Calendar with the 18th circled in red marker
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If you’ve ever been confused about the dates stamped on food products, you’re not alone. A United States consumer survey appearing in the Waste Management journal reported 84% of consumers discard food near the package date at least occasionally. However, the package date rarely has anything to do with the safety of the food product. This contributes to a lot of food unnecessarily wasted.

Much of the confusion lies in a labeling system that is aimed at providing a measurement of quality, not safety. Understanding what these dates mean can help you waste less food, save more money and better the environment.

  • Sell-by: This date indicates when stores must remove products. Food will be safe to eat after this date if it has been refrigerated. Dairy products will usually be edible at least one week longer than the sell-by date. Eggs will keep 3-5 weeks beyond the date listed.
  • Best if used by: This date is a recommendation to consumers when the product’s flavor or quality is highest.
  • Use by: This is the last date recommended to ensure a product’s peak quality.
  • Pack date: This date, usually used on canned food, is the date the product was packaged, and is used by manufacturers for tracking. Since manufacturers use their own system of dating, it may be hard for consumers to interpret the date.
  • Expiration date: Infant formula, baby food, and over-the-counter drugs should never be consumed after the expiration date because they may not function in the body as originally intended. Yeast, baking powder, cake mixes, and pectin will also have expiration dates. These may not be as effective after this date, but will still be safe.

If a canned good is bulging, throw it away immediately, as it could indicate that a dangerous toxin has formed inside. Also, if a product looks rotten or smells bad, throw it away despite the date on the package. However, don’t just throw away food based on the date; you may be throwing it away prematurely. For more information on food packaging, see Understanding Food Package Dates.

Egg with Avocado Toast (Printable PDF)

  • 1 slice whole wheat bread
  • ½ avocado, sliced
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • Pinch of salt and pepper

Wash hands with soap and water. Toast bread in toaster. Slice avocado. Cook eggs anyway you like them. Drizzle toast with olive oil, salt and pepper. Top with egg and avocado slices.

Yield: 1 serving

Nutrition Facts (per serving): 360 calories, 24 grams fat, 390 milligrams sodium, 27 grams carbohydrate, 5 grams fiber, 7 grams protein

This blog post first appeared in The Pantagraph on June 10, 2020.