Shelf-Life: What Do Expiration Dates Really Mean?

You’ve probably noticed that nearly every food has a date on it these days.  It may say “use by,” “freshest before,” “expiration,” or “best by,” but essentially you get the impression that most grocery items won’t do you much good for long-term storage.

What do food expiration dates mean?

Is there a maximum amount we can store?

One of my main concerns when we began “prepping” was how we could accumulate food stores that would still be good to eat when we needed it.  We can only eat so much food (without becoming obese) and it expires eventually, so how do we store food for longer than say 18 months?  That seemed to be the furthest date printed on my commercial canned goods.

What do the dates mean?

After more research, I have learned a few things about sell dates. According to the USDA, only infant formula is required to have an expiration date printed on the container.

Other food companies to place dates on their products to help us, as consumers, make better decisions. Or perhaps they want to encourage us to consume the product before time runs out so we’ll buy some more. Some companies are offering “guarantees” with those sell dates.  In other words, if the food spoils or is otherwise below your expectations, they will replace it free within that time frame.

To arrive at those dates, the maker has determined that the food will hold its nutrients, texture, and flavor well for at least that long.  That does not mean that it is unsafe or lacks nutrition after that date.  If the food (often in cans) has been stored at moderate temperatures, isn’t rusty, and has no big dents or swollen places, it is probably fine well after the date.

Of course, you should always use good sense when preparing to consume it.  If the contents have an off smell /taste or an unusual appearance, don’t risk it.  Otherwise, it is most likely just fine, though maybe not still at the peak of its nutrition.

A Good Online Reference

There is a good website to use as a reference to help you in determining how long after the dates you can plan to store your food.  It is  It gives safe shelf-life ranges and explanations for what types of foods last the longest.  For example, it lists that canned Great Northern beans should be good for up to 5 years.  That makes it a really good item for stocking (and you know how I have a penchant for beans!).

This is all good information to have, but don’t forget that your goal is still to rotate your stock.  Ideally, you are using the First In/First Out rule so that you can get the best nutrition from your food.  To simplify this for myself, I re-write the date in large numbers with a marker on top of the can so that, at a glance and without squinting, I can be sure I am using the oldest first.  As a matter of fact, dating the new purchases is a much sought-after job by the kids around here.  I’ll have to say, I’d rather do that than invent new places to put it!

Soon I will try to cover some storage ideas we’ve used and how to simplify food stock rotation.

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19 Comments on “Shelf-Life: What Do Expiration Dates Really Mean?”

  1. SurvivalWoman Says:

    I first delved in to the mysteries of expiration dates about 20 years ago when I started to make bread. After many failures, I was advised that the flour was old. So I contacted the flour company (Gold Medal?) and they gave me the key to deciphering the expiration codes. Jeesh. To this day, you need a PhD in code breaking to know how to read all of those expiration dates.

    My personal solution is to mark all of my foodstuffs with the purchase date using black Sharpie pen. I then put the newest product in back and the oldest in front, setting up a FIFO system. Everything for long term, emergency storage is packed in Mylar bags, Food Saver bags, and buckets with gamma seals. I date the buckets and assume a ten year use even though it is probably longer. I use the same FIFO system with our freezer. My husband knows to put new purchases on the top shelf so I can organize things “my way”. Works for us 🙂

    — Gaye


    • Laura Says:

      Interesting experience with the flour. I had not thought about flour not acting the way I expected (rising, etc). I had just been concerned it would go rancid if it was whole wheat, or some other “good” flour. Another good reason to grind it fresh, I guess.

      I didn’t want to get into a debate about what date to write on the cans because I can see the merit of both systems. Like you, I go with purchase date b/c that’s much easier than getting a magnifying glass to find the “use by” date on every item. This way, I can let the kids simply write the month/year on the top in bold print and we accomplish the same basic thing- I know what order to use things at a glance.

      I look lovingly at those deluxe can storage racks that you load from the back and the cans all angle down toward the front so they are always FIFO. No place presently and they are pretty pricey, but maybe if/when we get a root cellar, though I’m a bit concerned about putting metal cans in there. I’m not sure if the humidity may rust them. Need to investigate that some more.

      Thanks for mentioning the issue with the flour- that’s good to know.


      • Jarhead Survivor Says:

        I found some FIFO can racks on Amazon for about $60 I think. They’re plastic and they need a sturdy shelf to sit on (which I made from plywood), but they work great. I actually got a couple of them and put them side by side. I think each one can hold up to 54 cans or something like that. It’s been awhile.

        Great post by the way and that link you posted was awesome. Thanks for the info.


  2. Arsenius the hermit Says:

    I know people get tired of hearing me say this, but I’m still eating canned food I put away in 1999. I also eat bulk storage food that was purchased at the same time. I have never gotten sick and it tastes fine. The only thing I don’t know is how nutritious it is. People say the nutritional value declines over time but I have no way of knowing how much in each individual instance. Not long ago I ate Navy Beans from 1999 in the can and they tasted a little flat. I actually gave some of them to the chickens, but neither the chickens or I got sick.


  3. Melinda Says:

    First In = First out. That is the best policy but putting the date on everything as some suggested and shuffling the cans around on the shelf is sooo much work. My wonderful husband gave me a great shelving unit for Christmas. He bought it at Look for it on the special deals page. The price is unbelievable for such a huge unit. It is so easy now to use the FIFO method plus my kids are fighting over who gets to put away the groceries this time:)


  4. Tessa Says:

    I am really loving the theme/design of your website.
    Do you ever run into any web browser compatibility problems?

    A handful of my blog readers have complained about my site not working correctly in Explorer but
    looks great in Safari. Do you have any solutions to help fix this problem?


  5. Says:

    My cookies has a old flour taste why? All ingredients are new except flour. It has been kept in a air tight container.



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