Everything You Need to Know About Expiration Dates

If there’s one thing that apocalyptic movies got right, it’s that when faced with a disaster, people will strip the shelves of the nearest grocery store bare in a matter of days. People will rush in and out, grabbing anything and everything that they think can help them survive for a considerable period. The grocery store quickly becomes a war zone and people will most likely grab anything they can regardless of the quality of the food.

Unfortunately, grabbing food and other items at random isn’t the best way to survive a disaster. You may think that by grabbing as much as you can then at least you have what you need, but if you stop and consider it, you’re only trying to survive for a few days. And who’s to say that the disaster won’t last for longer? Thus, there’s great value in taking the time to know and understand the expiration dates that your foods have.

A common belief is that expiration dates usually indicate to what date food is safe to eat. These expiration dates are an indicator of an item’s quality and not the safety. If you’re trying to prepare for a critical situation, ignoring expiration date may prove dangerous as it makes you susceptible to illnesses such as food poisoning. Another problem is that your stockpile may become completely useless, especially if you ended up stockpiling food with a short shelf life.

Knowing the mechanics of expiration dates and shelf life will save you a lot of money and effort. This article will talk about expiration dates from a prepper’s perspective.


Contrary to popular belief, the expiration date doesn’t only mean “best before.” Often, there are other labels that you will need to understand, especially if your goal is stockpile food that can last at least year. The only item the government requires to have an expiration date printed on it is infant formula. So, if you stockpile properly, you need to find a way to understand the somewhat arbitrary expiration dates printed on other things.

There are four labels that you need to understand:

  • sell by
  • best before
  • coded dates
  • use by date

Sell by date is a manufacturer-specific label. It indicates that date by which the manufacturer should have sold the goods. Best before date is the most common label you will see. Best before means that you must consume the food before the date printed to ensure quality and freshness. Coded dates are a little more difficult to explain as it consists of a series of numbers and letters. What you need to know about a coded date is that it functions as the goods’ ID or the tracking number and helps determine the shipping date of the product.

There’s no clear regulation as to which label you should follow, but the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends that you consume the food per the “use by” date on the label. If you consume food beyond the use by date, it is no longer as fresh as it was and the quality is starting to deteriorate. Once the deterioration process of food starts, there’s no easy way to tell if it’s still safe to consume or how fast it will go from being fresh to being rotten and even poisonous.


Different kinds of food mean a varying shelf life lengths. But if you’re going to start your stockpile for long-term storage, you might want to consider the goods that can last indefinitely. To help you with that task, here’s a list of goods that take 25 to an indefinite amount of years before expiring:

  1. Honey
  2. Twinkies
  3. Canned or dried beans
  4. Rice
  5. Powdered milk
  6. Salt
  7. Sugar
  8. Wheat
  9. Baking soda
  10. Dried corn
  11. Instant coffee, tea or cocoa

Aside from the items above, many spices have a shelf life ranging from two to five year. When stored properly, you may even have the chance to extend the quality well beyond the expiration date.


When starting a stockpile, the first thing that you must consider is shelf life. You should consider how long the goods will last and if it’s enough to help you survive for a significant period. A common goal is to stockpile enough supplies for at least a year regardless of what disaster you anticipate. Stockpiling for one full year is enough to ensure that when the time comes, you and your family won’t be forced to join the fray at the nearest grocery store to survive.

The most common things that most people stock up on are canned goods, meals ready to eat (MREs), and freeze-dried foods. These goods take at most 25 years to expire, and with attention to proper storage techniques, they can last longer than the printed best before date. Thus, for you to fully maximize the potential and quality of these goods, you will need to learn a few things about expiration dates and storage for each type.

Canned Goods

The common misconception about canned goods is that they can last forever. According to USDA, this is wrong because their shelf life depends on the level of acid the food contains. If the acid level is low to moderate, like vegetables, fish, and meat, shelf life can hold be as much as five years. On the other hand, if the acid level is high, like in canned tomatoes and citrus fruits, shelf life is reduced to one and a half years. The general rule for them is that although they can last for up to five years, plan to consume them within two years from the manufacture date.

If at some point, you wonder about the nutrients and vitamins you get from eating canned goods, don’t worry. The good news is that it canned vegetables can retain the mineral content for the entirety of its shelf life. Although a percentage loss of nutrients is expected, particularly in foods containing vitamins A and C, the rate of nutrient loss diminishes with proper storage.

The best way to stockpile canned goods is to follow the first in, first out rule. Label the cans individually and make sure that you indicate the expiration date and manufacture date (if applicable) with clear visibility. Labeling canned goods in this way will ensure you know which goods are still fresh and will help you track which ones are going to expire soon.

Aanother thing about canned goods is that you can extend its shelf life by storing at room temperature away from direct sunlight or in a dark area. Regularly check the state of the storage and the cans itself. If you see any signs of deterioration like rust, or if there are dents, don’t risk eating it. The same goes if you spot any signs of leaking or bloating MRES.

Originally manufactured for soldiers and astronauts, MREs have been popular since the 1970s. Each MRE packet contains a complete and tasty meal. MREs arrive wrapped in three layers of plastic and aluminum pouches which make them perfect for stockpiling.

The shelf life of MREs varies depending on the storage temperature. The most current estimated shelf life chart is from 2010:

Temperature (F) Shelf Life (months)
120 1
110 2
100 6
90 18
80 36
70 40
60 48
50 60

As you can see, the official position is that they can be stored for a duration of one month to five years, depending on the temperature in the storage area. Of course, there have been accounts of longer shelf life reported by individuals. To extend the estimated shelf life, take care not to rip, tear, or otherwise damage the MREs packaging. Any MREs with ruptured, punctured or swelling should be discarded or used only as a last resort.

Another indicator of the quality of MREs is the time and temperature indicator (TTI) officially added to the front of the packaging in 1997. The TTI looks like a donut with bold and black outer circle and a clear inner circle. If the inner circle is lighter than the outside, that MRE is still safe for consumption.

Freeze-Dried Food

Freeze drying food is one of the most effective ways of removing moisture and water. Compared to dehydrated and sun-dried foods, freeze-dried food lasts longer and retains more vitamins and minerals. According to reports, this dehydration process removes about 98% of moisture which makes the food light and easy to carry.

The average shelf life of freeze-dried food is two to 25 years and more. The variation depends on the location of your storage and the consistency of its placement. Simply put, if you store the goods in a dry and cold location, and if you keep it in there until the time you plan on eating it, the shelf life will be longer. Heat returns the moisture, and the fluctuating temperature attracts bacteria which accelerates the process of rotting.

The only disadvantage with freeze-dried food is the freeze-drying process requires a lot of energy and effort to pull off. But aside from that, these goods can last for a very, very long time. Freeze drying makes food very light which means it is possible to carry more food with you, especially when you need to bug out.


Medicine and antibiotics are one of those items that often don’t have specific information regarding the expiration dates and shelf life. In a critical situation, your situation might take a turn for the worst if you drink or otherwise use medicine that has long since expired. Fortunately, all medicine manufacturers are required to print an expiration date on the packaging. The date indicated is when the medicine will start to lose its optimal potency thereby making it less effective, and at times, fatal.

The general rule is that medicine can last for two to five years under favorable storage conditions. Solid drug forms like pills, tablets, and capsules fall into this category. Medicine in liquid form are less stable and expires faster, so shelf life is more difficult to estimate. Once you open a bottle of liquid medicine, it’s best to use it before the expiration date indicated. Injectable drugs that show signs of precipitation or look cloudy should not be used.

Interestingly, there are no studies that indicate whether it’s safe to use expired drugs. It’s believed that some of the common ones, like that for a cough and fever, can be ingested well beyond the expiration date. Those that relieve more complicated illnesses like heart failure, and diabetes should never be used beyond the date.

If you’re not sure as to whether you should still use the medicine you’ve stockpiled, consider the storage conditions. Longer shelf life and maximum potency can be achieved if it’s stored in a place that is cool, dry and dark. Avoid extreme temperatures and always check the seal.


  1. Get the temperature right. Extreme cold or heat can ruin just about anything in your stockpile. The safest is room temperature, but if you can find a place that is naturally cold like root cellars, that will give you the best shot at extending shelf life.
  2. Once you’ve opened or sliced through something, consume it as soon as you can. Leftovers can only last for so long (two to four day). Plus, breaking the seal is a ticking time bomb. You will only have so much time before your stockpile will be infested with bacteria and viruses
  3. Consider the packaging. This is very important because aside from the storage conditions, it is one of the things that can extend shelf life for almost double the duration. For example, good wrapped in Mylar last longer because it’s airtight and it keeps it at room temperature at least.
  4. Know the signs of rotten items. If it smells bad or if it looks weird, don’t risk it. This is especially true when it comes to medicine. Extending the cumulative shelf life of your stockpile will only work if you get rid of those that are nearing end of the line.
  5. Keep track of expiration dates. Organize your stockpile in such a way that the older goods are in front. If you can label every item, do so. Strictly adhere to the first in, first out rule.

Expiration dates can only tell you so many things. Most of the time, when you’re in a critical situation, you must trust your gut. Stick to what you know and don’t risk it if you’re not sure. It’s always better safe than sorry.

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