It’s so exciting when your little one graduates from breastmilk or formula to ‘real’ food! But the new foods and flavors come with new rules about what’s safe for your baby to eat, and what isn’t so you’ll need to understand why baby food expiration dates matter!
Does baby food expire? The FDA does not require baby food to be labeled with an expiration date but all manufacturers will list a sell by, best by, or use by date to tell customers and retailers how long their product is safe to eat and when it will taste the freshest. Unlike some other foods, baby food should not be used after it is expired.
Ultimately, baby food safety is a lot like regular food safety. Keep reading to learn how to interpret ‘best by’ dates, make the most of your baby food, and keep your little one safely fed.
Does baby food have an expiration date?
Fun fact: the FDA doesn’t actually require companies to put an expiration date on most foods.
The one exception is infant formula, but it’s probably not for the reason you think. Baby formula doesn’t usually “go bad”; rather, after a certain amount of time, the nutrients in the formula begin to deteriorate. Because young babies rely completely on the nutrients that they get from the formula, any deterioration means that your baby isn’t getting the vitamins and minerals they need to be healthy.
Baby food, however, isn’t the same thing as baby formula, so it isn’t required by law to have an expiration date. Even though it’s not FDA-mandated, many food companies voluntarily include an expiration, ‘best by,’ or ‘sell by’ date on their packaging. These dates are a recommendation by the manufacturer about when their product is best for the consumer to use.
Here’s a quick interpretation guide for each type of date:
- Sell By – A sell by date is actually a guide for the stores stocking the product, rather than for the customers who buy the food. It helps retailers rotate their inventory to keep products off of the shelves that might go bad before, or immediately after, selling.
- Best By – These dates are often labelled as ‘best before’ or ‘best by’ dates. This is a suggestion made by the food manufacturer for when their product will have the best taste or flavor. Eating food after this point can be completely safe, but the product might not taste as good as earlier. If you’ve ever eaten stale cereal, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
- Use By – This label is the closest most foods come to a legitimate ‘expiration’ date. It’s recommended by the manufacturer that you consume their product before the ‘use by’ date if you want the best quality of the product. Keep in mind, though, that for every type of food except for baby formula, you can often still eat food after it’s ‘use by’ date and be perfectly safe.
When it comes to baby food, you’re likely to see a recommended consumption date, which is usually printed on the bottom or back of the bottle, jar, or pouch. Although the dates printed on baby food are more recommendations than anything else, you’re right to be wary about feeding your baby food that might not be completely trustworthy.
Baby food in jars tends to last longer than pouches, and unopened cereals can last for years if they’re stored properly. Here’s a quick breakdown of expert estimates for food storage length:
- Baby Food (Jars) – 2 years when unopened. 1-3 days once opened (if refrigerated).
- Baby Food (Pouches) – 1 year when unopened. 1 day once opened (if refrigerated).
- Baby Cereal – 3 years when unopened. 30 days once opened.
If you’re only a few days or weeks past the ‘use by’ date on the packaging and the baby food looks normal, you’re probably fine to use it. But if you’re ever worried about whether the food you’re serving your baby is safe, then skip the anxiety and opt for something you know is going to be fresh and completely safe.
Can babies eat expired baby food?
The ‘best by’ date listed on baby food is a recommendation made by the manufacturing company, not a hard-and-fast rule. With that being said, it’s always best to be safe when it comes to what your little one is eating. You might feel comfortable rolling the dice with some of the sketchy leftovers you eat, but you’ll want to be more cautious when it comes to your baby.
Babies grow and develop at a remarkable pace, so it’s important that the food they eat is nutritious and safe. As baby food ages, it has the potential to lose some of its nutritional value as the vitamins and minerals in the food break down over time. This nutritional breakdown is the reason the FDA requires infant formula to include an expiration date that must be followed.
Although pureed baby food isn’t required to have an expiration date printed on the packaging, the same principle applies: if you want to feed your child nutritious, safe food, opt for something as fresh as possible. Even if a jar of barely-expired baby food might technically be safe to consume, it’s certainly not a great option when it comes to the overall health of your baby.
Use these tips to help decide if your baby’s food is safe to eat:
- Check the ‘use by’ date on the packaging. If you’re more than a few months past that date, toss the food.
- Make sure the packaging is secure. If any seals or tabs on the jar, pouch, or container have been broken, toss the food.
- If the baby food looks ‘funny,’ (you notice separation; the colors have turned brown; you see mold etc.) toss the food
- If the baby food smells ‘funny,’ (think sour milk or meat that’s been left out too long,) toss the food.
- If you notice any swelling or bubbling of the pouch or can, toss the food.
What if your baby ate expired baby food?
If you realize you’ve fed your baby some food that’s a little past the listed ‘best by’ date, don’t panic! Assuming your baby isn’t having any negative reaction to the food, you’re probably okay. Baby food can last for a long time if it’s stored properly, and if you didn’t notice anything strange about the food while feeding your baby, it’s probably not going to cause any harm.
If the expired baby food has spoiled, your little one might exhibit signs of food poisoning. Food poisoning usually sets in within 24 hours after eating food that has gone bad. You might notice symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, and/or fever. Symptoms usually last for a day or two.
If your baby does show signs of food poisoning, call your doctor for recommended care. Usually, the treatment will focus on keeping your child hydrated by providing them with small amounts of either breastmilk or formula every hour or so.
If your child is having trouble breathing or shows signs of a seizure, call 911 immediately.
How long does unopened baby food last?
Pureed baby foods can last for years, as long as they’re unopened and stored correctly. Jars of baby food have a longer shelf-life, at around 2 years.
Pouches of baby food can last for up to a year, although it’s best to try and purchase a brand with clear packaging so you can check the food for discoloration as you near the expiration date.
Baby cereal (rice, oatmeal, etc.) can last for 3 years as long as the seal on the packaging remains unopened.
Why does baby food have a long shelf life?
Baby food can last on the shelf for such a long time because of the production process used to make the food shelf-stable. Most baby foods are heated several times and mixed with acids to bring down the pH level of the food. The pasteurization and acidification processes kill all the bacteria and deactivate the enzymes that would normally cause the food to spoil. As long as air isn’t introduced to the baby food, it can last on the shelf for years.
What is the shelf life of Gerber baby food?
Pouches: 1 year
Jars: 2 years
Cereal: 3 years
What is the shelf life of Beechnut baby food?
Pouches: 6 months
Jars: 18 months
What is the shelf life of Parent’s Choice baby food?
Pouches: 1 year
How long does opened baby food last?
Baby food only lasts for a few days in the refrigerator once it’s been opened, but the exact timing depends on the type of food and the method of storage. Here’s a handy guide on opened baby food safety
|Type Of Opened Baby Food||How Long It Will Last Refrigerated||How Long It Will LastFrozen|
|Fruits and vegetables||2-3 days||6-8 months|
|Meats and eggs||1 day||1-2 months|
|Meats and vegetables||1-2 days||1-2 months|
|Homemade baby food||1-2 days||3-4 months|
Any unrefrigerated baby food is only safe for 2 hours after opening.
How to store opened baby food properly
Since we’ve made such a big deal about how long baby food lasts we should probably talk about how to store it properly as well!
Once baby food is opened:
- Refrigerate or freeze any unused portions promptly to prevent spoilage
- Cover any opened jars or containers, or place the leftovers in a sealed container
- Put a date on the food so that you’ll know when to throw the leftovers away.
Make sure you only save food your baby hasn’t touched. Any food that’s come in contact with your little one’s hands, mouth, or spoon can contain harmful bacteria.
5 ways to avoid throwing away baby food
It can be a huge financial pain to throw out unused baby food. Here are some tips to help save your budget:
- Plan ahead: Your little one will only be eating baby food for a few short months. Even though it’s tempting to buy a dozen of every new flavor of food as soon as your baby hits 6 months, resist the urge. Only buy as much food as you’ll actually need.
- Portion wisely: Don’t feed your baby straight from the container of baby food, because you won’t be able to save any leftovers that way. Instead, spoon some of the food into a separate bowl, and feed your baby from that. You can always add more to the bowl if you need it!
- Store well: Know exactly how to store any unopened and opened baby food. Keep unopened food away from heat and out of the reach of grabbing hands. Refrigerate opened food near the front of the fridge, where you’ll actually remember to use it.
- Label: Before refrigerating opened baby food, label it with the expiration date so you’ll know if it’s still safe to consume. Stickers or dry erase markers work really well for labelling (and it’s a great technique to apply to your own leftover food, too!)
- Use the blender: If you’re comfortable with the idea, try making your own baby food. There are numerous safe recipes online for you to try, and homemade baby food is easier to portion correctly. As your baby gets older and can handle the different ingredients, you can even begin to puree your regularly cooked meals for your little one to try.
Uses for expired baby food
Once baby food has expired, you’ll want to avoid feeding it to your little one. But that doesn’t mean expired baby food can’t still be useful! Here are a few clever uses the internet has come up with:
- If you have a compost pile, expired baby food makes a great addition!
- Moisturizing treatments. This sounds a bit weird and depends on the type of baby food you have, but it actually makes some sense. If you have expired avocado baby food, for example, you can use it to help moisturize your hair.
- Feed the birds. Apparently, expired baby cereal is perfect to blend with peanut butter and seeds before putting on pine cones outside. You might attract some nice birds to introduce to your baby.