Can I Eat That? How Understanding Food Expiration Labels Can Save You Money

Here’s one stupidly simple way to cut your food costs at home: Stop throwing away so much food.

That may seem obvious, but you could actually be tossing perfectly good food without realizing it. 

If you’ve been following sell-by dates on labels in the name of food safety, you may be wasting a ton of food — and that food waste is costing you money.

What Do Sell-By Dates Really Mean?

No federal regulations require companies to include sell-by or use-by dates on food (with the exception of baby formula). For those companies that do, nothing regulates when those dates should be or what they actually mean.

Without a consistent system or actual safety guidelines, most of us don’t know what to make of any of it.

Each year, the U.S. wastes $161 billion in food at the retail and consumer levels a lot of it unnecessary, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration..

How much are you wasting?

How to Decode Sell-by Dates

Depending on the regulations in your state and the whims of certain manufacturers, your food’s packages could display at least one of several labels used across the industry.

Those are:

  • Sell-By Date: a month/date/year that tells a store how long to display the product for sale. It’s based on when a manufacturer believes food will be freshest. 
  • Use-By Date: a month/date/year by which a manufacturer recommends you consume a product to ensure its peak quality. The label might also say “best if used by” or “best before.”
  • Closed or Coded “Date”: a packing number the manufacturer uses to track a product in transport and in case of a recall. Stores often use these packing numbers to learn when a product was packaged and delivered to determine how long to keep it on the shelf.
  • Expiration (EXP) Date: Egg cartons with the USDA grade shield must display a “pack date,” the date they went in the carton. Some states also require eggs be stamped with an “expiration” date, which is scary-sounding but effectively a sell-by date.

None of these dates have anything to do with food safety. 

Manufacturers set sell-by or use-by dates based on when they believe food will be freshest, and coded dates are irrelevant to consumers.

Even on baby formula, the required use-by date refers to quality — the amount of nutrients and the consistency of the formula — not the potential for contamination or spoilage. The manufacturer, not the government, sets the date.

In all of these cases, the date or code on a package tells stores how long to display products. It doesn’t tell consumers when food will go bad.

“With an exception of infant formula… if the date passes during home storage, a product should still be safe and wholesome if handled properly until the time spoilage is evident,” the USDA states

How Long Can You Actually Keep Your Food?

The mix of dates can be annoying and confusing for consumers.

Lawmakers are attempting to clear things up with consistent federal standards for food labeling, but in the meantime, how do you know when your food is safe to eat?

For packaged foods, it’s much longer than you probably think.

“Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freezing temperatures, or temperatures above 90 °F (32.2° C). If the cans look OK, they are safe to use,” says the USDA.

Canned foods can keep for up to two to five years, and about half that for high-acid foods like fruits and tomato sauces.

Discard cans that are dented, rusted or swollen.

For other non-perishables, like chips, cereals, pastas or any of a variety of pre-made carb-loaded meals and snacks, the issue is less about safety and more about quality.

In this case, buy the product by the sell-by date and throw it away when it tastes or feels stale. As far as safety is concerned, as long as the packaging is intact… well, they’re called “non-perishable” for a reason.

How to Know When Your Food Is Bad

So when do you actually need to discard perishable food?

Short answer: Use common sense.

While a cultural obsession with guidelines, rules and right answers might make a lot of people hesitant to guess at the quality and safety of their food, this is actually one place where you can likely trust your instincts.

Throw away food that smells bad? That’s kind of a no-brainer.

If your instincts aren’t enough to make you comfortable, here are a few basic rules.

For perishable foods like meat and veggies, you have to be concerned with safety in addition to quality. Unfortunately, food labels aren’t a good guide for that.

Instead, follow USDA-recommended food storage and handling guidelines after you bring food home.

Generally, you’ll want to purchase a product before its sell-by date. If it’s perishable, refrigerate it when you get home, or freeze it if you won’t use it within the times in this chart:

Sell-by dates

Here are a few other important food storage basics that can help you keep your food fresh.

How to Ensure Food Quality and Safety at Home

One caveat: These storage times depend on proper handling of foods, especially perishable foods.

If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you’re no stranger to additional safe food handling guidelines. Follow these rules at home as well to ensure safety when storing, thawing and cooking perishable foods.

Some basics to remember:

  • Your refrigerator should be 40 degrees or lower. Your freezer should be 0 degrees or lower. Check them with an appliance thermometer.
  • Wrap meat, poultry and fish securely to prevent them from leaking on other foods.
  • Store meat, poultry and fish away from other foods (in their own drawer or on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator, in case of leaks).
  • Avoid cross-contamination by washing your hands and cleaning the cutting board, counter and utensils that touch raw foods immediately with hot, soapy water.
  • Avoid the “danger zone”: Prepared hot foods should not fall below 140 degrees, and cold foods should not go above 40 degrees.
  • Don’t leave perishable food out for more than two hours at room temperature.
  • Use cooked leftovers within four days.

Consult the USDA guidelines for more details.

If you keep a full refrigerator or have a lot of people handling food in the house, day dots could help you keep track of when food is coming in and when you should toss it.

Take note when out-of-the-ordinary circumstances threaten the safety or quality of your food.

For example, the USDA points out, “if hot dogs are taken to a picnic and left out several hours, they will not be safe if used thereafter, even if the (use-by) date hasn’t expired.”

Save Money — Save Your Food!

If you follow these simple food handling tips and common sense, you can save yourself a lot of worry over the quality and safety of your food.

You can also save a lot of money by not tossing perfectly good food.

Also note that while we’re wasting billions of dollars in often-good food, nearly 12% of U.S. families can’t afford to eat well at all.

So if you’re just a stickler for guidelines and don’t want to eat non-perishables past their peak freshness, consider donating them to a food bank instead of tossing them in the trash.

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) is the branded content editor at The Penny Hoarder.

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This article originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder