The Truth About Food Expiration Dates: When to Keep It and When to Toss It

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According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, each American wastes more than 20 pounds of food every month which accounts for $115 billion worth of good food thrown away. Are food expiration dates valid?

While you should never eat unsafe food, it’s hard to comprehend the need to trash that much good grub. First tip before we go any further: don’t buy more than you need. “Stocking up” on food is a worthless proposition when you consider the likelihood that it will just get wasted.

I just wrote an article for our sister website EcoSalon about how 1 in 5 Americans won’t eat dinner tonight. That’s all the more difficult to understand as I write this article. When you’re deciding whether to keep it or chuck it, here are some tips from the USDA that will give you some peace of mind regarding food expiration dates. Here’s how to avoid food waste and truly understand food expiration dates:

Canned foods

The expired date indicates the peak quality from the manufacturer. It’s not an indication of safety. Low acid foods like canned fish, green beans, carrots, corn, peas, and soups can be kept for 2-5 years. High acid canned foods like pickles, sauerkraut, and tomato soup can be kept for 12-18 months. Home canned food don’t last as long. They can only be kept for one year.

Frozen foods

Dates on frozen foods are not an indication of safety because bacteria and pathogens can’t grow in food that’s frozen. However, thanks to freezer burn, there are some food quality issues to look out for like flavor, color, and textural issues.

Refrigerated foods

Cook or freeze fresh meat within 3-5 days, poultry within 1-2 days, fish within 1-2 days, and eggs within 3-5 weeks. All leftovers should be frozen or eaten within 4 days.

Think twice before you throw out foods. Avoid food waste. And most important, don’t overbuy at the farmer’s market or grocery store.

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Image: Robert Benner