The shelf life of food

I seems like I spend the better part of my life in the grocery store (darn my family’s never-ending requirement for sustenance) and, pretty much everything I touch while I’m there, has some sort of date on it (sometimes even more than one).  But what do these dates mean and what do we need to know about the shelf life of food?  Very few of us in North America buy our food the day we plan to make it, opting instead to buy what we need for several meals at a time (truth be known, I try to embark on two ‘significant’ shopping trips a week, planning a few days of meals before I go).  This means, however, that we need to pay special attention to the dates shown on the food we buy.

Sometimes these dates aren’t that easy to find or read (I must admit that I have started to carry some inexpensive glasses in my purse for this reason, as well as to aid me in reading the ridiculously small print found on most packaging).  Other times, I can find the dates, but I’m not exactly sure what they mean.

It’s hard to believe but, with the exception of Infant Formula and some baby foods, federal law does not require that the expiration date of our food be labeled.  Having said that, many products provide at least some information about the item’s shelf life.  Now, all you have to do is decipher it.  Here are some tips that might help.

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  • “Expiration Date” – this is truly the last date an item should be eaten…after that, you’re taking your life into your own hands.
  • “Sell By Date” – this is the last date the store should display this item – be sure to purchase it by this date
  • “Best if used by (or before) date”applies to quality, not safety and only to unopened products, as the shelf life of an item may change once it is opened


Here is a wonderful infographic I found at that shows you the shelf life of many common foods, depending on where they are kept (i.e. the pantry, refrigerator or freezer).



Click here to read more and access this infographic at the Farm & Dairy website.  Print this handy infographic and post it for easy reference for the whole family.

If in doubt, most companies provide a Customer Service phone number on their packaging in case you have any questions.  On occasion, I have called this number when an item has been past the best before date (e.g. a fruit bar) to confirm that eating it would not be unsafe.

Proper food storage and preparation are very important life skills that we should teach our children.  Get them used to always looking at the dates on a product, before they purchase it, then teach them the importance of proper food storage and how long it is safe to keep various foods before they should be thrown out.

If you’re interested in keeping your kids safe and teaching them to be self-reliant, you may wish to check out my articles on Dressing for the weather, Staying safe online, Sorting laundry and Time management.