Learning what those “sell by” and “best by” dates really mean could help you reduce food waste and grocery bills.
You grab a gallon of milk from the refrigerator for a bowl of cereal. After dousing your crunchy flakes, you check the date on the gallon and see that the milk is three days past its “use by” date. Your gut reaction is to toss the cereal, pour out the milk, and sigh as you dream of the breakfast that could have been. But maybe you shouldn’t be so fast to abandon your morning meal.
“The dates on food items are generally their peak freshness dates—not expiration dates,” says Susan Kasik-Miller, MSRD, Registered Dietitian at HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital. “For example, milk is usually safe to consume up to a week after the date printed on the package.”
Although many foods carry labels referring to their freshness, such as “best if used by,” “expires on,” and “sell by,” these labels aren’t federally regulated, with the exception of baby formula. In fact, food companies choose what words to use and what dates to include. Because of this, it’s best to use your nose, eyes, hands, and tastebuds to determine whether an item has truly expired or if it’s still safe to consume.
“Meat that’s unsafe has a putrid odor, and milk will have a sour or funny smell,” Kasik-Miller says. “Fruits and vegetables become soft and mushy when they get past their prime, and you should avoid bread with mold growing on it.”
If you have trouble using food before it goes bad, follow these tips to keep it fresher for longer periods of time:
- If you don’t plan on cooking meat within three to five days of purchasing it, freeze it as soon as possible. This is especially important for fish, poultry, and ground meats.
- Refrigerating bread helps prevent mold. If you’re worried the bread will dry out in the fridge, warm it before serving.
- Putting vegetables and fruits in the refrigerator will slow their ripening process. Bananas are an exception, because they turn dark in the fridge.
“Try not to buy more than you think you can use,” Kasik-Miller advises. “And if you do have foods that are truly expired, consider composting them.”
Visit foodsafety.gov/keep-food-safe to find more food safety resources.
You may also be interested in “Boost Your Mood With Food.”