Food Geek Friday: Food Expiration Guidelines

Food Expiration Guidelines - Organizing with a Side of Fabulous BlogI've been working in a lot of kitchens recently, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on expiration dates with the entire class. Expiration dates are...tricky.

First and foremost, know that expiration dates on food are NOT regulated.

Also known as - We the food manufacturers are pulling dates out of our collective asses as a "favor" to the consumer and will put them in random places you can't find on the packaging, if we bother to give you a date at all.

Pro tip: when cleaning out your pantry, pair like with like and THEN check for dates. It goes a little quicker because similar foods tend to have the dates in similar places. If it's dated anyway.

So since it's all pretty arbitrary and there's a bit of semantics at play, let's first take a look at the different types of dates you'll find: sell by, best by, and expires on.

Sell by - This is for the store. Sell this item by said date and then take it off the shelves. If it's been properly handled by you after purchase, it should last at least another day to few days depending on the food.

Best by - This one is when it will taste the best, but it won't necessarily kill you if you eat it afterwards.

Expires on - this is theoretically when it starts to spoil and you most likely won't want to eat it afterwards.

But remember...these dates are arbitrarily chosen by the manufacturer. Because of this, there are a few factors on their end that they're considering but don't want you to:

  1. If they give you the *true* longevity, they may scare people with the fact that their food won't die for many, many years. After all, the further out that date is, the more leery you may become of said food. (And rightly so.)
  2. They hope that these items will sit on your pantry for a while and then the next time you clean out your pantry you'll see the expiration date and toss it. Higher turnover due to expiration dates means more sales for them. Remember Sunshines, they are first and formost in the business of selling food and making money. If short-changing an expiration date is going to help get them to their goals, they're not going to lose sleep at night by doing it.
  3. Overall the date will be a bit conservative because from the legal standpoint it's better that someone throws away perfectly good food rather than get sick and sue.

Here are my rules of thumb:

  • Fridge - Sniff test will pretty much give away anything nasty in the fridge. If you don't have a good sense of smell, enlist the help of someone that does.
  • Freezer - Toss it. Freezer burn tastes naaaaaaasty.
  • Dry goods - I like to operate with a general 3-6 month buffer on things that haven't been opened. If you're within a few months past the expiration date, go ahead and use it. If you're not going to use it, send it to the food bank or give it to a friend that will.
  • Dried spices - These guys actually start loosing potency from the moment they're opened. I always go with a sniff test first. If you can smell it, it should be ok. If you can't smell it, toss. Old spices won't hurt you, but they sure as hell won't do your dish or taste buds any favors.
  • Beverages - depends on what it is. Many dried beverages, like tea, fall into the dried spices sniff test category. Liquids can be iffier...unless it's liquor. That stuff stays pretty much good forever. But why do you have old liquor???

If you find yourself tossing a bunch of old foods then it's time to reevaluate your meal habits. Plan more. Purchase only what you need for the week. Eat up what you already have first. This saves you money and waste.

My challenge to you - clean out the pantry, fridge and freezer this weekend and report back when you're finished. How many bags did you toss? What was the oldest expiration date you came across? My current client records thus far are 6 giant carpenter bags of foods and an expiration date of 1992. (Not the same home, BTW.)

Disclaimer: this is all purely based on the dates and assumes that everything has been handled and stored properly after purchase. If it hasn't, all bets are off.