Every so often I catch my husband going through the refrigerator or pantry and throwing away items that have passed their expiration dates. Mayonnaise, relish, canned food. But have they really expired? Are you looking to minimize food waste and save money? Then stop throwing away perfectly good food.
How to tell if the food you’re throwing out is really expired.
What is a “Sell-By” date?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before the date expires. At a recent shopping trip to Costco, I noticed that ALL the smoked salmon they were selling in their refrigerated section was WELL PAST the expiration date by over a month! Scary! Especially when dealing with fresh fish. Be careful to read your Sell-By dates and don’t assume that the store is on top of it.
What is a “Best if Used By (or Before)” date?
This is the date recommended for the best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date. I had three unopened cans of Crisco in my pantry that had “Best if Used By” dates that had come and gone a good three years before. I opened them and the color and consistency of the product looked like it should. But there was an odd smell. And if I used the Crisco for baking, the cookies would smell and taste like this expired product. So I tossed the cans. Check to see if the product has changed appearance or has an odor.
What is a “Use-By” date?
This 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. Examine the product – does it appear fresh? Is there any change in color, texture, smell? My rule is that it if it seems fine, it probably is. But when in doubt, throw it out.
What about canned food?
The USDA states that “Canned foods are safe indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to freezing temperatures or temperatures above 90 degrees F. If the cans look okay, they are safe to use. Discard cans that are dented, rusted or swollen. High-acid canned foods (tomatoes, fruits) will keep their best quality for 12 to 18 months. Low-acid foods (meats, vegetables) for 2 to 5 years.” This Christmas at my parents’ house, I was making pumpkin cheesecake and my mom retrieved several cans of pumpkin puree from her pantry. One was expired by a few years. We opened up the cans. They were all the same color, same smell, but the pumpkin in the expired can had a different texture. It was thicker, less smooth, and had some cracks. It didn’t appear rotten, but I chose the newer cans for our cheesecake. Use your judgment – does the product look and taste the way it should?
What about foods that never seem to go bad?
I bought some soft potato bread from the grocery store three months ago. It has yet to go moldy. In fact, it is still as soft as the day I bought it. Which is kind of…scary. There was a time when I used to bake my own bread and it would be soft and fresh for only a few days. So why hasn’t this potato bread grown moldy? What kind of preservatives have been added to keep it “fresh” for this long? I plan on keeping this bread as sort of a science project just to see when it – or if – it will actually go bad. Food is not meant to stay fresh forever – avoid preservatives when possible.
What are the recommendations for meat products?
These vary. When it comes to meat, I am always inclined to err on the side of caution. For the USDA recommendations for these products, go to their website. Can’t use it by the expiration date? Freeze it.