Understanding Food Expiration Labels: These Tips Help Reduce Food Waste

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Everyone nowadays is concerned with stretching their grocery budget and minimizing food waste. We all check the labels on the foods we buy to see how fresh it is. Knowing how to read food expiration labels is key to understanding the dates and other data that are printed on the bottom of foods – everything from egg cartons to frozen meat packages. The tips that follow are a guide to understanding all those labels, and following them will ensure that you get the biggest bang for your grocery buck and that the foods you buy last as long as possible.

Types of expiration labels

Sometimes food expiration labels are hard to interpret. Do you find yourself glazing over when you try to read them? It’s important that you take a moment to focus on the information provided, whether it’s a “best by” date or other data. Here we do a deep dive into precisely what food expiration labels mean.

What does “best by” indicate?

This food expiration label is simply a guideline, indicating when the food will begin declining in taste. It is not an exact deadline, nor does it suggest that the food it labels will be unsafe to consume immediately thereafter. It means that the food is at its best by that date, at its most fresh and flavourful. For example: let’s say you purchase a loaf of bread with a “best by” food expiration label that has a date in the following week. This means that, while the bread will still be edible 10 days past the day you purchase it, its flavors and textures will be at their best until the date on the label. It doesn’t mean the bread will then go moldy.

What does “use by” mean?

This food expiration label is your safety guideline. It’s particularly important that you heed this date on foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. You’re taking a risk if, for example, you serve your family milk that is past its “use by” date, and that’s something everyone should avoid. Spoiled milk – or any perishable food – presents a safety risk if consumed too long after its “use by” date.

Why is a “sell by” date often present?

This is information for retailers, not consumers, so feel free to consider it less vital to know the two food expiration labels we mentioned above. You’ll often see these tags on food that’s been reduced for quick sale, so read it, but don’t be alarmed by it. It often won’t match the “use by” or “best by” dates, but not to worry.

What about the “freeze by” date?

This food expiration label is a guide to how soon you should freeze a product once you’ve brought it home. It doesn’t relate to safety, so it’s a bit negotiable. Here’s an example: let’s say you bought chicken, planning to make it for supper, but something came up and your plans changed. If the chicken has a “freeze by” date of that very day, it won’t be affected if you freeze it the following morning instead. Food expiration labels that aren’t directly related to food safety aren’t carved in stone, so an extra day or even two in the fridge before putting food in the freezer won’t hurt it at all.

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Common misconceptions about food expiration labels

The dates stamped on food expiration labels are helpful to consumers, but there are some myths out there regarding what they actually mean and how seriously shoppers should take them. Consequently, you may find yourself tossing out perfectly good food because you’re misinformed about what each food expiration label means. That, in turn, has created a global problem of massive amounts of food waste. One research study suggests that almost 55 million tons of food go to waste annually. Understanding the myths surrounding food expiration labels is crucial if we are to reduce that waste and help the planet.

Myth One: These dates are deadlines.

No, they’re not! Food expiration labels are guidelines, which are very different from deadlines. Ingesting a food one day after the date on its food expiration label doesn’t mean that you’re going to get sick from spoiled food. Keep in mind not only the date but also the shape of the food and how it was stored. These factors are every bit as important as the date on the food expiration label.

Myth Two: The “sell by” date equals food spoilage.

Remember, the “sell by” date isn’t meant for you, it’s for retailers. This date helps grocers know when to rotate their stock, and what to put on sale, not how safe the food is. Products – even fresh ones – may be eaten after this date with no harm to you.

Myth Three: Freezing food stops the clock.

Of course, freezing does extend the life of many foods like poultry and meat, but you can’t preserve flavors and freshness forever! Furthermore, freezing doesn’t guard completely against spoilage; even the sturdiest product does devolve eventually.

Myth Four: All labels are created equally.

Again, no! Different foods stay fresh for different lengths of time and, conversely, they spoil at different paces. “Use by” food expiration labels are more vital for certain products, like poultry, beef, and dairy. However, the date is not as key for other foods, like vegetables and some fruits. These products may not be at their peak freshness, but they won’t cause any harm or pose any risk.

Myth Five: Dates ensure freshness.

It’s how a food is stored that determines freshness, and whether it’s been exposed to heat, humidity, or light. These factors can cause foods to go stale or spoil rapidly, in spite of a “best by” date that’s several days hence. Storing food according to recommended guidelines ensures that it stays as fresh as it can possibly stay.

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Use almost expired ingredients safely and wisely

If your goal is to use as much of the food you’ve purchased as possible to help your budget and minimize waste, we’ve got some ideas for you on that score. These tips will help you reduce the amount of food you throw out, which means you’ll save money.

Plan creative menus.

Making an effort each week to plan meals for every day lets you shop strategically. Instead of viewing each supper as a last-minute challenge, plan each one. Doing this helps you be creative in how you use the foods you buy and helps ensure that (for example) the head of lettuce you purchased is used for two or three salads, rather than sitting in the crisper until it’s forgotten and has to be tossed out.

Transform the produce.

Let’s say you’ve got a mango on the “other side” of perfect freshness. What can you do to transform it into something delicious? Use it in a smoothie! Using fresh if slightly wilted veggies and fruits in soups, stews, and smoothies is a terrific way to make sure all your produce is used instead of being thrown out.

Rescuing bread.

When bread goes too stale even for the toaster, what can you do? Reuse it by making croutons or bread crumbs. Put the slices of stale bread in the oven for a little while, and once they’re baked, voila! You’ve turned stale bread into fresh bread crumbs to coat your next crispy chicken meal.

Learn how to preserve produce.

Consider pickling cucumbers or other vegetables, or turn fruits like apples, pears, and berries into delicious jams. There are plenty of creative ways to extend the life of wonderful fresh produce, and preserving them is particularly welcome if you live in a cold climate and can’t always access fresh produce in the middle of winter.

Community sharing.

The community in which you live is a great resource for food sharing. If your neighbor has a plentiful garden of vegetables and you love growing herbs, consider sharing. Stretching your bounty to help others, while they contribute to your kitchen, is a win/win for everyone. This practice means more food for everyone and less waste – what could be better?

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Shop selectively at the grocery store

Filling your cart with impulsive purchases or going shopping without a list is definitely a way to make food waste add up. Planning menus and shopping accordingly is the best way to ensure you buy only what you need. Focus on necessary items and skip the junk food aisle. And never buy something solely because it’s on sale! If you don’t know how you’ll use it but buy it because it’s a great deal, it might end up being tossed out.

Shop in a mindful way.

First of all, don’t forget the list! Make sure you’ve included all the ingredients you need for those marvelous meals you planned. Consider shopping frequently but for smaller amounts of food. Even if you don’t manage to plan dinners for a full week, plan one for an evening and shop for only enough to make that meal. This is a smarter way to shop because you won’t be tempted to load your cart with foods you hope to use, but haven’t planned for and may well end up throwing out.

Learn signs of freshness.

Knowing how food expiration labels work and how to read freshness in a variety of foods is vital. Food expiration labels are crucial, of course, but they aren’t the only info you need. Examine the food you’re considering purchasing, and weigh its overall freshness. If it’s a head of lettuce, for example, is it wilted throughout, or only on a few leaves? Is it enough for the meal you’ve planned, particularly because it’s been marked down by 50 percent? Understanding these signs of freshness is important when you’re buying food, not simply the food preservation label.

Consider shelf placement.

As a general rule, the closer to the front of a shelf a food is, the older it is in the inventory. Look at the back of the shelf for the freshest food, and buy frozen food last so that it spends as little time out of the freezer as possible.

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Storing food properly extends freshness

Storing your food properly is the best way to extend its freshness. Keep all dairy and meats in the fridge, but also many fruits and vegetables. Consider whether light and heat are getting at food products that don’t go in the fridge – like coffee beans, for example, and make sure they’re protected. Place these foods on a dark pantry shelf or in a cupboard. Here are some tips for storing food correctly:

Smart fridge use.

It’s not enough to toss food in the fridge to keep it cold. Put fruits and veggies in the crisper drawers, and meat and dairy in the coldest section. Doing this ensures your food stays at optimum freshness and prevents cross-contamination.

Make the most of the freezer.

Food stays fresh longer in the freezer if it’s in an airtight container or wrapped tightly. Use up frozen food that’s been in the freezer for a while. Consider labeling the foods as you freeze them, so you’ll know just how long a product has been there.

Pantry containers for dry goods.

Grains, legumes, pasta, flour, and coffee beans – store items like these in airtight containers to ensure they stay as fresh as possible. And, as we said, keep them away from sources of heat, humidity, and light.

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In Summary

Knowing how to read food expiration labels gives you the ability to shop wisely, making the most of your grocery budget. Using containers for some foods, and making the most of your fridge and freezer helps you extend the life of the products you buy. These practices also help reduce waste, and that’s an important goal for everyone!

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