When does food expire?

June 29, 2020

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.

Food Shelf-life
Commercially canned, low-acid foods such as canned meat, poultry, fish, stew, soups, green vegetables, beans, carrots, corn, peas, potatoes 2-5 years
Commercially canned, high-acid foods such as canned juices, fruit, pickles, sauerkraut, tomatoes, tomato soup, spaghetti sauce 12-18 months
Lentils, Dried 1-2 years
Mashed potatoes, Instant 12-18 months
Fruit, Mixed, Dried 6-12 months
Crackers 6-9 months
Oats 2 years
Rice 2 years
Breakfast cereal 1 year
Pasta 2 years
Macaroni & cheese mix 2 years
Pancake mix 1 year
Powdered milk 2 years
Freeze-dried foods 10-30 years
Peanut butter, Jar 1-2 years
Mixed nuts, Jar 1-2 years
Oil, Corn 1 year
Oil, Olive 2-3 years
Coffee, Instant 2-5 years
Cookies, Packaged 6-9 months
Cocoa powder 2 years
Whiskey indefinite
Candy, Hard 2-3 years
Sugar, Granulated indefinite
Salt indefinite
Spices, Ground 2-3 years
Food bars 1-2 years
Multivitamins 2 years


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.