Is it Really Expired?
By Tamara Martfeld
One of the easiest places to save money is the food budget. For most people, it is the place with the most flexible expenses. For example, you can have steak and lobster with expensive champagne every night for dinner, or you can have a can of beans and a glass of water. The difference in price between these two meals is significant. If you are needing to save money, your preferred option would probably be the bean meal. The main key to keeping the cost of food down is eliminating waste. According to several reports, most families waste a few hundred dollars of food annually.
I have addressed some of the ways to reduce waste in other articles. In this article I will address those sometimes confusing “expiration dates” printed on the packages of many foods. First of all, many of these “expiration” dates are not really expiration dates. People just think they are. For example, the date printed on a gallon of milk is the “sell by” date, and the milk should be good for at least seven days after that date. You should never find milk on the shelf with a date which is past (although it does happen when a store does not properly rotate its stock). To make it more confusing for some people, that seven-day period is still not an expiration date. If the milk is properly stored, it can, and usually does, last longer. According to a web site by a milk board, if milk taste good, it is safe to drink. In other words, if you happen to have milk in the refrigerator three weeks past the expiration date and it taste good, it is safe to drink. This applies to all dairy products. I have had sour cream in my refrigerator 3 months past the expiration date and it was just fine. However, even with this knowledge, I know a person who automatically throws out any dairy as soon as the sell by date is reached.
Many dry good packages have “best by” dates. Sometimes they are labeled “best by”, and sometimes it is just a date on the package. For the most part, these dates are best used for rotating food (making sure you are using the oldest food first) and making sure you are getting the freshest package you can when purchasing the food. Most of the dry goods with this date don’t become unsafe after the date (use your judgment depending on the item). Most of these products will eventually go stale several days or even weeks after the date, and you can tell by the smell that they are stale. With crackers or chips, a few minutes in a warm oven will eliminate the staleness. A large part of how long these products will last is how they are stored. After a product is open, store it in a container where you can eliminate as much air as possible. If you store it in its original package, eliminate as much air as possible from that package. For example, if you store chips in the bag they came in, secure it as close to the chips as possible instead of the top of the bag. Again, I have had cracker and chips which were perfectly fine several weeks after the date on the package.
Commercially canned goods generally do not go bad. According to the canned food industry, if the can has not been compromised and the food looks right, it is safe to eat. A can is compromised if it is dented, bulging, or has been in a flood. The way canned goods are sealed, apparently flood water can siphon into the can which is why it is considered unsafe (I had to ask a food expert to find this out). Note that I said safe, not nutritious. Also according to the canned food industry, although the food is safe, it does loose the vitamins and minerals over time. So go ahead and eat the food, but realize that it may be more of a filler to reduce hunger than a good source of nutrition. Using older canned food in soup as flavor or as part of an overall nutritious meal eliminates wasting the food and its related money.
Some foods not mentioned above can be perfectly fine past any dates on the package. For example, a few years ago I was eating a lot of peanut butter and there was news of a “shortage” coming up. I bought extra, then for some reason stopped eating so much. All the jars had the same expiration date. Once a jar was open, it lasted a while and then went bad as it had lost its seal and was exposed to air. However, unopened jars were still good over two years past the “expiration” date. In case you don’t know, peanut butter definitely lets you know through smell that it is bad. In general, don’t just toss food because it has reached some date on the package. Remember, these dates are fairly recent. People who are still living did not have dates on packages as they reached adulthood.
The only exception I have to the above is meat and eggs. I strongly suggest searching for the safety guidelines of these item on the internet. I would not just go by a date on the package as the seller may be giving you an early date to play it safe. I am not providing the guidelines here as they have changed over my lifetime. Meat and eggs are the foods which tend to contain natural bacteria which can get out of hand and dangerous quickly.
Of course, the best way to prevent having to deal with expiration dates in the home is to buy your food as fresh as possible, always check dates before you buy, and only buy what you know you will eat in a short time.
Have a happy and safe Halloween!