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Grocery shopping: Does ‘in date’ and ‘out of date’ really matter?

“When in doubt, throw it out!” used to be a familiar slogan, but if we’re trying to reduce food waste, we should be aware of what the dates on food products actually mean.

Remember – dates on food apply to QUALITY and not to food safety and these items are not necessarily an “expiration date.”

  • A “Best if Used By/Before” 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.

Source: USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service

How to check products in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer:

1. Check the dates on the packages.

2. Are any of the packages open? This may mean the ingredients have been compromised even if they are within the “use by” date. Open boxes or containers of grains and cereals stored in a pantry are often subject to insects.

3. Are cans intact and without punctures, rust or bulging seams? If any of these issues are visible the item should be discarded regardless of the date.

4. Check your dried herbs and spices. Open the lid or container and take a whiff. Can you smell the herb or spices? If not, take a pinch between two fingers and rub them together. If you can still smell the herbs and spices they are still good to use. If there is little or no smell it’s time to replace them.

5. Is there visible ice coating frozen items? Does it appear as though they have melted and refrozen. Are packages still sealed? Frozen items can last the longest but if air or moisture gets in to the package the taste, color and quality will be affected by freezer burn.

Talk to Leah

Leah McGrath is the corporate dietitian for Ingles Markets. Follow her @InglesDietitian. Contact her at, 800-334-4936 or at