washing your produce before storing it, which can significantly reduce its lifespan. The dampness from washing will likely linger and make the produce mold and rot faster. 
  3. Store leftovers in airtight containers to preserve freshness.
  4. Cook foods to proper temperatures. Reference this USDA temperature chart for further guidance.  
  5. Store meat, poultry, and fish in the coldest spot in your fridge. We recommend keeping these items on the lowest shelf in case of drippage.
  6. A good rule of thumb is to put the food that requires the highest cooking temperatures on the bottom of the fridge. This way, if there’s any cross contamination from food on higher shelves, everything will still get cooked properly.  
  7. When in doubt, use the Is My Food Safe? app to be in the know about various food safety topics such as recommended timetables for how long to keep leftovers, safe internal cooking temperatures, and other expert advice. 
  8. Avoid storing milk in the refrigerator door. Refrigerator temperatures can fluctuate from place to place, and placing an item like milk on the door — generally the warmest spot in the fridge — will reduce its longevity.  

The Bottom Line 

Food items that are close to or past their indicated package date are often still safe to eat. Arming yourself with a thorough knowledge of package dates and other commonly used label terminology will help you get more bang for your buck when grocery shopping. If each of us does our part to toss out less food, it will create a ripple effect and result in tangible improvements to our excessive food waste problem. 

Looking for more food dating information? Check out the Feeding Westchester “Food Dating Guide” and the USDA’s food product dating page.

Download the Food Dating Guide