When Does Food Expire?

The actual shelf-life of food is typically longer than the stated “Best Before” dates on its packaging, but how much longer? What about foods that don’t have some kind of “Eat by” date? We had the same questions, specifically about the foods in Inventory Wolf’s recommended shelter-in-place food plans.

Something to keep in mind is that food does go bad (with a few exceptions noted below) so an economical approach is to rotate food from your disaster preparedness stores into your daily meals, before it goes bad. Inventory Wolf’s Expiring Items report can help prioritize which foods to rotate in.

Here are the expiry times for foods in Inventory Wolf’s recommended shelter-in-place food plans. How we arrived at this data is explained below the table. Some items that can last indefinitely, such as dried lentils, lose their optimal nutrition after a couple years, so we advise rotating them out before then.

Commercially canned, low-acid foods such as canned meat, poultry, fish, stew, soups, green vegetables, beans, carrots, corn, peas, potatoes2-5 years
Commercially canned, high-acid foods such as canned juices, fruit, pickles, sauerkraut, tomatoes, tomato soup, spaghetti sauce12-18 months
Lentils, Dried1-2 years
Mashed potatoes, Instant12-18 months
Fruit, Mixed, Dried6-12 months
Crackers6-9 months
Oats2 years
Rice2 years
Breakfast cereal1 year
Pasta2 years
Macaroni & cheese mix2 years
Pancake mix1 year
Powdered milk2 years
Freeze-dried foods10-30 years
Peanut butter, Jar1-2 years
Mixed nuts, Jar1-2 years
Oil, Corn1 year
Oil, Olive2-3 years
Coffee, Instant2-5 years
Cookies, Packaged6-9 months
Cocoa powder2 years
Candy, Hard2-3 years
Sugar, Granulatedindefinite
Spices, Ground2-3 years
Food bars1-2 years
Multivitamins2 years
Shelf-lives for foods in Inventory Wolf’s recommended shelter-in-place food plans


We headed to the USDA website for answers. Three pages in particular gave some answers:

The key things we learned there were:

  • Canned foods
    • You can safely keep commercially canned foods longer than their dates. Low-acid foods (such as canned meat, poultry, fish, stew, soups, green vegetables, beans, carrots, corn, peas, potatoes, etc.) can be stored for two to five years; high-acid foods (e.g. canned juices, fruit, pickles, sauerkraut, tomatoes, tomato soup), for 12-18 months.
    • Store canned foods and other shelf stable products in a cool, dry place.
    • Don’t purchase or keep bulging, rusted, leaking, or deeply dented cans.
  • Rice and dried pasta lasts 2 years
  • Dried beans are considered non-perishable. Meaning no matter how long you have them, they will not spoil. For freshness and quality however, this item should be consumed within 1-2 years if kept in the pantry.


Unfortunately, that was all the guidance we could glean from the USDA, but what about our mashed potatoes? Surely our cookies must be rotated back in soon? So we turned to the Internet, and these two sites had the most credible information (I’ve no affiliation with them, BTW):

Freeze-dried Foods

For freeze-dried items, we turned to the manuafacturers’ sites (such as Mountain House, Saratoga Farms, Honeyville, etc) and learned that various of their foods had shelf-lives ranging from 10 to 30 years. So for those items, you’ll also want to simply use the shelf-life recommended by its manufacturer.


The Food Plans Explained


When you choose the Shelter-in-place option during the Inventory Wolf onboarding questionnaire, you’ll be setup with a food plan in your Shelter-in-place cache. Acquire all the items in that plan, and you’ll be set food-wise for the time period you chose (2 weeks, 1 month, or 2 months). That food plan is based on 2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines and a 2000 calorie daily intake.


When researching survival food plans to build Inventory Wolf‘s recommendations, the plans I found didn’t satisfy me. Being a bit of a health nut, I also had concerns with the nutritional balance of what I found. So I decided to build the food plan recommendations from scratch, using the 2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines (published jointly by the US Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) every five years).


Of particular use was Table 1-1. Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern at the 2,000-Calorie Level, With Daily or Weekly Amounts From Food Groups, Subgroups, & Components.

The Guidelines also provide estimates of calorie needs per day. For example, it lists 2400 calories and 1800 calories for 30-year-old sedentary males and females, respectively. I set the food plans to 2000 calories per day, irrespective of sex and activity levels, and rounded up to full containers. The reasoning is:

  • The higher needs for males would average out with the lower needs for females and children
  • If you are sheltering in place, you won’t be too active
  • People typically buy “a little extra” when survival food shopping

If your household has a higher male-to-female/child ratio, or plans to be more active while weathering disasters, or lives in winter storm climates, be sure to buy “a little extra” when shopping for these items.

I went through each of the food groups and the foods that make up each group, and drawing from both my own prepping experience and fellow preppers, I identified food candidates that met the following criteria:

  • Relatively shelf-stable. It needs to be storable on shelves or in bins, not requiring refrigeration, and not expire or lose its nutritional value too soon. Canned food is a good choice here as our friends at the USDA tell us, “High acid foods such as tomatoes and other fruit will keep their best quality up to 18 months; low acid foods such as meat and vegetables, 2 to 5 years.
  • Relatively easy to prepare. Cooking abilities such as heating food up, cooking pasta and rice, making pancakes from a mix, etc, should be sufficient.
  • Relatively easy to find in normal grocery stores in your area. Some items, such as freeze-dried scrambled eggs, you’re most likely only going to find in a store with hiking and camping gear, or on-line of course.

Once I had candidates for each of the food groups, I calculated quantities for 2-week, 1-month, and 2-month periods, adding additional variety for each successive time frame. You could simply multiply your 2-week plan by 4 to get a 2-month plan, but eating the same foods day in and day out during a disaster is not going to be good for your morale, or health.

Lastly, I added some comfort and snack foods, again increasing variety the longer the period, to arrive at the final plans.


Hate canned carrots? Allergic to nuts? No problem, you can substitute something else. The trick is to substitute from the same food group. That will probably mean spending some time understanding the food groups, but that will be time well spent. If you’ve already got the Dietary Guidelines open, they do a good job of explaining the different food groups and you’ll see that carrots, for example, are in the Red & Orange Vegetables group. But before you simply double up on sweet potatoes, keep in mind, you want variety, so pick something else like pumpkin instead.

Note: The Notes field of each food in recommended inventories lists its food group for your convenience.

Tips and Tricks

  • Expiry dates. Be sure to set the food item’s expiry date in Inventory Wolf, then you can view the Expiring Items report to see what items need to be replaced so that your supplies aren’t stale when you need them/
  • Storage. Keep food stores off the ground and cool
  • Rotation. Instead of waiting for food to expire, and then throwing it out, consume it before it expires, and then buy replacements. No wasted food/money.
  • Recording multiple expiry dates. If you have two sets of jars of spaghetti sauce, each with different expiry dates, just have an Inventory Wolf item for each set, then you can assign each set its own expiry date.

The feature image is from Beer Cans in Dunsmuir, California