What an Expiration Date Actually Means (and How to Make Food Last Longer)
How often have you pulled out the deli ham from the fridge only to find that it's past the "best by" date? Do you take a chance on it anyway, or do you toss it in the garbage? If you go for the waste bin, you might not be taking full advantage of your food. Save your meals (and your money) by learning the secrets behind expiration dates, along with some tricks for making your food last.
What Is an Expiration Date?
We've all seen the labels on food packaging, but what do they actually mean? You've got your "sell by" dates, your "best by" dates and your "use by" dates. Could they all refer to different things? Unfortunately, yes, they do.
If you see a "sell-by" date, it's really a number for retailers instead of a number for customers. It indicates to a seller how long that item should be on their shelves, not how long the item is safe for you to eat. Generally, foods will taste fine for a decent amount of time after their sell-by dates.
"Best If Used By"
This is similar to the "sell by" date in that it refers to the quality of food instead of safety. You can still eat foods that have passed their best-by dates and not notice a thing — except maybe a less-fresh taste. It doesn't mean you need to throw them out.
You probably haven't seen this wording used often on food items, but it's been making an appearance on beer. "Born on" refers to the date that the item was packaged for sale, or in other words, the date it was "born."
A "pack" date is essentially the same thing as a "born on" date, only for canned foods. It indicates when the food was packed for sale — and therefore how much time is left for you to safely eat it. As you probably know, canned food can last a very long time.
The "use by" date is what most people think of when they talk about expiration dates. This is the one that indicates to a consumer the last day that the food is guaranteed to be safe for eating. Even so, it’s still simply a recommendation, and food may remain good after this date.
What the USDA Has to Say
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) goes into detail about the different types of labeling and has simple but clear instructions on how to know whether it's okay to eat your food or not. The organization conveys that if you store your foods properly, they should remain safe after their "best by" dates and until "spoilage is evident."
The Only Exceptions
The notable exceptions to the rule when it comes to expiration dates are baby food and infant formula. While other foods can remain safe to eat after the dates printed on their packaging, you should not use baby food at all after these dates.
Even though each individual case is different, there are general guidelines for how long to keep foods like meat in your refrigerator. Unsurprisingly, it varies depending on the type of meat and how it's packaged, but in general, you shouldn't keep meat in the fridge for longer than five days.
Milk is more regulated than other foods in some states. Many supermarkets are required to remove their milk if the expiration date has passed — dairy goes bad faster than other foods, and the expiration dates are generally more accurate.
How to Store Your Meat and Milk
Now that you know how long milk and meat should last, make sure you're storing them correctly so that they actually last that long. Milk should never go in the refrigerator door — temperatures fluctuate more there from all the opening and closing going on. Instead, keep cartons and jugs in the back where it's coolest.
Where to Put Your Fruits and Veggies
Some people put all their fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator. Some do the opposite and leave them all out. Turns out, the best practice is a mix of the two. Bananas, avocados, citrus fruits, pears, peaches, tomatoes, onions and potatoes can all safely sit out of the refrigerator.
Paper Towels and Greens
Have you ever left a bag of loose-leaf lettuce in the fridge only to find that condensation or a slimy layer of liquid collects on the inside? You can combat this by placing paper towels inside the packaging or wrapping vegetables in them. Instead of accumulating on the bag, the moisture wicks away into the towel.
The Flower-Herb Secret
When you get a bouquet of flowers from the florist and want to keep them fresh overnight, what do you do? Cut the stems, place them in water and set them in the fridge, right? Well, you can do this to your fresh herbs to keep them edible as well.
How to Save Your Bananas
Do you find that your bananas ripen too quickly? That after only a few days they're already brown and mushy? Don't try and put them in the fridge — this may slow the ripening process, but it can leave them underripe and grey. Instead, try wrapping plastic wrap around their crown.
Keep Those Avocado Halves Fresh
Sometimes, you can't eat the entire avocado. But you might find that even wrapped in plastic or closed in Tupperware, your avocado half still gets brown on the surface. If you haven't heard of keeping the pit in your avocado half, that can help. There's also a second method.
Sometimes, the Problem Is the Fridge
We don't often think to check the temperatures of our refrigerators, but this could be the culprit behind your spoiling foods. Every once in a while, try to check that it's working to its full potential; refrigerators should ideally be set around 37 degrees Fahrenheit.
Resist Putting Bread in the Fridge
Bread can be tough. People don't usually go through a loaf very quickly — unless they have a big family — and it can sprout mold surprisingly quickly. You may think that throwing the loaf in the fridge is the way to go, but it's not a good idea when it comes to bread.
Honey Doesn't Go in the Fridge
The refrigerator is not the answer to preserving all foods. Sometimes it can do harm to your kitchen items. One of the things you should never put in the fridge is honey; a cold fridge will turn it from smooth and yummy to lumpy and grainy.
Rinse Berries in a Special Mix
Berries tend to go bad quickly. If you want to keep them fresher for longer, try rinsing them with a mix of water and vinegar. Don't make it too strong: the mixture should be one part vinegar to eight parts water. This is enough to kill any bacteria lingering on the berries that can make them spoil.
Grain Storage Needs to Be Airtight
It's a good idea to buy grains in bulk — you save money and time. If you do, though, make sure you're storing them in airtight containers. Rice, beans, lentils and others all need protection from moisture in order to stay good. Bags with seals work, but glass containers work even better.
Try Putting Some Foods Upside Down
Interestingly, some foods may last longer if you store them upside down. Nut butters in particular benefit from this, as natural separation of the oil inevitably happens over time. If they're upside down, the oil will end up in the bottom once you turn the jars back over, and it's not so hard to mix together anymore.
Aluminum Foil Has Multiple Purposes
Vegetables like celery and broccoli release a gas called ethylene. The release of this gas leads to the loss of freshness, wilting and eventually spoilage. Thankfully, there's a way to restrict the release of ethylene gas and make those veggies stay fresh longer.
Cheese Needs to Breathe
Many people keep their cheese in plastic wrap and don't think twice about it. The best way to store cheese, however, isn’t in plastic wrap but in a breathable material like wax or parchment paper. This is because plastic traps moisture and leads to molding.
Mushrooms are Best Stored in Paper
Another food that you might be mistakenly storing in plastic is mushrooms. Sure, they may come in plastic at the supermarket, but that doesn't mean it's the best way to store them long-term. Instead, when you get home, transfer them into a paper bag and you'll see a positive difference.
Get Rid of Those Carrot Tops
There's nothing better than buying fresh carrots — perhaps from the local farmers’ market or from a roadside stand. You might find, however, that those carrots go limp much faster. This is because they likely have the green stems still sprouting out of their tops.
Consider Switching to Glass Containers
As you may know, it's important for many foods to be kept in airtight containers in order to preserve their freshness. If you want to find the ideal containers for this, give glass jars a shot. Not only is glass great for keeping air out, but it also won't seep harmful chemicals into your food like plastic does.
Freeze Those Herbs Before They Go Bad
Fresh herbs don't always last as long as you might like them to. Instead of rushing to use up the last of your cilantro, try sprinkling it in an ice tray and pouring olive oil on top. Place the tray in the freezer, and your work is done.
The Freezer Is Your Friend
If you find that you're not using up your food in time, you may want to consider moving it from the fridge to the freezer. Coolness — for most foods — slows the ripening process, and freezing food almost stops ripening in its tracks. Your meat, produce, bread and other foods will last months longer without losing their great taste.
Marshmallows in Brown Sugar
We've all had the experience of reaching for the brown sugar only to find that it's turned into one hard mass. If you're sick of wrestling with your brown sugar, don't fret! There's a surprisingly easy fix. Just keep the sugar in an airtight container, and bury a few marshmallows (or a slice of bread) inside.