To Keep Or Not To Keep | The REAL Shelf Life of Your Food

To Keep or Not To Keep 1

I used to be a real stickler for checking expiration and best by dates.  Every so often I would go through my pantry stash and find several boxes or cans of food that were just past their pull date.  Sadly, they ended up in the trash.

Not such a great thing when you are trying to save money.

But then I heard someone talking about the “real” shelf life of food products and I found it quite interesting.  There are people among us (maybe even you) who are all about preparedness and store enough food to feed their families for a year or more.  Many of them do so without participating those special canned food programs.

So I ask the question, “If they can do this, how long is that box of _(name that food here)_ really good for?”

Taken from the USDA website:

Types of Dates

  • “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires.
  • “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product.
  • “Closed or coded dates” are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.

According to the USDA, of all the dates listed above, you should follow the “Use-By” to the letter.  All others should in most cases be safe to consume after the dates listed.  These dates are there mostly for quality and potency.

For example: a cake mix may have a best by date of January 2012 because the leavening agent in the mix may not work as well past that date.  The actual mix may be fine to consume.

They also state:

“In general, high-acid canned foods such as tomatoes, grapefruit and pineapple will retain best quality on the shelf for 12 to 18 months; low-acid canned foods such as meat, poultry, fish and most vegetables will retain best quality on the shelf for 2 to 5 years — if the can remains in good condition and has been stored in a cool, clean, dry place. “

The cooler something is kept, the better potential that it will stay fresh longer.  And if an item is frozen at 0 degrees farenheit without a change in temperature, it will keep indefinitely.  Again, the quality will deteriorate after time, but it will be safe to consume.

So I put together a list of just a few pantry items and their shelf life here for you to reference.  These are items I often used to question because many were not used much and often spent years in my cupboards.

All dates are “Best By” and begin on the date of manufacture.  Often we won’t know the acutal “made on” date but most items are marked these days.  Storing is at room temperature and in a cool, closed, dry place unless otherwise noted.  Look for changes in color, odor, flavor, and obvious things like bugs and mold and discard appropriately.

3 years

Brown Rice
6 months in the fridge or 1 year in the freezer.  The bran oil quickly becomes rancid at room temperature.

White Rice
Indefinitely stored in a dry location and kept free from contaminants


Corn Syrup


Brown Sugar


Spices dried commercially do not expire but do lose their potency over time.  Dates given are for quality purposes only.


Soy Sauce
Indefinitely if kept sealed and in a cool, dry place.

Hard Liquor
Indefinitely, the flavor may change a little over time.

3-4 months AFTER date on bottle  (I was SO excited to learn this!)

2 years

Vinegar (all kinds)
2 Years – Safe Indefinitely

Commercial Peanut Butter / Unopened
2 Years

Natural Peanut Butter
6 Months (refrigerated)

All Purpose Flour
10-15 months or freeze for longer.  You can read about how to properly store flour here.

Whole Wheat Flour
1-2 months or 6 months in the freezer.  The bran oil will become rancid quickly at room temperature.

Whole Grains
2-3 months or 1 year in the freezer.  The bran layer quickly becomes rancid at room temperature.

2 Years

1 Year

2 Years +

Vanilla Extract (Immitation)
1 Year

Vanilla Extract (Pure)

Vanilla Beans
3-4 Years

Baking Powder/Unopened
18 months

Baking Powder/Opened
6 months – will not spoil but starts to lose it’s performance ability

Baking Soda/Unopened
2 Years

Baking Soda/Opened
6 months – will not spoil but looses it’s potency over time.

2 Years  – will lost potency over time.

5 years

Ramen Noodles
10+ Years

1 Year

Beans Dry
1 Year for best although they will keep for many years after if stored in a tight container in a dry and cool setting.  Beans may be tougher to soften over time.

Canned Beans
2-5 Years

Canned Soups
2-5 Years

2-5 Years

Dry Cereal / Unopened
1 Year

These are suggestions gleaned from a myriad of sources.  Again, they are best by dates and it’s mostly about product quality.  You may have personally found that many of the above items keep fresh well longer than the dates listed above.

Many survivalists have contacted individual companies to get their take on food safety for specific products.  I found some responses on other blogs but felt it was just safer to have people contact the specific companies themselves. For the record, some canned beans, canned meat, and otherwise I saw listed as safe for as long as 10-15 years if stored properly and at around 40 degrees.  If you have a favorite, or are interested in some serious long term storage, it may be a good idea to write them and find out what the company says about a specific product.  🙂

Some great resources:
Food Storage Chart

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