Look Out! It’s the (food) Police!

Relax. You’re not going to get arrested for keeping your ketchup past its date. There are many websites out there that provide guidelines for how to store your food to keep it from making you sick, and they generally have good advice. However, there’s a hitch. They really don’t want you suing them for giving you bad info, so they’re almost always going to underestimate the amount of time a food may be kept in the pantry, fridge, or freezer.

Think about it this way. You have a package of ground meat, and you want to know how long it can be frozen. So you go online to find out. Many websites will tell you meat can be frozen up to four months; they’re essentially right, but in reality you can keep meat in the freezer up to six months. You may also see something about how to wrap the meat to freeze it. If you’ve never wrapped meat before freezing it, you might start to panic after reading that part. Just like they underestimate the amount of time a food can be kept in the refrigerator or freezer, they overestimate how much wrapping your food will need.

The thing is, with the exception of perishables such as dairy, most best-by or expiration dates are there to make sure you replace the product in a timely fashion. For instance, the dairy where your milk is produced guarantees its freshness for one week past the best-by date, provided you refrigerate it as soon as possible when you bring it home from the store, and you put it away promptly after each use. Every minute you leave the milk out adversely affects how long it’ll stay fresh after the date. If you ever have milk that goes bad on or before its date and you know for a fact that you’ve stored it correctly as above, contact the dairy for a refund; the contact information can be found on the label, or you can contact them through their website. Make sure you have the production numbers that are printed or stamped on the carton. Milk can be frozen for at least six months. Keep fresh milk on the top shelf of your fridge. Also, even when milk has gone slightly bad, you can still use it in baking; look for recipes that call for sour milk. If you’re not sure, always do the smell and/or taste test. Milk shouldn’t smell or taste like much of anything except, well, milk. If you’re not sure you’ll use the sour milk before it really goes bad (like chunky bad), put it into food storage containers in amounts you’ll need for specific recipes and freeze it, clearly labeled as sour and for baking only. Take out exactly as much as you’re going to need for each recipe–remember it’s no longer fresh–and thaw it in the fridge for no more than 24 hours before using it. Also, you shouldn’t refreeze sour milk because it may start to deteriorate after a while.

Eggs are similarly dated. You can usually keep your eggs in their carton for about three weeks beyond their date. Resist the urge to use one of those egg keepers that often come with the refrigerator. Eggs should always be kept in the carton they were sold in, around the center of your refrigerator (they have a tendency to dry out somewhat if kept on the top shelf). Also, eggs and milk shouldn’t be kept on the refrigerator door shelf; that’s the warmest part of the fridge, and the area most vulnerable to temperature fluctuations every time you open the door. Raw eggs can be frozen for about a month or two; otherwise they might become watery. Crack as many as you want and whisk them together. Portion them in amounts you’ll most likely be using into food storage containers with lids (about ¼ cup for each large or extra large egg). Stack the labeled and dated containers in the freezer, with the labels placed so they’re easy to read at a glance when you open the freezer door. To use, thaw in the fridge at least overnight. To test for freshness, put a whole, unbroken raw egg into a larger bowl or glass of water. If it floats, then it’s less fresh but can still be used in things like cakes and cookies. Older eggs have a bigger air bubble at the big end, which causes them to float. However, this method isn’t always accurate. Always sniff your eggs when you crack them; they shouldn’t really smell like anything.

“What about frozen meals?” you may ask. “They tell me I have to make sure I cook them to a certain temperature before I eat them.” Yep. But as with other perishables, it’s to make sure you can’t sue the manufacturer. If you happen to get sick after eating one of those meals and decide to call the customer service number on the box, they’ll probably ask you if you made sure the correct temperature was reached. If you’re stupid enough to be honest and say no, the next thing they say will likely go something like, “I’m sorry, we’re not responsible for consumer error.” So long as they print that little disclaimer about cooking temperature on the box, you can’t sue them for an improperly cooked frozen meal. You don’t need to keep them in the freezer at all times, either. The reason is that at the factory, the meals themselves (with a few exceptions such as pie crusts) are fully cooked and brought way above the minimum temperature indicated on the label, then immediately flash-frozen and sealed. In fact, about the only product usage labels you should actually pay attention to are the ones found on the containers of chemicals and other harmful things.

As I said, those websites give good advice. Just remember there’s some wiggle room. Always pay attention to how well your fridge and freezer do their jobs. Older appliances may not keep your foods as cold as they should, and that will affect how long something can stay fresh. If you’re not sure whether your fridge and freezer are actually as cold as you think they are or should be, buy a fridge/freezer thermometer. While you’re at it, buy an oven thermometer too (not a cooking thermometer, but one that you clip or hook to the oven rack) to make sure 375° on the oven dial is actually 375° in the oven (which is not always the case, especially for older ovens). If you find that your oven’s thermometer is off, keep a sticky note on the wall nearby so you (and anyone else who uses your oven) will remember to account for the temperature difference accordingly, something simple like, “Set oven 25° higher/lower than recipe says.”

There’s another way you’re being at least somewhat wasteful without realizing it. You may think you need those freezer-specific resealable bags, but most of the time you really don’t. You’re paying (at the very least) the exact amount of money (and likely slightly more) for a product that’s only marginally thicker and better performing, and you’re getting fewer bags per package. They were created mostly for people who cling desperately to all those itty-bitty bits of everything for years, literally, for fear of wasting anything. Some people actually keep their stuff in the freezer five years or more. Nothing should ever be kept frozen more than one year, and only if it specifically says you can keep it in the freezer that long.

I haven’t bought freezer bags in about 15 years. My foods have never had freezer burn, and I don’t have any other problems with freezing my foods in the bags I do use. If you want to use freezer bags, go ahead. I just don’t have any use for them. I pay close attention to the dates on the bags and containers, and when something gets close to its date I use it up as quickly as possible; a couple of weeks or so after the date isn’t going to make that much of a difference in the long run.

“So how do I make sure I don’t waste so much food?” I’m so glad you asked! One thing you can do is to set up one day each week where you take out some of the things that are getting close to their dates and make them for dinner. Let everyone choose which meal they want from among the items, and eat the majority of it; if there are just a few bites left, you can toss it. Studies have shown that forcing kids to completely clean their plates night after night can be detrimental to their relationship with food. Kids do better if you help them figure out how much of each item they can realistically eat at one meal, and they should be encouraged to wait at least five minutes after finishing their food before they ask for seconds. It’s also a bad idea to put a time limit on mealtimes. Kids often become easily distracted and therefore eat more slowly than adults. If you’re finished before them, put away the food and do the dishes. Let them know that they need to tell you when they’re finished before they can get up from the table.

You can also repurpose some of the things in your fridge, freezer, or pantry such as small amounts of cooked or raw rice, chopped or shredded cooked meat, or those tiny amounts of frozen or cooked vegetables. Make a couple of casseroles. Bake one that night for dinner, and put the other into the freezer, unbaked, for another time. Remember to include baking directions on the casserole label. Most casseroles can be frozen 4-6 months.

Soup is a great way to repurpose older items or use up small amounts of things in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. It’s easy to make, nourishing, and inexpensive. Make as much of it as you know your family will eat in a reasonable time frame, and portion it in amounts you’ll most likely eat, such as one or two cups for individual servings and one or two quarts for a family meal. Most soups and broths can be frozen up to six months.

A really important thing to start doing now to avoid food waste, is to adopt a “first in, first out” approach to storing things in your fridge, freezer, and pantry. Bring older items to the front of the shelf so they can be used sooner, and put new things in back when you put away things after you come home from your grocery shopping trip. For items stored in a chest freezer, it goes top to bottom rather than front to back. That way, when hubby and the kids go foraging for snacks, they’re more likely to pick something that’s right in front rather than trying to sort through a full pantry or fridge shelf. The trick, of course, is to determine which items they’re likely to go for first, and to put those things right in front of their faces!😊

I hope this post has put things into perspective regarding food expiration dates, as well as reducing food waste. Continually throwing foods out just because they’re “expired” is not only unnecessary but also very wasteful. Let me know what you think about this topic below.

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