How many times have you gone to pour milk in your coffee, only to see that the date on the carton was yesterday? Or, perhaps you’re hosting a dinner party and find a key ingredient’s “best by” date was last week. Some people will instinctively throw away the food, but chances are that’s not what the label is intended to convey. It’s likely a marker for when the food might taste its best, not if it’s safe to eat.
By some estimates, as many as 91 percent of consumers may misinterpret food date labels. It’s no surprise as there are dozens of different types in use: best by, best before, enjoy by, use by, fresh until, etc. However, the misunderstanding and lack of meal planning are contributing to a larger problem of food waste in the U.S. Between 30 and 40 percent of the U.S.’s food supply winds up in the trash or a compost container.
The benefits of reducing food waste are numerous. You’ll save money, which may be reason enough for some people. You could also be lowering your carbon footprint by keeping spoiled food out of landfills and cutting down on the growing and transportation of food that winds up getting thrown away.
Cutting back on this waste could start with understanding what food labels actually mean.
Don’t misinterpret food dates as expiration dates. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), aside from on infant formula, food label dates aren’t an indication of whether or not the food is safe to eat. For example, “best by” may mean the food will taste, look and feel its best if its eaten by that date. It could still be good for days, weeks or even months (for non-perishables) after that date.
Some states do require expiration dates on milk or meat and food labeling may soon become less confusing across the country. The USDA, Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute are pushing for more uniform labeling where “best if” labels indicate quality instead of safety. “Use by” labels would indicate the last day a perishable food is safe to eat. However, these aren’t legal requirements and some food manufacturers or grocers may not go along with the suggestions.
For now, you may need to rely on your judgment. The USDA writes that as long as foods don’t show signs of spoilage, such as changing colors or giving off an unpleasant smell, they could still be safe and wholesome.
Quick tips for keeping fruit and vegetables fresh for longer. Regardless of the date, proper food storage can impact a food’s longevity. A vacuum sealer could more than double the timeline, especially when the packaged food is frozen. Even without kitchen gadgets, remembering a few tips could help you keep your food for longer.
- Wait to wash food until you’re about to cook or eat. Otherwise, the moisture could spur bacterial growth.
- Store onions in a dry and dark space outside the refrigerator. Cold temperatures and moisture can make onions soft and bitter.
- Just like flowers and fresh herbs, you can cut the ends off of asparagus and store it in the refrigerator standing up in a glass of water.
- Strategically store items in your refrigerator. Your food will typically last longer if you put the least perishable items on the door, meat near the bottom back (unless there’s a meat drawer), veggies in the crisper and dairy or drinks near the top.
- Keep tomatoes out of the refrigerator, otherwise the cold could make them soft.
- Generally, you want to keep fruits and vegetables away from each other because many fruits produce ethylene gas and exposure to the gas could cause vegetables to spoil more quickly. There are also vegetables that produce the gas and fruits that are sensitive to it.
- Ethylene gas production and exposure is why you want to separate potatoes and onions.
- If you’re storing a fruit or vegetable that gives off and is susceptible to ethylene gas, wrap it in aluminum foil or store it in a paper bag rather than using less-breathable plastic wrap or bags.
You can look for more tips about particular foods online. There are also apps that can automatically connect to your supermarket loyalty programs to track what you buy (or you can upload a picture of your receipt), warn you when something may be going bad and recommend recipes that incorporate those foods.
Find creative uses for foods that are on their way out. Meal planning can help cut down on waste as well, as you’ll be buying ingredients with a particular dish in mind. The high-tech option is to use one of the many apps that let you search for recipes, add items to a shopping list and sync the list with others (so you and a housemate or partner don’t double-buy ingredients). Some even incorporate money-saving coupons. Of course, there’s also low-tech options like a pen and paper or shared whiteboard in the kitchen.
Even with great intentions and planning, sometimes things get forgotten, or meals get pushed off until it’s too late. However, it may not actually be too late. You can salvage mushy veggies, limp leafy greens and browning fruit.
You can save vegetables from the trash by roasting them, making soup or turning them into a casserole. Carrots, potatoes and other root veggies (plus zucchinis) can be grated and fried to make fritters. Cucumbers, cabbage, green beans and onions are also great for fermenting (it’s not as hard as it sounds). You could bake fruits into breads, throw them into smoothies or freeze them for later. In the end, the goal is to use everything you buy.
Bottom line: Food waste could be draining your wallet, hurting the environment and in some cases may be completely unnecessary. Learning to correctly interpret food labels and performing a sight and smell test before throwing something away could help. Taking the time to prepare before you shop, having a plan for how you’re going to use the food you buy and being okay with a last-minute backup plan can help even more. In the end, taking the extra time to evaluate the true condition of your food can save you money.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa’s financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney
This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered health, legal, tax or financial advice. It’s always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.