Know your Best By, Use By, & Sell By dates

If you’ve ever wondered — “What does this ‘sell by’ date mean on my jug of milk? Can I still use it in my breakfast cereal, or is it past the point of no return?” — you are not alone.

The Bottom Line

Manufacturers want grocers to turn their product. Grocers don’t want returns or complaints on food that’s lost some of its “ooomf”. Consumers want some guidance on how long their food will be good. All of these are reasons for offering food dates, but it may not be a reason for throwing food away.

According to USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (Source: USDA):

  • “A “Best if Used By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality.  It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.  It is not a safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula
  • A “Freeze-By” date indicates when a product should be frozen to maintain peak quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.”

The common theme in these definitions is that these are not safety dates. The only food item where the date should be strictly followed is baby formula. Except for baby formula, most dates are indicators of best flavor and peak quality. So, use your judgment and senses, and use this month’s Love Food, Fight Waste information as a guide.

Tip: Use the date stamped on baby formula as a food safety date!

These guidelines indicate number of days after date on package an unopened item may be okay to eat:

  • Dairy:
    • Eggs: 1 month
    • Milk: 7 days
    • Yogurt: 7 days
    • Shredded cheese: 2 weeks
    • Block cheese: 3 months
  • Grocery:
    • Baking mixes: 1 year
    • Canned goods: 1-2 years
    • Cereal: 6-12 months
    • Chips: 2 months
    • Juices: 3 weeks
    • Sauces: 1 year

The above are guidelines only.


After you’ve read up on “best by,” “use by,” and “sell by” dates, check the dates on the food in your own fridge. Can you organize your fridge and pantry to prioritize those items creeping closer to expiration?

Try a few creative recipes that use up near-expiration items in a practical and safe way. Need recipe inspiration? Check out these resources:


  • Freeze meat, cheese, and produce on or before “use by” date and it’s good to eat for 4-12 months.
  • Keep potatoes up to 3-4 months in the fridge.
  • Store produce away from onions and bananas to extend its life.

Other Resources


Read more Love Food, Fight Waste topics, brought to you by Table to Table and the City of Iowa City.