This post was written by Katie Fulk, MA, RDN, LD, community outreach dietitian - youth and family, Parkview Health.
There is so much information printed on our packaged food items—from marketing slogans and mascots to nutrition facts and ingredients. With so much to look at, it’s easy to miss some of the most important (and often the smallest) information on our food packages: the sell by, use by, best by and freeze by dates. These dates offer critical information about the safety of food and when it is ok to consume it.
Decoding the dates
So, what do each of these dates mean, and how can you use the information to make informed decisions about your food? Let’s take a look.
- Sell by date: This one is easy. The grocer must sell this product by the “sell by” date and can no longer have this product on the floor for purchase after. Eggs, for example, are typically good for a few weeks after the “sell by” date. When in doubt, do the floating egg test! Place an egg in a bowl of water and if it floats, the egg should not be consumed. A floating egg means there is an air pocket due to a loss of moisture, and it is no longer fresh.
- Best by/best if used by date: This date represents when this product is of best quality for consumption. Enjoying after this date may mean that the food product is no longer at its peak flavor. If you are choosing to consume a food product after this date has passed, proceed with caution. If a food item looks and/or smells unusual, that could mean the food item has gone rancid and should be disposed of and not eaten.
- Use by date: Like the “best by” or “best if used by” dates, the “use by” date represents when the food item is at its peak. Consuming a food after this date does not mean that a food borne illness is inevitable, just that you need to be more cautious and thoroughly evaluate the food prior to eating. However, one food item that you might see with a “use by” date and should NOT use is baby formula. If baby formula has a “use by” date that has already passed, do not purchase it or feed it to your baby.
- Freeze by date: Raw protein food items such as ground beef, fish or poultry often contain both a “use by” and a “freeze by” date. If you purchase one of these items and are not able to use it right away, it can be frozen to extend the shelf life for later use. Batch-cooking protein foods, which involves eating half now and freezing half for later, can be a very convenient method for quick preparation of meals at a later date. But remember, once a cooked protein enters the freezer, it must be used in a timely manner.
- Cooked beef: 2-3 months
- Cooked chicken: 4 months
- Cooked pork: 2-3 months
If you’re unsure of how long all your other cooked proteins will last in the freezer, just ask here.
When in doubt, throw it out!
We have all looked at the date printed on our food items, given the food product a smell, and then proceeded accordingly. However, it’s important to note that once a date has passed, consuming the food puts you at risk for contracting a food borne illness. Use these printed dates and the information above as a guide to make informed decisions on when a food item is still safe to eat and when it is time to dispose of or compost. When in doubt, throw it out!
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. (2023, March). Labeling of infant formula: Guidance for industry - U.S. Food and drug ... Food and Drug Administration.