What an Expiration Date Actually Means (and How to Make Food Last Longer)

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Squirrel_photos/Pixabay

How often have you pulled out the deli ham from the fridge only to find that it's past the "best by" date? Do you take a chance on it anyway, or do you toss it in the garbage? If you go for the waste bin, you might not be taking full advantage of your food. Save your meals (and your money) by learning the secrets behind expiration dates, along with some tricks for making your food last.

What Is an Expiration Date?

We've all seen the labels on food packaging, but what do they actually mean? You've got your "sell by" dates, your "best by" dates and your "use by" dates. Could they all refer to different things? Unfortunately, yes, they do.

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The interesting thing about expiration dates is that, for most items, they're actually a voluntary piece of information that manufacturers choose to include. There’s no mandate requiring expiration dates to be printed on foods (with few exceptions), and therefore, there isn't a formally agreed-upon rule about what expires when. So what's the point? Well, there are several.

"Sell By"

If you see a "sell-by" date, it's really a number for retailers instead of a number for customers. It indicates to a seller how long that item should be on their shelves, not how long the item is safe for you to eat. Generally, foods will taste fine for a decent amount of time after their sell-by dates.

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Photo Courtesy: Alan Levine/Flickr

So, why even use this? Stores want to sell their goods at peak freshness; adhering to the "sell-by" date simply guarantees this. You'll see this date most often on deli meats and cheeses. Don't be afraid to keep them around in the fridge a bit longer.

"Best If Used By"

This is similar to the "sell by" date in that it refers to the quality of food instead of safety. You can still eat foods that have passed their best-by dates and not notice a thing — except maybe a less-fresh taste. It doesn't mean you need to throw them out.

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Photo Courtesy: AlbanyColley/Pixabay

This designation is different from "sell-by" in that it's not necessarily an indicator of how long a store should keep the food on the shelves. The length of time for which an item is safe to eat after the best-by date varies from food to food, so you'll have to make your own call on this one.

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"Born On"

You probably haven't seen this wording used often on food items, but it's been making an appearance on beer. "Born on" refers to the date that the item was packaged for sale, or in other words, the date it was "born."

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Photo Courtesy: John Blyberg/Flickr

This date is useful as long as you know the typical lifespan of the food item. For example, beer generally tastes best for a good three months after packaging. After that, the sunlight filtering through the bottle tends to reactivate microorganisms, and the brew won't be good to drink. The more opaque or protective the packaging is, the longer the beer should last.

"Pack" Date

A "pack" date is essentially the same thing as a "born on" date, only for canned foods. It indicates when the food was packed for sale — and therefore how much time is left for you to safely eat it. As you probably know, canned food can last a very long time.

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The tricky thing with pack dates is that they aren't always easy to decipher; sometimes they're written in codes that no one but the manufacturer really understands. One thing to definitely watch for? Damaged packaging can affect the safety of foods; look out for dented or domed cans and torn packages.

"Use By"

The "use by" date is what most people think of when they talk about expiration dates. This is the one that indicates to a consumer the last day that the food is guaranteed to be safe for eating. Even so, it’s still simply a recommendation, and food may remain good after this date.

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So how are we supposed to know how long our foods last? As it turns out, the best way isn't by blindly trusting "use by" dates, which vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Instead, follow recommendations from reputable sources about how to determine a food’s safety.

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What the USDA Has to Say

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) goes into detail about the different types of labeling and has simple but clear instructions on how to know whether it's okay to eat your food or not. The organization conveys that if you store your foods properly, they should remain safe after their "best by" dates and until "spoilage is evident."

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"Spoilage" becomes evident when your food has an irregular odor, texture or taste or there is clearly something growing on it (like mold). That’s probably not the most satisfying answer, but it makes sense. It’s best to use your own observation skills.

The Only Exceptions

The notable exceptions to the rule when it comes to expiration dates are baby food and infant formula. While other foods can remain safe to eat after the dates printed on their packaging, you should not use baby food at all after these dates.

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This is because babies require special, specific amounts of vitamins and nutrients when it comes to their food. Their bodies are also more vulnerable than adults' and can therefore have worse reactions to food that's not at peak quality. Thankfully, there have been many tests and studies done to ensure that date stamping on baby food is accurate.

Meats

Even though each individual case is different, there are general guidelines for how long to keep foods like meat in your refrigerator. Unsurprisingly, it varies depending on the type of meat and how it's packaged, but in general, you shouldn't keep meat in the fridge for longer than five days.

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Fortunately, it lasts a lot longer in the freezer — even up to a year. Foodsafety.gov has a convenient chart that shows how long foods last in your refrigerator versus your freezer. Any time you're in doubt, it's a good idea to reference this resource if you want to avoid food poisoning.

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Milk

Milk is more regulated than other foods in some states. Many supermarkets are required to remove their milk if the expiration date has passed — dairy goes bad faster than other foods, and the expiration dates are generally more accurate.

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Photo Courtesy: Project Manhattan/Wikimedia Commons

If your milk has a "sell by" date, you can typically drink it up to a week after that date. The good part is that it's relatively easy to tell when milk has gone bad: it takes on a sour odor and forms chunks. And if you've ever accidentally taken a swig of spoiled milk, you know it has a bad taste, too.

How to Store Your Meat and Milk

Now that you know how long milk and meat should last, make sure you're storing them correctly so that they actually last that long. Milk should never go in the refrigerator door — temperatures fluctuate more there from all the opening and closing going on. Instead, keep cartons and jugs in the back where it's coolest.

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When it comes to meat, keep it on the bottom shelf. The last thing you want is for meat juices to leak through and fall onto foods below. Ideally, you should keep this meat wrapped in a bag or wrap plastic over its packaging to contain any bacteria.

Where to Put Your Fruits and Veggies

Some people put all their fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator. Some do the opposite and leave them all out. Turns out, the best practice is a mix of the two. Bananas, avocados, citrus fruits, pears, peaches, tomatoes, onions and potatoes can all safely sit out of the refrigerator.

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Photo Courtesy: Rémi Müller/Unsplash

Broccoli, cucumbers, carrots and berries are best left in the coolness of the refrigerator to last longer. A bonus tip: Never leave onions and potatoes out in the same general vicinity. The types of gases they release can cause each other to ripen — and spoil — much faster than normal.

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Paper Towels and Greens

Have you ever left a bag of loose-leaf lettuce in the fridge only to find that condensation or a slimy layer of liquid collects on the inside? You can combat this by placing paper towels inside the packaging or wrapping vegetables in them. Instead of accumulating on the bag, the moisture wicks away into the towel.

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Photo Courtesy: MabelAmber/Pixabay

This helps your produce last longer and keeps it more appealing — no one wants to eat soggy leafy greens, after all. If you happen to have a box of leftover salad from a restaurant, use this same trick.

The Flower-Herb Secret

When you get a bouquet of flowers from the florist and want to keep them fresh overnight, what do you do? Cut the stems, place them in water and set them in the fridge, right? Well, you can do this to your fresh herbs to keep them edible as well.

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This trick works on asparagus and green onions, too. It can keep the plants fresher for longer and, therefore, yummier in your cooking. Just remember to cover them with plastic wrap or a similar alternative for protection. And be careful not to knock them over! You don't want to have a waterfall in your refrigerator.

How to Save Your Bananas

Do you find that your bananas ripen too quickly? That after only a few days they're already brown and mushy? Don't try and put them in the fridge — this may slow the ripening process, but it can leave them underripe and grey. Instead, try wrapping plastic wrap around their crown.

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Photo Courtesy: Quim Gil/Wikimedia Commons

By covering the crown (where the stems meet in the center) you effectively hinder the release of a type of gas called ethylene. This makes the bananas ripen slower and will give you an extra couple of days to eat them. If they still end up brown anyway, throw them in a smoothie or some banana bread.

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Keep Those Avocado Halves Fresh

Sometimes, you can't eat the entire avocado. But you might find that even wrapped in plastic or closed in Tupperware, your avocado half still gets brown on the surface. If you haven't heard of keeping the pit in your avocado half, that can help. There's also a second method.

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Photo Courtesy: JillWellington/Pixabay

Try brushing lemon juice or olive oil on the exposed side of the avocado before storing it. These substances not only taste yummy with avocado, but they also help prevent the oxidation process. As long as you keep the avocado in an airtight container or wrap, you should be good to go.

Sometimes, the Problem Is the Fridge

We don't often think to check the temperatures of our refrigerators, but this could be the culprit behind your spoiling foods. Every once in a while, try to check that it's working to its full potential; refrigerators should ideally be set around 37 degrees Fahrenheit.

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If you find that your fridge isn't cold enough even after tweaking the settings, it may be time to get a new one. A refrigerator should last a long time — anywhere up to around 25 years — but nothing can survive forever. Typically, the freezer is the first to go, so keep an eye on it too.

Resist Putting Bread in the Fridge

Bread can be tough. People don't usually go through a loaf very quickly — unless they have a big family — and it can sprout mold surprisingly quickly. You may think that throwing the loaf in the fridge is the way to go, but it's not a good idea when it comes to bread.

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This method may work for things like fruits and veggies, but it actually causes bread to go stale faster. Instead, if you want to prolong its lifespan, throw your bread in the freezer. All you'll have to do is pop slices in the toaster to thaw them.

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Honey Doesn't Go in the Fridge

The refrigerator is not the answer to preserving all foods. Sometimes it can do harm to your kitchen items. One of the things you should never put in the fridge is honey; a cold fridge will turn it from smooth and yummy to lumpy and grainy.

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Honey is naturally antibacterial, which means you can leave it at room temperature without any worries. Keep it in a cabinet with other spices and you'll find that it lasts a lot longer. If your honey still crystallizes, you can warm the pot in water on the stove and stir until the granules dissolve.

Rinse Berries in a Special Mix

Berries tend to go bad quickly. If you want to keep them fresher for longer, try rinsing them with a mix of water and vinegar. Don't make it too strong: the mixture should be one part vinegar to eight parts water. This is enough to kill any bacteria lingering on the berries that can make them spoil.

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If you have an overabundance of berries — perhaps your bushes did well this year — take a Sunday to boil them down into jam. Jam lasts longer on the shelf, and it makes for a great gift. You can always freeze berries, too.

Grain Storage Needs to Be Airtight

It's a good idea to buy grains in bulk — you save money and time. If you do, though, make sure you're storing them in airtight containers. Rice, beans, lentils and others all need protection from moisture in order to stay good. Bags with seals work, but glass containers work even better.

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Keeping air out will also keep unwanted pests out as a bonus. You don't want to open your pantry closet only to find mice have made it their buffet. Invest in some cute, high-quality jars and don't forget to use them. Your wallet will thank you.

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Try Putting Some Foods Upside Down

Interestingly, some foods may last longer if you store them upside down. Nut butters in particular benefit from this, as natural separation of the oil inevitably happens over time. If they're upside down, the oil will end up in the bottom once you turn the jars back over, and it's not so hard to mix together anymore.

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Tomatoes can also benefit from being stored upside down; if their stems are gone, air enters faster at the top and they spoil faster. If this part of the tomato is on the underside, however, the process slows down and they last longer.

Aluminum Foil Has Multiple Purposes

Vegetables like celery and broccoli release a gas called ethylene. The release of this gas leads to the loss of freshness, wilting and eventually spoilage. Thankfully, there's a way to restrict the release of ethylene gas and make those veggies stay fresh longer.

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All you need is a roll of aluminum foil. Take a sheet, wrap the veggies inside and voila! You'll find that they stay crunchier and tastier like never before. Another good tip: If you know they're nearing expiration, throw them in a stir-fry and put them back in the fridge. You'll get an extra few days.

Cheese Needs to Breathe

Many people keep their cheese in plastic wrap and don't think twice about it. The best way to store cheese, however, isn’t in plastic wrap but in a breathable material like wax or parchment paper. This is because plastic traps moisture and leads to molding.

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While too much moisture is a bad thing, not enough moisture will simply have your cheese turning dry and hard. This is why wax or parchment is the perfect alternative — you get enough moisture trapped inside while still allowing for the passage of air. And you'll also be using a more environmentally friendly material.

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Mushrooms are Best Stored in Paper

Another food that you might be mistakenly storing in plastic is mushrooms. Sure, they may come in plastic at the supermarket, but that doesn't mean it's the best way to store them long-term. Instead, when you get home, transfer them into a paper bag and you'll see a positive difference.

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Paper helps absorb moisture that seeps out of mushrooms and keeps them from turning slimy or moldy. By adopting this storage method, you can eat better-tasting mushrooms and have them last longer at the same time. Plus, paper is better for the environment than plastic.

Get Rid of Those Carrot Tops

There's nothing better than buying fresh carrots — perhaps from the local farmers’ market or from a roadside stand. You might find, however, that those carrots go limp much faster. This is because they likely have the green stems still sprouting out of their tops.

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These stems suck up nutrients from the carrots and are the reason they go bad so quickly. All you have to do is lop those tops off and keep your carrots in the fridge. You'll find that their lifespan is much longer as a result. And who doesn't want more time to enjoy their fresh carrots?

Consider Switching to Glass Containers

As you may know, it's important for many foods to be kept in airtight containers in order to preserve their freshness. If you want to find the ideal containers for this, give glass jars a shot. Not only is glass great for keeping air out, but it also won't seep harmful chemicals into your food like plastic does.

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If you're looking to lead a more environmentally friendly lifestyle, glass is a good option. You won't be recycling as many plastic containers and creating trash. After all, glass lasts for a long time. It's a small — but meaningful — step forward.

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Freeze Those Herbs Before They Go Bad

Fresh herbs don't always last as long as you might like them to. Instead of rushing to use up the last of your cilantro, try sprinkling it in an ice tray and pouring olive oil on top. Place the tray in the freezer, and your work is done.

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Photo Courtesy: Rebecca Siegel/Flickr

Not only will your herbs last much longer, but you can pop out a cube for a quick and easy flavor addition to any meal. All it takes is a little added planning and effort beforehand, but the results are worth it. You'll wonder why you didn't think of doing it sooner.

The Freezer Is Your Friend

If you find that you're not using up your food in time, you may want to consider moving it from the fridge to the freezer. Coolness — for most foods — slows the ripening process, and freezing food almost stops ripening in its tracks. Your meat, produce, bread and other foods will last months longer without losing their great taste.

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Photo Courtesy: Free-Photos/Pixabay

The only thing you have to look out for is freezer burn; this tends to show up after about three months. Freezer burn doesn't necessarily mean the food is unsafe, but it may mean the texture and flavor of the food are off.

Marshmallows in Brown Sugar

We've all had the experience of reaching for the brown sugar only to find that it's turned into one hard mass. If you're sick of wrestling with your brown sugar, don't fret! There's a surprisingly easy fix. Just keep the sugar in an airtight container, and bury a few marshmallows (or a slice of bread) inside.

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The molasses in brown sugar is what makes it harden — it naturally loses much-needed moisture. Marshmallows give the sugar the added moisture it needs and keep the granules nice and separated. Never again will you have a massive brown sugar lump in your cupboard.

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