Best before, use by and sell by dates – what’s the difference?

Make sure you’re not wasting food by chucking it away.

Do you throw out food when it reaches the date on the pack? Well, you could be chucking out perfectly good enough produce – and wasting money as a result.

In fact, there are a few kinds of expiry dates on food, and it’s not always clear what they mean. How do you know when it’s safe to keep eating? Well, here’s a quick round-up.

What’s the difference between best-before, use-by and sell-by dates?

Use by dates

As it suggests, the advice is to actually use the food by the date listed. So, often this is mainly fresh meat or fish, milk, fruit and veg.

It doesn’t mean you can’t eat stuff after the use-by date, but there’s a risk you could get food poisoning – so it’s often best to stick to the date.

I’ve had a look online to see if there are any general rules for telling if something is still ok to eat – but the advice is mixed.

Apparently, some manufacturers factor in a day or two extra as a precaution, while some people swear by the sniff test. However, the only guarantee, as long as the food has been stored properly, is to consume it by the use-by date.

Best-before dates

Anything with a best before date is safe to consume after expiry. However, the manufacturer will only guarantee the quality until the date.

So you shouldn’t get ill if a pack of crisps or tin of beans if out of date. It might not taste great, but there’s every chance it’ll be just fine – especially if it’s only a few weeks past. Some stuff is absolutely fine months later.

Sell-by / Display until dates

The sell-by date is really an indicator for shop staff rather than customers. It doesn’t actually mean anything for the quality or safety of the food. There’s actually been a huge drop in how often we see these as research found they understandably confused shoppers.

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How I beat use-by and best-before dates and save money

Chucking out-of-date food away is essentially throwing money in the bin. Here’s how I avoid it. I know some might seem obvious, but I’ve added in some details you might not be aware of for each.

Freeze it

Ignore packaging that says “freeze on day of purchase”. You can freeze anything up until the use-by date as long as you’ve not already opened it.

When you defrost it you should then cook the produce within 24 hours.

I’ll sometimes break up a pack of meat into smaller freezer bags for an individual portion. This means I can get one chicken breast out if I’m cooking for myself, or more depending on how many I need.

You can of course also freeze leftovers, while batch cooking is a great way to use up everything.

Eat it

Right, obvious. But if you keep an eye on use-by dates and plan your meals around those items you won’t be chucking out foods you could have eaten.

Once you’ve cooked meat you’ll also be able to store it for a couple of days until the fridge, even if you cook it on the use-by date.

Buy cheap out of date food

You rarely see supermarkets sell items past their best before date, but smaller shops and markets will often have cut-price grub that’s just gone out of date.

There are also online retailers such as Approved Food and Yankee Bundles. They sell a huge variety of products for pretty low prices, including big brands. They also sell a lot of stuff that’s seasonally out of date – so post-Christmas, Easter and Halloween there’s an influx of cheap but perfectly good choc and sweets!

It’s well worth taking a look, but don’t get too carried away by the bargain basement prices – you’ll still need to eat or drink the stuff!

Know what you’ve got

If you’re heading to the supermarket, it really does help to make a list of what you actually need, rather than what you think you need.

A quick cheat here is to take a photo of your fridge or cupboards so you can see what’s there.

Be flexible with your meals

A common food tip is to meal plan – it is probably the best way to make sure you use up ingredients.

But I also try to be flexible with what I’ll have for dinner – and this allows me to take advantage of cut-price food that’s about to go out of date.

You see I’m a little addicted to reduced stickers, as I wrote about a few years ago, so I’ll often decide on meals based on what I can pick up on the day, then freeze anything I can’t use that night.

Buy smaller portions

Those big packs might appear to be cheaper, but not if you have to throw half of the contents in the bin.

If you only use some items occasionally, especially store cupboard essentials, it might be better to buy smaller packs – even if they cost more per 100g. In the long run, you’ll save money.

Avoid bulk buying

This is one area I occasionally fall victim to. If I see a really good deal I sometimes buy two or three – usually on condiments (I’m a little sauce obsessed). Mostly it’s fine, but every now and again I get caught out and find I’ve not used them by the best before date.

Obviously, I now know they’ll be okay to keep eating after the best before date (as long as they aren’t open), but even so I do limit how much of the same thing I buy.

4 thoughts on “Best before, use by and sell by dates – what’s the difference?

  1. Canned and bottled foods can keep for years, if unopened. There is the story of the tin of corned beef left over from WW2 and opened after over 20 years which was fit to eat. I’m not suggesting anyone keeps stuff that long though! Dairy products such as butter, cheese, cream, milk and yoghurt will keep for a longer period, again, if unopened. Most packaged products are heat treated to destroy spoilage organisms, so that the product lasts longer; pasturisation of dairy products is one example, and canned and bottled foods are another. I opened some medium mature cheddar over 2 years after the best before date and it tasted very mature; maunfacturers refridgerate or freeze dairy products to mature them.

  2. Freezing it really is the best tip! My freezer is always crammed full 🙂

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