Why I Ignore Food Expiration Dates

They're irrelevant to the way I shop, handle, and prepare food.

woman shops for groceries in store

Maskot / Getty Images

Earlier this month, British supermarket chain Morrisons announced that it would be eliminating "use by" dates on most of its milk. The idea behind this is to discourage people from throwing milk away based on a date, rather than sniffing and looking at it to determine whether it's still safe for consumption.

The fact is, significant amounts of food get wasted every year by people blindly following expiration dates, rather than their senses. Making matters worse is that most dates don't mean much, anyway; they're assigned somewhat arbitrarily by food manufacturers that are not held to any regulatory standards for what determines a safe date nor what expertise is required to make such a judgment call—so it makes sense that they'd err on the side of caution. 

What I find amusing, however, is the controversy surrounding Morrisons' decision. It seems that many people are horrified by this impending absence of "use by" dates. You'd think they'd been abandoned by the food safety gods, with dire predictions of spiking gastrointestinal illnesses.

I'd like to reassure you that there is no need to get so worked up. In fact, I never look at expiration dates when I shop, which might sound crazy to some, but could be helpful to others. In a recent conversation with a coworker, I admitted that I can't even remember the last time I looked at an expiration date on food in the grocery store. To me, it's as if they don't exist.

To be clear, I am not an absent-minded shopper. I pay close attention to both packaging and price. Despite having a full cart at checkout, I could tell you the exact price of every item in it. So it's not through lack of attentiveness that I ignore expiration dates; it's because of how I cook, view, and handle food in general that expiration dates are rendered unnecessary and superfluous. Here's why.


Through my many years of writing for Treehugger, I've become keenly aware of the enormous amount of food waste in our world. I consider it to be a serious issue and I fight it wherever I can. If I can buy an item that's close to expiration and spare the store from tossing it, I see that as a benefit for everyone involved—me, the store, and the Earth. I have a large and hungry family of five, so whatever we buy is usually eaten within a week at most.


Because of that aforementioned large and hungry family of five, grocery costs can feel hefty. So, any time I see a clearance rack at the store, I make a beeline for it. In fact, that's usually where I go first because it's exactly the stuff I want to buy—the cheaper, the better! If there's any heavily discounted product that I'd normally use, I scoop it up—sometimes multiples if it can be frozen. Often, I'll mentally adjust my weekly menu plan on the spot, based on what I find.


The handful of times I have looked at expiration dates have been for short-lived items like prepackaged salad greens. What I've found, however, is that the dates mean little. Even a package that claims to be fresh can still have slimy green leaves at the bottom, which turns me off. Therefore, the expiration date means next to nothing, but my visual assessment, combined with my intention for when I plan to eat it, is far more useful.


I tailor my cooking to what needs to be used. If lettuce is starting to wilt, I ensure we eat it that night. If bread goes stale, I pop it in the toaster. If carrots and celery are limp, they're good for soup. If cheese is moldy, I cut off the moldy part and eat the rest, or melt it into a sauce for homemade mac 'n cheese. If milk is starting to turn, I use it for making waffles on a weekend morning. If apples are mealy, they make great applesauce. Even if meat smells like it's slightly past its prime, I reheat it for a prolonged period of time before eating or throw it in a soup where it can simmer for a while. (Note: I would never use meat that stinks or looks discolored.)

As my reasoning goes (this is unscientific and still requires you to use your own common sense), foods can smell a bit "off" for a while before they actually rot and become dangerous to ingest. At those very early stages and signs of degradation, they should simply be used as quickly as possible, in a way that suits their current state, e.g. needing to be heated or cooked, rather than eaten straight.

The moral of the story? Food is your friend. Food is not out to kill you! Get to know food on its own terms, rather than those imposed by a manufacturer or packer whose goal is to protect from all risk and sell you more of it. The more you interact with ingredients and become familiar with them at varying stages on the "freshness" scale, the more comfortable you'll get with ignoring expiration dates, too. It's not nearly as black and white as food manufacturers would have you believe.

And trust those ancient animal senses that enabled your human ancestors to survive and produce you—and that got you to the age you're at now. If something seems vile, stay far away from it, but if it looks, smells, and tastes perfectly fine at first bite (and second and third), don't even look at the date on the container and dig in.