Want to Cut Your Food Costs? Start by Understanding Expiration Dates.

Are we prematurely throwing away good food?

When face to face with a carton of expired milk, many of us will opt to just toss it in the trash. It's little wonder the average American ends up throwing away about a quarter of their groceries. What's more, the USDA estimates that 30% to 40% of the U.S. food supply goes to waste.

Before writing this article, I was quick to toss anything still in my fridge that had outlived its expiration date. But after doing a ton of research and chatting with a food science expert, I've changed my tune. It turns out we're often duped by faux expiration dates. These dates are completely voluntary (with the exception of the ones on baby formula). The result? Increased food waste and, in turn, higher grocery bills.

Taking a fresh look at expiration dates (pun intended) could reduce waste and save you loads of money in the long run.

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What's the Truth Behind Expiration Dates?

If you're trying to cut down on food waste, there are lots of items that can generally be safely consumed after the date listed on the package. If the thought of eating "expired" food makes you a little queasy, it might help to know what the dates actually refer to.

"The sell by date is for the grocery store's rotation; the best by date refers to quality," says Christine Bruhn, retired director of the Center for Consumer Research in the Department of Food Science and Technology at U.C. Davis.

Basically, in many cases, it's quality we're talking about here, not safety. If you bake biscuits using refrigerated dough that's a couple of weeks past its "expiration date," it won't suddenly develop bacteria that's going to make you sick. Your biscuits just might not be as puffy or savory as you like. Similarly, granola bars, crackers, pretzels, cereals and other dry food items are capable of surviving past their expiration dates without presenting a health concern. Again, it comes down to taste and quality, not safety. But flavor shouldn't take too much of a hit if it's stored properly and isn't too far beyond the date.

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When Can You (Sort of) Ignore Expiration Dates?

There's a good amount of wiggle room where milk is concerned. In fact, it typically lasts seven to 10 days after the date on the carton. Don't get us wrong — it's probably not a good idea to drink chunky, months-old milk, but consuming it a week or so beyond the sell by date is no big deal.

"As long as you’re not buying raw milk — which is not a recommended practice — pasteurized milk is fine," says Bruhn. "The off characteristics would be a bitter flavor because of bacteria that can grow under refrigeration temperatures. It’s not going to kill you; if it’s pasteurized milk, it’s highly unlikely that it’ll be a serious pathogen. It’s a quality issue."

Don't be so fast to trash eggs right away, either. I buy mine in bulk from Costco because they're way cheaper than my local grocery store. Bruhn says this is a smart practice since the sell by date must be within 45 days of the pack date, according to the USDA.

"I feel really comfortable with eggs," she says. "If it’s a couple weeks past the date, I don’t have any problem with that. Again, I’m cooking them, not eating them raw."

Have some expired canned goods on your hands? Canned items that aren't acidic (so tomato sauce is out) can last two to five years under the right conditions. Most other canned foods can live for up to a year past the date, says Bruhn. They may not taste as flavorful, but they're generally considered safe to consume. Just pay attention to any swelling, dents or other signs of contamination. Keeping them in a cool dry place will also help them last longer.

As for raw poultry and meats, the fact that you cook them is a big advantage here. Bruhn says that using them a day or two past the date isn't usually something to worry about (assuming it doesn't smell). Just be mindful of cross contamination during the cooking process.

"If it's past the date, you'll have a higher level of contamination on your fingers after touching it," she adds.

To be on the safe side, wash your hands frequently, and disinfect countertops and prep areas when you're done.

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When Expiration Dates Really Matter

The raw meat example above points to a key detail, which is that you don't eat it raw. Bruhn says that expiration dates are useful when it comes to any ready-to-eat items that don't require further cooking.

"I love spinach and buy it in great big containers," she says. "When it gets to that date, I won’t serve it in a salad anymore. I might sauté it with butter and garlic, but I won’t have it raw. And if it’s a couple days beyond that date, I toss it out."

The same goes for things like lunch meat, soft cheeses and the like. A dangerous bacteria called listeria, which is destroyed through the cooking process, can actually flourish on these items, even in the refrigerator.

"Lunch meats usually have a sell by date," adds Bruhn. "I personally like to buy them before that date, then use them within a few days after."

>>Related: 8 Ways to Save Money at Whole Foods

What's your take on expiration dates? Will you be a little more liberal when it comes to eating foods past the expiration date or is sacrificing freshness not worth the savings? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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About the Author
Marianne Hayes Contributor

Marianne Hayes is a freelance writer, wife and mother in Tampa Bay. After earning a degree in journalism and creative writing from the University of Central Florida, she spent nearly a decade getting lost in New York City and Los Angeles before making her way back home again in 2014. Marianne's writing has appeared in a variety of publications including The Huffington Post, Forbes.com, LearnVest, The Daily Beast and more. When she's not writing, Marianne is usually cruising her local bookstore with her two daughters.

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