My 7-year-old daughter insists that she only likes one brand of milk. And since I value my sanity over arguing with her, I buy the milk she likes. But I do stand firm on one thing. She has to drink the milk as long as it’s good. And good is determined by me, not by the date on the carton. So last week she drank milk that was 5 days past the “due date” as she calls it. Now if you’re thinking I’m a cruel mother and you want to report me to authorities, please don’t! There’s a perfectly good reason that I let her drink the milk.
Those dates on food have nothing to do with safety.
Yes, that’s right. The dates you see on food - sell by, best by, use by - have nothing to do with safety at all. And they actually aren’t even required by law (except in the case of infant formula where they are required and are about safety). Here’s the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service’s detailed explanation.
So then what exactly are the dates for? Companies voluntarily provide the dates as a way to help you and retailers know when food will taste the best, not when it will be unsafe to eat. Food companies and stores want to protect their reputations by trying to make sure you experience the food in the best state possible. Here are some common terms and what they mean:
Now you may be wondering "If those dates don’t tell me about food safety, how do I determine if food is safe to eat?". Easy - you use some good old-fashioned common sense. Look at, smell, and taste food to see if it’s good. If it looks, smells, and tastes ok it’s probably safe to eat. If one of those things is off then toss it. Many things you’ll end up keeping after the date, some things you’ll throw out before the date.
Take this for example. When my previously mentioned 7 year old was 2, she took one sip of milk from her sippy cup and wouldn’t touch it after that. She loved milk and it was still within the “sell by” date so what was the deal? My husband tasted the milk and it turns out it was sour. So if a 2 year old can tell if food is bad, we can too!
Here are a few more tips to keep you from throwing away perfectly good food:
- Cook or freeze fresh meat and seafood 1 or 2 days after you bring it home. Beef can last a little longer, 3 to 5 days. This applies to meat that’s not prepackaged or has been taken out of the package, like this:
- Packaged meat (like below) can last 1 or 2 days beyond the date on the package. After that, cook or freeze. Freezing directly in the package is fine.
- Look, taste, feel, and smell fresh fruits and vegetables to decide if they're still good to eat.
- Eggs last 3 to 5 WEEKS after you bring them home.
- As long as bread doesn't have mold you can eat it. It will last longer in the fridge.
- Undented canned food stored in a cool, dark place can last SIX YEARS. That’s double what’s typically on the can.
- Dried pasta is nearly impossible to spoil.
- Frozen food lasts indefinitely. It just may not taste as good after 6-12 months.
And rest assured that even if you do eat something that has “gone bad”, it most likely won’t cause you any harm, it only tastes unpleasant.
Many of us are spending more money on things like organic and fresh foods. And the planet only has a finite amount of resources to provide food. So please don’t throw away food based only on the date. Your wallet and the environment will thank you for it.