You Gotta Know When to Throw It: Food Expiration Dates
I'm as guilty of this as anyone. You purchase food and suddenly life gets in the way, leftovers get shoved in front of the tub of yogurt and the expiration date has passed.
It's hard to know exactly what that date on a container or package of food means, especially if it says "sell by" and not "eat me before" or "get in my belly by" on there. Is there a magic answer to help us decode food packaging?
The answer is no. According to the USDA website, " There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States. Although dating of some foods is required by more than 20 states, there are areas of the country where much of the food supply has some type of open date and other areas where almost no food is dated."
What that means is that "sell by" or "use by" are pretty ambiguous terms. "Sell-By" simply means that the store can sell the product until that date. "Best if Used By (or Before)" is the date recommended for highest quality and has nothing to do with food safety or purchase date. A "Use-By" date means you should get that food in your mouth right away to avoid poorer quality or taste. "Closed or coded dates" are packing numbers for use by the manufacturer and are often found on shelf-stable items like canned and boxed food. Essentially, food is packaged, brought to stores and then you're to buy it and be responsible for storing and using it in an appropriate amount of time.
Eggs are a bit different in that while they do not require a sell-by date, they do need to have a "pack date" if they show an egg grade on the label. States have differing laws determining what other dates need to be displayed on the package.
All in all, it's kind of confusing whether or not you should go by that date on the food package or not, and if you're me, you can avoid a lot of confusion by just avoiding packaged foods. I know my peaches are ripe because they give ever so slightly when pressed on. When they become too soft, I know I've let them spoil.
For fresh foods, though, here are a few things to help guide you in the proper storage and handling of your food:
- Fresh meat generally stays 1-2 days in the refrigerator or can be frozen in large chunks for 6-12 months.
- Flour and sugar don't technically "expire," but if you aren't using your stock up every three months, you'll want to rotate it for freshness or start storing it in your freezer for longer life.
- Milk will last beyond the "sell-by" date, but it won't be long. Try to drink it within the first couple days for best quality and to avoid spoiled milk.
- Butter can be frozen to extend its life, but it will last on its own for up to two months in the refrigerator if properly sealed.
How do you determine when food is good and when it's time to throw something out?