A person looking at food products in a supermarket aisle

An easy guide to food date labels

09 Jul 20 2 minutes

They’re on most of the products we buy yet their meanings are often misunderstood, but ‘use by’ and ‘best before’ date labels don’t have to be confusing. 

Cutting our food waste is a great way to help us all reduce our contribution to climate change, and understanding date labels can really help.

Let’s recap what they actually mean.

Best before

‘Best before’ is all about the quality: after this date, it might not be at its best as the flavour and texture may be waning, but chances are it’ll still be fine. How does it smell, look and taste? Use your senses to make a judgement call.

Proper food storage is the goal here. If food is stored incorrectly, it might not last up to it’s best before date and beyond. Take bread, for example, if it’s stored on a counter top in direct sunlight you’re not going to get as long out of your loaf as if it was stored in a cool, dark and dry place, like a bread bin or cupboard.

For more food storage hacks, check out Love Food Hate Waste Scotland’s handy A-Z of food storage

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. According to Food Standards Scotland, eggs have a ‘best before’ date of 28 days after they are laid. Eggs can be eaten a day or two afterwards, just forgo the sunny side up yolks or dippy eggs and instead cook them thoroughly. More advice on date labels can be found on their website.

Use by

While ‘best before’ is an indicator of quality, ‘use by’ is all about safety. As long as they are stored properly, foods can be eaten up until the ‘use by’ date. Don’t eat food that is after its use-by date as it could potentially make you ill. 

If you’re struggling to finish it up in time, you can freeze just about anything (including most meats) up until the ‘use by’ date. You don’t have to stick exclusively to ‘freeze on day of purchase’. Freezing acts as a pause button, allowing you to preserve both uncooked foods and cooked meals. Simply defrost your food in the fridge as you need it and eat within 24 hours.

Check labels regularly and if you find a ‘use by’ date that’s tomorrow, you can either cook it and enjoy today or tomorrow, or freeze it and eat another day.

Date label on pasta sign post

You can freeze just about anything (including most meats) up until the ‘use by’ date.

Display until or sell by

These dates are for the retailers – not us at home - so you can ignore these ones. 

There you go. Now you can confidently navigate through the world of date labels, and settle any date-related dramas at home. Always check the label when you’re preparing food to make sure it’s been stored correctly and is before the use-by date.