“Is this still good?” my son asked as he was rummaging through the refrigerator the other day and came upon some juice whose expiration date had long ago passed. “It depends,” I said and began to explain the wonderful world of expiration dates.

“Best by,” “sell by,” “use by” – it can all be very confusing!

How do you handle expiration dates? Do you consume the item or do you toss it? Tell us what you think. Let us know in the comments section toward the bottom of the page.

Expiration Dates: What It All Means

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Best if used by date: The best date for flavor and quality.
  • Sell-by date: How long the store can display the product.
  • Use-by date: The last date that the product is at peak quality.
  • Closed by date or coded dates: The numbers and letters used by the manufacturer to indicate the day and time the product was packed.

None of the above are technically “expiration dates.” In fact, according to thehealthy.com, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows manufacturers to sell almost any food past these dates, with baby formula being the exception. According to theheathy.com, the FDA understands these labels are confusing and would like the food industry to move to one standard phrase: “Best if used by.”

Handling And Storage Tips

So how do you keep good food from going bad? According to heart.org,

  • Purchase the food product before the date expires.
  • If perishable, take the food home immediately after purchase and refrigerate it promptly. Freeze it if you can’t use it within times recommended on chart.
  • Once a perishable product is frozen, it doesn’t matter if the date expires because foods kept frozen continuously at 0° F or below are safe.
  • Follow handling recommendations on the product.

The Consequences Of Mishandled Food

If foods are not handled correctly, food-borne bacteria can grow and cause food-borne illness — before or after the date on the package, according to heart.org. Examples include food that is meant to be refrigerated, but is left out for several hours; food that has been cross contaminated with another food; or food handled by people who may not, shall we say, have the most conscientious hand-washing techniques.

The Sniff Test?

So how do you know if something is still good? One way is to use the old “sniff test.” Yes, that’s right, rely on your reliable nose. And if something just doesn’t look right, toss it, don’t chance it.

However, don’t just leave it to your nose or eyes. Those expiration dates are trying to tell you something …

Warning! Don’t Eat These Products Past Their Expiration Date

Here’s a list of several foods that should not be eaten past their expiration date, according to thehealthy.com:

  • Egg substitutes
  • Soft cheeses
  • Jarred condiments
  • Potato salad
  • Cold-pressed juice
  • Fresh meat
  • Ground meats
  • Deli meat
  • Fish/Shell fish
  • Fresh berries
  • Leafy greens

Who Knew These Were Still Good?

On the other hand, there are many products that can last a lot longer than you might think. According to rd.com, these include the following:

  • Dried pasta
  • Canned or dried beans
  • Vinegar
  • Salt
  • Vanilla
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Eggs
  • Peppers
  • Carrots
  • Citrus fruits

Finally, here’s a handy list of the shelf life of common pantry foods, from home-storage-solutions-101.com:

Food ItemStorage TimePackaging
Baking powder1 year 
Baking soda2 years 
Beans and peas, dried18 months 
Biscuit mix12-18 months 
Bread crumbs2-4 months 
Cake, brownie and cookie mixes1 year 
Canned fruit1 yearUnopened
Canned meats and gravies1 yearUnopened
Canned vegetables1 yearUnopened
Cereals, ready to eat6-12 months
2-3 months
Cereals, hot1 year 
Chocolate chips, semi-sweet1 year 
Chocolate, unsweetened18 months 
Cocoa powder2 years 
Coconut, grated1 yearUnopened
Coffee, ground3-5 months (after
printed date)
3-5 months

After Opening
Coffee, instant2 years 
Coffee, whole bean6-9 months (after
printed date)
6 months

Cookies, packaged2-4 months 
Cornmeal1 year 
Cornstarch18 months 
Crackers6 months 
Croutons6 months 
Flour, cake6 months 
Flour, white10-15 monthsOpened, in air
tight container
Flour, whole wheat6-8 monthsOpened in fridge
Frosting, canned8 monthsUnopened
Fruit, dried6 months 
Gelatin12-18 months 
Grits, instant8 months 
Grits, regular10 months 
Honey, molasses, and syrup1 year 
Hot chocolate mixes6-12 months 
Infant formula12-18 months 
Jelly, jam and preserves1 year
8 months
Opened in fridge
Juice, canned citrus6 monthsUnopened
Juice, canned non-citrus1 yearUnopened
Ketchup, barbeque sauce1 year
5 months
Opened in fridge
Marshmallows3 months 
Mayonnaise4 months
2 months
Opened in fridge
Milk, evaporated1 yearUnopened
Milk, non-fat powdered1-2 years 
Milk, sweetened condensed1 yearUnopened
Mustard2 years
1 year
Opened in fridge
Nuts, unshelled8 months 
Oils (canola, corn and vegetable)1-2 years
6-8 months
Oil, olive2 years 
Onions4-6 weeksDry dark place with
lots of air circulation
Pancake mix6 months 
Pasta, dried2 yearsOnce opened keep
in air tight containers
Peanut butter6-9 months 
Pickles, olives, relishes1 year
3 months
Opened in fridge
Popcorn, unpopped kernels1-2 years 
Popcorn, microwaveable6-8 months 
Potatoes, white or sweet3-5 weeksDry dark place with
lots of air circulation
Potatoes, instant1 year 
Pudding mixes8-12 months 
Rice, brown1 year 
Rice, mixes6 months 
Rice, white2 years 
Salad dressing10 months
3 months
Opened in fridge
Sauces, condiments1 yearUnopened
Shortening8 months
6 months
Soft drinks6-9 monthsUnopened
Spices and herbs, dried and ground1-2 yearsAirtight containers,
discard when scent fades
Spices, dried and whole2-3 yearsAirtight containers,
discard when scent fades
Sports drinks, bottled9 months 
Stuffing mix6 months 
Sugar, brown4 months 
Sugar, granulated2 years 
Sugar, powdered18 months 
Tea, bags and loose6-12 months 
Tea, instant1 year 
Vinegar (balsamic, cider, rice,
red wine, white, and white wine)
IndefinitelyDo not store in metal
Yeast, active dryFollow package date 

So when you purchase a food item, be aware of the expiration date. And while you’re checking the date, make sure to record the product and send us all of your shopping information!

Hope you have a safe weekend!

Best Regards,

Yuck. The Low-Down On Expiration Dates