What does use-by, sell-by or best-if-used-by actually mean?

I pose this question because it inevitably creeps up in my mind when I’m going through my fridge on Friday night, sorting out what's still good. As much as I can, I meal prep. Because it helps me save time and money - blah blah blah - we all know the benefits. Let’s go back to my 2017 New Year’s resolution, where I stated I wanted to reduce my food waste. Now that we are halfway through the year, I’d like to assess where I am at and what I’ve learned.

Based on looking at receipts and other various factors, I have significantly decreased the amount of food I purchase, thus reducing the amount of food I waste. Before my New Year’s resolution, back in 2016, I would likely pay around $70/week for food (throw in a bottle of wine while we’re at it). Looking back, that’s quite a bit for one person, assuming I’m going to eat most of it and maybe eat out once or twice (inevitably). Also consider that I was buying my groceries at Whole Foods in DC.

Over the last six months, I’ve been paying about $40-$50 each week for my food AND still haven’t eaten all of it each week. This also made me curious about my purchasing habits and whether I was spending money on food because it was there or if I actually needed it. It’s the reason I decided to write this post on my progress as well as to acknowledge where I can still make improvements. I’ve learned three useful tips over the last few months to eliminate food waste and to be a better steward of my money:

1 | Learn what use-by, sell-by and best-if-used before means

I’ve heard some wildly different definitions for each of these terms. To help set the record straight for everyone, here’s what the U.S. Department of Agriculture deems to be true about each:

  •  "Best if Used By/Before" indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
  • "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.


2 | Stop eating when you’re full

Not only does this help you refrain from overeating, it also can help you realize how much food you’re eating. I’ve noticed that I don’t need to eat as much as I thought I did due to removing distractions, putting the fork down between bites or simply feeling if I’m still hungry. It’s likely that you’ll eat less just by doing one of those things. I’m currently reading a book that’s helped me a lot with this skill (recommended by my dietician).


3 | Buy Less

This may seem obvious, but sometimes it’s not. Consider these questions: Will there be more food at the grocery store tomorrow? Can you be more deliberate about the nutrients in each meal, ensuring you’re full? Will you eat out at least once a week?

Likely, you answered 'yes' to all of these questions, which means you can buy less knowing those factors will remain largely unchanged.

Next time you step into the grocery store, or head to a farmer’s market, remember to trust your intuition more and realize that the hysteria we have around food is largely from outside pressures (BOGO, Last Day sales, etc.) and sometimes our own misguided perceptions.

Know more so you can say “no more”.