Expiration dating: How to safely decode the dates on your food


Egg in silver bowl

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Sometimes you don’t have time to food shop. Or you forget. Or you’re just plain lazy. And when that happens, you might find yourself rummaging into the back of the fridge looking for anything that might resemble food. And sometimes that means checking the date. The expiration date? The sell-by date? The use-by date?

Dating is hard enough without having to figure out what all the mysterious numbers mean on our food. So before you starting disposing of everything in your kitchen — or poison yourself — check out these definitions.

(Reminder: Even if none of these dates have passed on your food yet, you still need to properly store and handle food. Wash your hands, separate raw and ready-to-eat foods from each other, cook to proper temperatures and refrigerate foods promptly, says HomeFoodSafety.gov.)


Sell-by date

This is a message to stores, letting them know the last day they should sell a particular item. According to “The Dating Game,” a study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, retailers use the sell-by date for stock control, and thus should be invisible to consumers. “Sell-by dates generate confusion and offer consumers no useful guidance once they have brought their purchases home,” says the study.


Best-if-used-by date

This is not a safety-related date, according to HomeFoodSafety.gov. Rather, it is the recommended date for the best flavor or quality. Even if the “best-if-used-by” date has passed on the food you have at home, it should be safe if stored and handled properly.


Use-by date

This is a manufacturer’s indication of the “last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality,” according to the Harvard study. “If a product has a use-by date, follow that date.”


Open dating

This type of dating uses a calendar date as opposed to a code, according to HomeFoodSafety.gov. It helps the store determine how long to display the product and helps you know when to purchase or use the product at its best quality. In addition to this date, there must be a “sell-by” or “use-by” to explain the meaning of the date. You’ll find open dating is on perishable foods, such as meat and dairy products. 


Closed or coded dating

These are packing numbers used by the manufacturer, which appear on shelf-stable products like cans and boxes of food.


And check out this handy infographic from Thrillist.com — based on research from EatByDate.com — to determine how long certain foods stay good after the expiration date has passed. But always rely on your eyes and nose. If something looks or smells rotten, toss it.

(Click on the image for a larger version.)