It’s estimated that 40% of food in the American food supply is thrown out because of expiration dates. Read that again. 40% of UNEATEN food. Is thrown out because of the date on the package. Now, I’m sure that the (primary) objective of the industry’s food dating policies is not for us to waste massive amounts of food. Dating first began in the 1970’s, as consumers demanded to know where their food came from. The dates on most food packages are intended to let the buyer know when the food will be at its peak freshness or quality. Food past the package date may sometimes have a decline in quality or aesthetics, but dates are rarely associated with actual spoilage or potential for food-born illness. In fact, only baby formula and food are required by the federal government to have true expiration dates. Discard these items after the dates.
So, that leads us to the obvious question: how do we actually know if food is actually good?
Many of us have grown up mostly eating packaged/frozen/fast food that basically never goes bad, and we have no idea what “bad” food looks and smells like. Some things are easy. Milk is usually good for a week or more past the date, but if it’s chunky, funky, or a strange color, go ahead and throw it out. Eggs are good for up to six weeks after purchase. You’ll know a rotten egg if you crack it (so will your neighbors), but if you have some questionable eggs hanging around in your fridge, you can tell if they’re good by placing them in a glass of water. An egg that floats to the top is bad, and should be thrown out. The shells get thinner with time, and let air in, hence floating.
Meat, fish, and poultry should not be sticky or stinky. Sometimes, blood will accumulate in the bottom of the tray or in the shrink wrap and smell funky. If the smell is foul, but mild, and the meat isn’t sticky, try rinsing the old blood off. Also, meat and fish will turn darker with time, due to exposure to air. Use or freeze as soon as possible to prevent the texture from changing.
Unopened packaged foods (pantry stuff that’s sold unfrigerated, and frozen goods) are usually good for a year or more past their best by dates. The biggest problem with frozen foods is usually freezer burn. Freezer burned food has a distinctive taste that most people can’t get past. Throw it out, and promise to clean out your fridge more often next time. Don’t eat food from dented or bulging cans. Otherwise, the rules are basically the same. Does it smell weird or fatty? That’s a sign that the oils have gone rancid. Is it growing a fun science project? Throw those things out. Texture changes are just a nuisance. If you let your granola sit around until it went stale and smooshy, that’s your fault, not granola’s. Put it in some yogurt or ice cream, mix it with some cookie dough, and CLEAN OUT YOUR PANTRY MORE OFTEN. Same goes for that white bloom on your chocolate chips, and that red drank changing color. (Also, please stop buying red drank.)
Do you have more questions about expiration dates, or how to tell when to throw food out? Ask in comments!