The truth about expiration dates

Confusion over “best by” and “sell by” dates on foods leads to a lot of waste


You open the fridge and excavate a container of tofu that’s been hiding behind the beer, only to find that its “best by” date passed last week. It looks okay—nothing blue and fuzzy going on—but the phrase “When in doubt, throw it out” is lodged in your head, right where your parents stuck it, and so you toss it. You’re not alone. 

Food waste accounts for more trash than any other type in the U.S., yet manufacturers slap all kinds of dates on packaged grub, tacitly encouraging people to turn potentially good food into even more rubbish. Confusion over what these dates mean is a leading cause of food waste in U.S. homes. According to ReFED, a nonprofit focused on food waste solutions, opaque dates led to 3.8 million tons (about 8%) of household chucked grub in 2022; across all sectors (that includes stores and restaurants), that total is 6.5 million tons.1

What do expiration dates mean?

The dates stamped on food aren’t necessarily indicators of a product’s safety as much as when it’s at its highest quality. It’s like this: 

  • Sell by tells the store when to take something off the shelf
  • Best by connotes when a product is of peak flavor and quality
  • Use by is when the manufacturer thinks the quality will start to decline, but it’s not a deadline, except with baby formula

How long do foods actually last?

In the interest of keeping edible chow out of the landfill, we decided to dig into how long packaged foods—specifically, the Earth-friendly equivalents of commonly tossed vittles—can remain safe to eat. The internet will feed you enough advice on this front to make your head spin, but we got dizzy so you don’t have to and compiled the best guidance for the longevity of pantry and fridge staples. 

And remember, none of this is an exact science. Think of these as guidelines, and use your best judgment before feeding yourself or your friends and family.

Food life expectancy, at a glance

Pantry LifeFridge LifeIt’s Bad When
Eggs (store-bought)
Up to 4-5 weeks past “Julian date” (usually below “sell by” on the side of the carton)Eggs float when uncracked, smell, or have discolored white or yolk
Bread (packaged)
4 days2 weeksIt’s moldy
Nondairy Milk
Shelf-stable, up to 10 monthsUnopened and not shelf stable, 1 month past “best by”; across the board, up to 10 days after openingIt smells off; the carton leaks or bulges
Nondairy Yogurt & Cheese
3 days to 2 weeks after “best by” dateIt’s moldy
Plant-based Deli “Meat”
Unopened, up to 6 weeks; after opening, up to 7 daysIt’s slimy, moldy, or it smells or looks off.
Plant-based “Meat”
Unopened, up to 10 days; opened, up to 3 daysThe package is puffed; the “meat” smells sour or is slimy
Shelf-stable, a year or moreUnopened, 2-3 months past “best by” date; opened, 10 days, stored in water in sealed containerIt’s moldy, it’s darkly discolored, or it looks or smells off
Canned Beans & Veggies
Indefinitely, though acidic foods like tomatoes may discolorAcidic foods, 5-7 days after opening; non-acidic foods 3-5 daysThe can bulges; contents smell off
Condiments & Sauces
Unopened indefinitely; opened and shelf-stable, 3 months (more if you don’t mind some discoloration)1 year after openingIt’s moldy, or it looks or smells bad
Tinned Mussels & Oysters
Up to 5 years3-4 days after openingThe can bulges; the contents smell or look off
Jason Reed

  1. ReFED Insights Engine, Nov. 2023 ↩︎