Over the last few years, I’ve realized that expiration dates mean different things to different families. For example, my family practically threw out food at 12:01 A.M. on the day a carton was set to expire. On the other hand, my husband’s family kept food for quite a while after the use-by date. When we got married, we soon found that we needed to find some common ground in order to avoid having the same discussion about food every time we cleaned out the fridge or wanted to use an item for a meal that was a little past its date. We decided the best solution was to check on reliable sites online. Doing our research sure educated us, revealing that we were both right in some regards. However, my husband was more correct than I was. (Hate when that happens.)
When it comes to food safety, it’s good to know what different expiration dates actually mean. Have you noticed that they don’t all just say “Use By”? In fact, there are several labels companies use including “Use By,” “Best By,” “Sell By,” “Guaranteed Fresh,” and “Expires On.” So what do each of these mean? And will you suddenly keel over if you eat something a bit past its prime?
Turns out, most expiration dates have to do with the quality or freshness of a product, rather than the safety of it. (Of course, if you choose to eat something a year after the use-by date, you eat at your own risk.)
- “Use By” and “Best By” refer to the date when the food is still at its top quality. After this date, the food may still be safe to consume for a period of time, but it will not taste as good. You can generally eat these items for a week or so after the date. Of course, you should always be aware of your food and check for signs of spoilage.
- “Sell By” is the date the grocery stores must go by to either sell the food or take it off the shelves. This one was news to me. For some time, I believed it meant “Eat today or die.” But no, turns out this food is good for quite some time after this date. However, it’s definitely a good idea to purchase the food before this date (if it is still on the shelves for some reason) so you have enough time to use it before it does go bad.
- Bakeries often use the term “Guaranteed Fresh” on pastries and other food products. This one is a little easier to understand. It’s simply not as fresh after that particular date. After that, your doughnut or piece of bread might go a little hard, but it should still be safe.
- “Expires On” is a label I have never actually seen. It’s generally only used on baby formula and baby food. In fact, these are the only food items that are required to be labeled. Isn’t that interesting? All those other food items in your house are labeled voluntarily by companies. When it comes to “Expired On” foods, take the date seriously. Use the food by the expiration date or send it to the trash.
All in all, I earned a nice-sized piece of humble pie. I realized that it is better to do a little research about expiration dates before automatically throwing out all the food that has passed its use-by date. I take these dates a little lighter, but I still use common sense to make sure our items are safe to eat. As all food items are different, I often search for information on a specific product if I am concerned about its safety. By understanding expiration dates a bit better, I am able to reduce waste in our home and still keep our family safe and healthy.