How Long Do Foods Really Last? Some of the Answers May Surprise You

Let us tell you something you might not want to hear: The food industry has been lying to you. Okay, lying may be too extreme, but it has been misleading you. See that little date on your chips that tells you it was supposed to be sold by yesterday? Well, that date doesn’t mean anything harmful. To be honest, most dates on products don’t apply at all. You’ll be surprised to know you may be throwing out food well before you should, which is contributing to the food waste issue we have in the United States.

So what do all the dates mean? The only products that the federal government sets expiration dates for are infant formula and baby food. Those dates should be followed. The rest are actually governed at the state level, but not even required. About nine states have opted out of governing any dates on food and have left it solely to the manufacturers. Manufacturers determine the dates and they’re usually based on when they think the food tastes the “best.” We’re here to teach you the lingo that manufacturers have set for their products and the truth about how long you can keep common foods on hand.

Learn the lingo

The “sell by” date indicates how long a store should display a product on its shelves. Many of these foods still taste good far beyond this date if stored correctly.

The “best if used by” date comes straight from manufacturers. The product will be freshest and have the best taste and texture if you eat it by this date, but this date does not refer to food safety.

The “use by” date is the last date for peak quality. After this date, taste, texture and quality may go downhill, even if food safety does not.

The “expiration” date is the only packaging date related to food safety. If this date has passed, throw the food out.

Know the basics

Milk: For milk, it’s best to smell it and look at the consistency first. If it smells sour or has clumps, it has gone bad, but it’s still not dangerous to consume. The product is pretty good for about five days after the “use by” date. For the freshest dairy, keep milk in the back of the refrigerator where it stays the coolest.

Meat: Fresh meat purchased from the butcher should technically be cooked within 72 hours if wrapped in butcher paper. Some meats kept in airtight containers can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days before being consumed, but if you want your meat to last the longest, freeze it after one or two days and it can keep up to a year if stored properly.

Canned goods: Though canned goods have dates to use them by, they almost never go bad. When stored in a cool, dry and proper temperature-controlled area, canned goods are basically free from bacteria and any contamination. This means they technically never go bad and are acceptable to eat for years — probably a good reason why canned goods are recommended for earthquake and flood kits!

Eggs: Eggs can vary when it comes to how long they can stay fresh. Most are good for about 3-5 weeks past the “sell by” date. Though if you have any concern about whether or not they are good, do the sink test. Grab a glass of water and drop in an egg. If it sinks to the bottom, it is okay. If it rises to the top, it has gone bad.

Bread: Bread can turn moldy at various rates depending on the purchase date and how it’s stored. If kept in a moist, warm area, you will most likely start seeing mold more quickly than a cool, dry area. However, you can freeze your bread for use up to six months after freezing. Another note: If the bread is just dry and stale, you can totally use it for croutons, French toast or bread pudding!

Packaged snacks: The dates on packaged goods are usually what food manufacturers have determined as the best “snackability.” This tricks you into throwing out old chips and buying new ones. Usually, these products are good well beyond those dates (unless opened).

Bottled water: It never goes bad if stored properly. We encourage you to keep it on hand for emergencies but consider investing in a nice reusable water bottle as a more eco-friendly daily alternative.

Stick to best practices

1. Keep all meat and dairy in the back of the refrigerator where it is the coldest.

2. Put paper towels in your salad bags or drawers to remove any excess water.

3. Separate your fruits from your vegetables when storing. Some common fruits emit ethylene gas, which can cause vegetables to spoil faster.

4. Keep all canned goods in a cupboard that is dry and cool. Choose cans without bumps, which may be a sign of something growing that is not wanted.

5. Keep an eye on your refrigerator and freezer thermometers. Any food will spoil quicker if not stored at the proper temperature.

6. Always follow the “first in, first out” rule. Whatever food you buy, consume the “oldest” first.

We hope we’ve helped you reconsider when your food actually goes bad and when to throw it out. The best thing to do, even after reading all of this, is to use your best judgment. If it smells bad, feels bad or looks bad — it probably is bad.


Gabriella is a registered dietitian living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She currently works in corporate wellness as a dietitian and overall wellness coach. She also runs a food blog called Macrobalanced, where she shows people that healthy and balanced eating can be interesting and tasty! She enjoys all things fitness from lifting heavy weights in the gym to hitting the barre. Nothing is off limits as long as sweat is involved. When she is not cooking or sweating, she is playing with her dog Maui, a lively German Shepherd. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.