I hate to admit when my mother is right. Then again, don’t we all hate to admit when our mothers are right? The thing is, my mother is rarely wrong, except for that time she sent me to school with the flu. And then I fainted. Outside the science lab. And the nuns had to carry me to the office while all the other 7th graders watched. I remind her of this on a regular basis just to make sure she doesn’t get all high and mighty on me. But in terms of other things, she is usually right. Mistakes I have made, like throwing a brunch at my house the day after my wedding, wearing blue eyeliner, and watching the movie Poltergeist when I was eleven, could have been avoided had I listened to my mother.
Still, she’s not perfect. My sister and I spent the better part of our late teens inspecting the food in my mother’s refrigerator. Returning from college was, for us, a death-defying act of sheer bravery and courage. Yogurt that had been in the fridge since fall break was still tucked snugly next to questionable eggs and some sort of casserole that was, in her words, “delicious.” My grandfather once took a bite of pie and said, “Kath, I think this crust is rancid, but the filling is really good!” I dug out the box of Pillsbury and it was stamped ‘Use by the Nixon Administration.’ Her response? “See, that’s why I like to make my own crusts.” Okay then.
I will not even discuss the black bananas and I have worked extensively with a therapist to deal with the Lean Cuisine Chicken Chow Mein that was in the freezer for NINE years. The only reason it was finally discarded was because our house actually burned to the ground and my mother was forced to get a new refrigerator. She considered keeping the Lean Cuisine. I am not kidding.
You see, my mother didn’t believe in expiration dates. I mean – at all. “That lasagna is fine; you girls are being ridiculous,” was common. And I know, in my heart of hearts, that someday my mother will be old and gray and after not hearing from her for a few days, I will be forced to call a neighbor to check on her. They will find her on the kitchen floor with a carton of old cottage cheese in her hand. Sad. But not surprising.
So imagine my dismay when I heard that the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a study aptly named “The Dating Game,” claimed that ‘sell by’ or ‘use by’ dates don’t really mean anything! Apparently consumers take the dates seriously and, seeing an expired date and fearing that the food is unsafe, they throw it out, wasting perfectly good food and money. According to the stats, a family of four wastes up to $450 per year on food discarded purely based on the expiration date. How does that add up overall? Well, it means 40% of our food supply, approximately $160 billion dollars worth of perfectly good food, is being tossed out every year. Considering the appalling fact that many people in the world are actually starving, $160 billion is more than a little unappetizing.
A recent 9News investigative report on this topic unearthed expired food in each and every grocery store across the Denver metro area. Apparently a lack of manpower is resulting in many products being
pushed to the back of the shelves instead of putting fresher items towards the back and pulling more current items towards the front. I knew I was safe; my childhood experiences created my personal monster and while others are checking for fat content and high fructose corn syrup, I am looking at the date stamp on each item I purchase. But after reading about the Harvard study and learning from 9News that there is an area grocery store that purposely stocks out of date foods, I began to wonder if I was being smart or simply scared? Maybe I, too, was wasting decent food for fear of getting sick?
Turns out, I am both scared and smart. I learned that bacteria typically get involved when the food is processed and packaged, not when it is forgotten in your fridge. Food safety expert Ted Labuza, who teaches food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota, in an interview with Yahoo Shine, suggests using your eyes and, more importantly, nose when determining the safety of your food. He believes the key to ensuring a longer shelf life is controlling the storage temperature and preventing exposure to moisture and oxygen.
Here are Lubuza’s tips for keeping food fresher, longer:
Meat. Labuza keeps his refrigerator at between 32 and 34 degrees, lower than the generally recommended 40 degrees. This gives meat a 50 percent longer shelf life, he says. Labuza points out that stores don’t scientifically determine the use-by date of fresh meat, but instead follow what their competitors are doing.
Milk. Pasteurized milk also lasts 50 percent longer when stored at a lower temperature.
Canned goods. The label generally gives a shelf life of about three years. If you keep cans in a cool place (not above the stove) they will last about seven years. Always discard dented cans. Jarred and bottled goods will also last longer than their best date if kept in a cool place.
Frozen food. “I never look at the dates, I just eat it,” says Labuza. Freezing kills all of the microbes that cause spoilage, although food will develop ice crystals (freezer burn) if there is an air space inside the packaging.
Dry goods such as crackers and corn chips. If they have a stale texture, crisp them up in a toaster oven. If they smell “barnyard-y” or rancid, the oils have spoiled and it’s best to discard.
Eggs. Place in a bowl of water. If an egg floats, it is bad, but if it sinks, it’s still edible (and unstinky), even if that expiration date passed by weeks ago.
Pasta. Keep pasta in clear packaging in a dark, cool place which will increase shelf life and also retain nutrients, including riboflavin, that are light sensitive.
Bread. Keeping bread and other wheat-flour based foods in the freezer dramatically extends shelf life.
Packaged greens. If your lettuce is wilted but not visibly decayed (aka slimy), you can revive it by soaking in ice water for about 10 minutes.
Prepared foods and processed meats. These can pick up pathogens while being produced. Prepared foods such as a deli sandwich or processed meats can harbor listeria that grows even when stored in the refrigerator. Use such foods quickly and never serve processed meats such as hot dogs or sausages (including those labeled pre-cooked) raw, especially to small children, the elderly, anyone who has a compromised immune system, or, most importantly, me. The good news: Cooking will kill surface bacteria.
Still, I’ll pass. No matter what my mother says.