How to Read Expiration Dates and How to Store Foods

Locating the expiration dates on products can be a difficult task. But even when the dates are present, it may be hard to understand what the figures mean. In the United States, other than infant formula and baby food, there is no standard coding system for expiration dates for food products. This means that manufacturers decide how to add expiration dates. For your safety, it is important to learn to read expiration dates.


How to Read Expiration Dates

Look out for any of the following types of dates:

  • ŸSell By: It addresses the store and its employees on the date beyond which an item should not stay on the shelf. Buy items before their sell-by dates.
  • ŸBest Before/By: This shows the last date a product will still be at its optimum freshness. To ensure good quality of such a product, buy and use prior to the best-before date.
  • ŸUse By: It shows the date when the product quality and flavor are expected to start deteriorating. Buy for use before the use-by date for best results.

Safety After Date Expires 

Except for use-by date, dates on products do not always indicate the suitability for use after purchase and storage at home. Use-by dates indicate the date up to which a product is of good quality. 

Spoilage odors, flavors or appearance may develop when bacteria grow in foods. Such foods may not be good enough to eat. They may cause food poisoning and should therefore be discarded.

Mishandling foods may cause food-borne bacteria to develop. If these include pathogens, such foods may lead to poisoning and food-borne illness, whether they are used before or after the expiration date. 

Other cases of mishandling include:

  • Defrosting food products at room temperature for longer than two hours
  • Handling food without practicing good hygiene
  • Cross contamination

Here’s a video to show you how to read expiration dates and handle food to ensure safety:

How to Store Your Foods Properly

This is a general guidance, and later there is a guide for storing specific foods:

  • Buy foods before their expiration dates.
  • After purchasing perishable foods, take them home and refrigerate immediately. If you don’t plan to use it soon, freeze it.
  • Read and apply handling instructions on food packages.

Meat, Poultry and Fish

Meats are extremely perishable and will normally have sell-by dates beyond which stores cannot display them. Always look for the date on the package and buy well before it. Follow the freeze by or use by date, if present; otherwise follow the recommendations in the storage chart below.

Refrigerate meats at a maximum of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. If you plan to keep the meat for longer, freeze and maintain at not higher than 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Defrosted meat should be cooked in one to two days. Defrosting within the refrigerator is preferred to defrosting in the open.

Properly frozen food can remain safe to use for longer so that you don’t have to wonder how to read expiration dates. However, after the periods recommended in the chart, texture and quality may change. 

Types of Meat

Refrigerated Below 40° F

Frozen Below 0° F

Poultry – whole

1 – 2 Days

12 Months

Poultry - pieces

1 – 2 Days

9 Months


1 – 2 Days

3 – 8 Months

Ground beef, hamburger, lamb, pork, veal, turkey, mixed meats and products containing these meats

1 – 2 Days

3 – 4 Months


3 – 5 Days

4 – 12 Months


3 – 5 Days

4 – 12 Months


3 – 5 Days

4 – 12 months


Packed milk has a sell-by date. Refrigerating pasteurized milk soon after buying it will ensure it is drinkable beyond the recommended date.

Ultra heat treated (UHT) milk stays fresh for up to three months without refrigeration. However, once you open it, be sure to refrigerate it the same way as ordinary pasteurized milk.

Milk Type

Refrigerated Below 40° F

Ordinary pasteurized

7 to 14 Days

Ultra Heat Treated (UHT) - after opening

7 to 14 Days


Eggs will usually have some form of expiration date displayed on the package. As with other perishable foods, buy eggs before the indicated expiration or sell-by date. When you get to the house, put the eggs in a cold part in the refrigerator in the original package. The eggs will remain safe to use for up to 5 weeks even if this will be past the expiration or sell-by date.

Type of Eggs

Refrigerated Below 40° F

Frozen Below 0° F

In shell - uncooked

3 – 5 Weeks

Don’t freeze

Hard cooked

1 Week

Avoid freezing

Liquid egg substitute - unopened

10 Days

12 Months

Liquid egg substitute - opened

3 Days

Avoid freezing


It is likely that you would wonder how to read expiration dates for bread. The date is indicated on the packaging bag or an attached tag. Fresh bread sold at bakeries will normally be free of preservative. It will therefore get stale sooner. Stale bread will have some mold on the surface. If this happens, don’t eat the bread.

Kind of Bread

Stored on the Counter

Stored in the Freezer

Bread in plastic bag

2 to 4 Days

2 to 3 Months

Fresh baked bread

1 to 3 Days

2 to 3 Months

Fruits and Vegetables

Farm produce has a varying storage time. Some items such as green beans can only be stored for a few days; some like onions can be stored for a few weeks, while others such as squash can keep for months. However, once you cut them up, be sure to use them without delay, as they deteriorate very fast. 

When storing fruits and vegetables, sort and keep similar items together, e.g. carrots with carrots and apples with apples. Mixing unlike fruits and vegetables may encourage faster deterioration.

Fruits and vegetables that easily dry up should be stored in unsealed or perforated plastic bags to ensure they remain moisturized and well aired. And don’t wash fruits or vegetables before storing; otherwise the added moisture will encourage rotting.