What’s The Deal with Expiration Dates?

How Closely Should You Follow Food Expiration Dates?

Today, my friends, expiration dates hold an entirely new meaning for me. I did something I thought was horrible. In fact, my heart about stopped. I made mac & cheese for the kids only to see that the box expired almost a year ago. I thought we were going to have to go to the ER for a good stomach pumping and that’s when I found out something quite interesting — expiration dates aren’t what many of us think they are.

What’s an Expiration Date?

We all know the dates that come stamped on the side, top or even bottom of our food containers. Many of us adhere to them as though they were law. There are some, however, who treat food expiration dates as a general guideline and others insist that some expiration dates are nothing more than a way for companies to make us replace their products after a set period of time.

Are these expiration date opponents just plain nuts? Not really. Many of us believe that expiration dates are there to tell us when the food will go bad. This isn’t necessarily true. Sometimes the date stamped on your groceries is nothing more than a guideline telling you what date to use the product by for guaranteed freshness.

So how can you tell exactly when your food expires and when to toss it?

Understanding the Labels

The first thing you need to do is understand the expiration dates stamped on your food. Some of them aren’t expiration dates at all and are “best if used by” dates. These dates just indicate that your food will taste better if used by that date.

Dates preceded by “exp” or “use by” are more like expiration dates. However, even these dates aren’t sure-fire ways of knowing when food will expire. For instance, you can buy a package of ground meat with a use by date that is four days away, but if you’re storing it in the fridge you should use it within 2 days and, if in the freezer, within 3 months.

Some General Guidelines

Expiration dates are anything but clear cut. When it come to judging whether or not food is safe to eat, it pays to err on the side of caution. However, here are some guidelines you can follow:

Milk – Use within 5 days of the “sell by” date or use within a day or two of the use by date. After this, the milk may begin to sour even if it’s not dangerous.

Chicken and Fish – Use within a day or two or freeze and use within 3 to 6 months.

Eggs – Eggs should last for 3 to 5 week from the “sell by” date.

Canned Goods – If you have canned goods with high acid levels, like tomato soup or pineapple, then they can last for 18 months. Other canned goods with low acid, like veggies, can last up to a whopping 5 years.

Again, these are very rough guidelines and I recommend you always use caution. And if you ever see a can or food packaging balloon, toss it no matter what the date.