A friend and I were just talking about this very subject and it prompted me to do some research. Expiration dates: how long do you let food go before you decide to eat it or toss it?

It turns out that most dates printed on food are more of a freshness date. In fact this whole labeling system is voluntary — yes, I said voluntary. In fact, federal law only requires expiration dates on infant formula and some baby foods. Some states also require stores pull dairy products from the shelves on the expiration date.

There are all kinds of dates printed on food labels. Some of them are “sell by” dates, others are “best if used by” dates. There are also “guaranteed fresh” and “use by” dates. Most all of these have nothing to do with food safety. It’s more of a quality issue. The farther past the date printed on the product, the less quality you will experience.

That being said, I found a list of types of food and how long you can generally wait before deciding to eat it — or to go ahead and toss it into the garbage. Some of them may surprise you!

  • Eggs, for example, are said to be good for three to five weeks after the “sell by” date!
  • Poultry and seafood should either be cooked or frozen within a day or two from the date printed on the package.
  • Beef and pork are good for three to five days, but should be cooked or frozen within that time frame.
  • Canned goods that are high in acid – like tomato sauce – can keep for up to 18 months if stored in an environment that is not too warm (50 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit). Other canned goods can be stored safely for up to five years!

Here is the one that I always struggle with. This really surprised me:

  • Milk is usually good for a week after the date printed on the package

Really? I freak out if it’s more than a day or two. Dairy really scares me — how about you?