This Is What Those Best-By, Sell-By, and Use-By Dates Really Mean

Make sure to check labels before eating something that may have gone too far beyond its point of freshness or safety.

Woman at home taking ingredients out of the fridge
Photo: andresr via Getty Images

You know what it's like: You scored big savings buying your favorite Greek yogurt in bulk, but ended up not finishing it before the expiration date. Now you're stuck tossing the unused yogurt out in fear that eating it won't be safe or of good quality anymore.

Kind of makes you re-think the whole idea of budget-friendly sales that require a bulk order, huh?

There are three distinct types of date terms that provide recommendations for how much longer you can consume a product, and surprisingly (and luckily!), you can actually extend many of these dates a bit further, depending on the item.

Expiration dates on packages are actually more related to an item's quality and freshness rather than safety and whether consuming it will be harmful to your health. The only exception for this rule is infant formula, which should not be used past the expiration date and must be tossed.

Here's what the three terms — "best-by," "sell-by," and "use by," — really mean in terms of expiration.

Best-by Dates

According to the USDA, the best-by date indicates when a food product will have the best flavor or quality.

"Best-by dates are recommendations for enjoying the food product when quality is at its peak, meaning the flavor and texture will be optimal when consumed within and by these dates," says Kelly Jones MS, RD, CSSD, LDN.

"Fresh foods that can spoil, such as bagged lettuces and poultry will typically display 'best-by' or 'use by' dates," Jones says. While nutritional quality may decline if you extend the shelf life, these kinds of foods do remain safe to eat.

"Best-by" dates are also common on canned foods, although they may actually be safe for years after as long as the can isn't dented or compromised. "Foods like pasta, rice, and crackers have such low moisture that they also can last well past their dates, but may taste stale," Jones says.

A lot comes down to how the food is stored though.

"As long as the food is stored properly, it should be OK for weeks after the best-by date, but it's always a good idea to look at the food product for signs of mold and smell it to ensure it has not gone rancid," says Ilyse Schapiro MS, RD, CDN.

Sell-by Dates

Sell-by dates are specific to the grocery store and how long they can have items on the shelves and up for sale.

"These are foods that should be refrigerated or frozen once they get to your kitchen, but are still safe to consume and should have good quality past the sell-by date," says Jones.

Sell-by dates may be more common on eggs, as some states require this kind of label, with the sell-by dates being a certain number of days after the eggs are laid and packaged to make sure stores are rotating inventory regularly.

"For poultry or ground meat, eating the food one to two days past the date should be ok, and for beef, three to five days after the date has passed," says Schapiro. Eggs will typically last three to five weeks past the sell-by date but if you're unsure if you're in the clear, look for signs of mold and/or odors that seem off or stinky.

Use-by Dates

Use-by dates represent the last day that the manufacturer recommends consuming the product for quality reasons.

"Like best-by dates, this can relate to taste, texture, and even appearance of a product, but these foods can still be considered safe to consume afterwards," Jones says. However, they may not retain flavor and texture of an item consumed by the use-by date.

Since it's the last day of a product's peak quality, you probably don't want to extend too far. "Depending on the product, I would consume it up until a week past this date and as always, smell and examine the product before consuming," Schapiro says.

close up of best by date on jug of milk

How to Decide Whether to Eat or Toss a Food

There's no clear time frame for how long a particular food can last without spoiling.

"It's safe to say 'days' but not more than a week for most refrigerated produce, months to years for canned and dry goods in the pantry, and I would say to not go past the date in the fridge for meat/fish/poultry, but they can last three months with good quality and if properly stored in the freezer," Jones says. Dairy is typically fine to eat after a week from its date, if unopened.

Pasta and Grains

As long as the package isn't open, uncooked grains like pasta or rice, will be safe and of good quality to eat up to about two years after purchasing, since they are dry in texture. Yet, once cooked, eat within a few days, and store it in the fridge.

Canned Foods

Canned goods should be stored in a pantry at room temperature, away from sunlight, and any unopened canned goods that have a lot of acidity should be used within 18 months.

"So, canned meat and veggies can last for two to five years, but if you open a can of tomato sauce or sauerkraut, it can last five to seven days in the fridge," says Schapiro.

Canned gravies, soups, beans, and meats last three to four days in the fridge after they're opened. If your canned good is dented or swollen, throw it in the garbage. Check for damage, like dents on a can, as well as changes in appearance, like lumpy textures, bad odors, mold, and anything else that seems off-putting before taking a bite.

Stocked kitchen pantry with food - pasta, buckwheat, rice and sugar .
Irina Tiumentseva / Getty Images

How to Extend the Shelf Life of Foods

Dairy and Eggs

"Don't keep your milk on the inside door of your refrigerator, but rather keep it on a shelf in the fridge because the fridge door is opened throughout the day (and sometimes left open!), and this can expedite your milk going bad," says Schapiro. If stored properly, milk should last seven days after opening.

"Eggs should be stored on a shelf in the fridge, not the side door, as well," Schapiro adds. If properly stored, eggs should last for three to five weeks after the sell by date.


Both Jones and Schapiro use the same hack with poultry: If you are not going to eat your poultry right away, put it in the freezer. "When you're ready to eat it, thaw it in the fridge, not the kitchen counter," says Schapiro.

Jones recommends freezing poultry before the "best-by" date if you're not going to use it for a while. Frozen raw poultry can last in the freezer for a year, and frozen cooked poultry will last in the freezer for four months. If you have leftover poultry in the fridge, it's best to consume within three to four days.


You can also extend the dates for consumption of fresh produce, like leafy greens, which often degrade in quality faster.

"In particular, antioxidants such as vitamin C diminish more easily over time, so I always recommend that lettuces and other packaged vegetables be stored with a paper towel in the package to absorb moisture and extend the life of the product," Jones says.

Storing unfinished produce, such as half an avocado or apple, in the fridge will extend its freshness.

"With avocado, I recommend my clients use the half that does not have the pit and save the half with the pit for storage," Schapiro says. "Storing an avocado with its pit in it helps keep it fresher and greener, and you can keep your avocado green by squeezing lemon juice on the half you're going to store and wrapping it in plastic wrap." Once cut, avocados last for one to two days.


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