When Do You Throw Out Food? A Question for Readers

Last Tuesday's article on food waste raised an interesting question (it came up in the comments) that I wanted to ask to the entire Casual Kitchen audience.

When your food passes its expiration date, do you throw it out?

This is my blog after all, so I'll go first. Here's my answer: Never.

The milk we buy, for example, is almost always good for several days after the sell-by date. I use the sniff test. When it comes to meat and other dairy products, we do the same thing. Visually observe and smell. If it's still good, why waste it?

With eggs I'll go even further. We've eaten eggs that were weeks past their sell-by date and never had a problem (and if that idea scares you, why don't you take a look at this provocative post on eating eggs stored for four months without refrigeration).

Produce is another story, I suppose. Usually there are no expiration dates. And the amount of time that can pass between field and grocery store for many fruits and veggies, combined with the varying treatment of the produce (example: some produce might get bruised or bumped during transport, hastening spoilage), essentially means you have to check out the merchandise carefully before you leave the store. Even then it can be a crapshoot.

But then again, once in a while you get lucky. Two weeks ago, I found some potatoes buried in the back of our fridge that had to have been more than (shudder) four months old. They predated our departure to Chile! But they looked fine, smelled fine, handled fine and tasted just great in a batch of Yellow Split Pea Soup. You just never know.

Finally, with cookies, chips, granola bars, frozen ice cream and other "shelf-stable" food products, I have to admit, I never even look at the sell-by date (another shudder), I just eat them.

Readers, where do you stand? What do you do when your dairy, meat or other food products "expire"?

Related Posts:
How to Get the Benefits of Organic Foods Without Paying Through the Nose
Food Absolutism
10 Ways to Rethink Water Use in Your Kitchen and Home
Eight Myths About Vegetarians and Vegetarian Food
My Seven-Day 100% Raw Foods Trial
Ask Casual Kitchen: Advice for a New Blogger

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Angie said...

I often refer to StillTasty.com to see how long food is safe.

What are your thoughts on things like rice and dried noodles (pasta, etc.)? I've had rice go several months past the expiration, at which point I threw it out because I was sure it couldn't be good anymore. Should I have held onto it?

Kris said...

Good question, Dan. For milk, eggs, and produce, I go by nose. For canned and boxed goods, I go a few weeks or months past the sell-by date, depending on the item.

I'm a little more cautious with meat. Chicken, pork, beef, and fish get the sniff test as well, but if they're even close to borderline, they'll be tossed. One bad Chinese takeout experience a few years ago made me much more careful with how I handle meat in general.

MCM Voices said...

I don't pay much attention to the dates, except possibly as a guide to how far away I should be from it when I give it the sniff test.

Daniel said...

Angie, I asked my followers on Twitter your question, and the consensus was dried foods like rice and pasta can be kept and eaten for years beyond any "expiration date."

Kris: I get why you'd be more cautious with meat after an experience like that.

Also, I take into account how the meat is going to be cooked. If it has passed its sell-by date, I'll cook the meat very thoroughly, even if it passes the smell test. I'm not taking any chances with any e. coli or salmonella either.

MCM: Love your comment. Good one! I'll keep it in mind the next time I find a science experiment in the back of my fridge.


Charity said...

I mentioned mine in the previous post. However, when it comes to shelf-stable products, I will admit that I've forgotten some (chips, cookies, crackers, etc.) so long in the back of the pantry's upper shelves that when I finally discovered them, they were definitely rancid. And they were still sealed/unopened. I guess it's the oils in them that does it. But I think that takes years. :-)

Jeff D said...

you gotta remember when sniffing milk that you might be sniffing the stuff that had dried near the spout. Best to pour it out into something first then sniff.

Hell in some cultures sour milk is a delicacy.

I had a Mexican friend whose wife always stored their eggs on the countertop. Ate her cooking plenty with no problema, so I'm thinking eggs hold up just fine.

All that said, food poisoning sucks and often times (especially on beef) can't be detected by smell but can by sight. Pays to be careful and eat your food as close to purchase as possible.

Melissa said...

If I have meat that smells really weird, I'm going to chuck it. But I plan very carefully now for that not to happen. Canned goods and whatnot? I buy them so little, and only as I need them, that I never have to worry about sell by dates.

I think produce is the thing that gets wasted most and I used to waste a lot. But now I have to say that thanks to my friend Rebecca, my answer to when do I throw out produce is virtually never. She, like you Dan, has changed the way I cook, plan, shop and eat - she more than anyone. She lives in the middle of nowhere (raising 5 boys!) and is the master of making everything herself, including cheese, and she cans and stores and preserves... and a lot of her attitudes have rubbed off on me during the course of our friendship.

If you have onions and celery and carrots that aren't looking so hot? Put them in the freezer and use them when you make stock. Them being a bit limp or ugly isn't going to hurt your stock any and you'll never have to buy them separately for that use. I don't even throw away onion tops or scallion bottoms or cilantro stems or remnants of herbs. You can freeze all those things for stock, crock pot dishes, etc. No sense in wasting money or the bounties of the earth, not ever.


Melissa said...

Oh wait, no! I have more rambling!

About the milk. My friend who is finishing up physician assistant's school (med school basically), she told me that in one of their classes they were talking about food and bacteria and whatnot and she said that most people in the world drink milk far more "spoiled" than we do except it isn't really spoiled. We are. ;) She said the sell by dates on the milk cartons can be way off from the date they are actually good through - and apparently, it's healthy for us too.

I've had week old milk that still tasted wonderful, so I believe it.

chacha1 said...

I pay no attention to "expiration" dates, but that's mostly because I buy very little food at one time. I would rather shop weekly and have fresh food, than every two weeks and throw things away.

I used to waste a lot of produce, so I stopped buying it unless I knew - absolutely KNEW - I would use it within a week, or that it would keep a long time (potatoes, onions, apples). That leaves a lot of stuff out, because I work full-time and I'm not cooking a new dish every night, no I am not.

I buy just enough meat to feed me and DH for a week. We buy fresh fish only if we're going to freeze it or eat it that day.

I routinely keep eggs until they have been used up. Have never, ever had a "spoiled" egg.

Joanne said...

I SOMETIMES look at expiration dates on dairy. Sometimes. Usually I just go by look, smell and feel. If it passes those three tests then it's totally fine!

Anonymous said...

I never toss milk. If it is past its date by more than a couple days, milk goes into sourdough starter or pancakes or something like that. Indeed, I often leave milk out to sour for baking.

Likewise I keep crackers, dry beans grains, rice and pasta with no concern for expiration date. (I transfer them into glass, so who even knows what the expiration date was?) I've purchased frozen pancetta and cheese from the local salvage store that was way past the expiration date, though I do so with care. As for other items, well, this week we found a 2007 homecanned jar of southwest salsa in the pantry. It was great.

Regarding eggs, as you know, --and thanks for the link!-- I've been conducting long-term storage tests with room temperature lime water in order that we might even out personal supply. Hens lay more in spring and fall, less in summer heat and winter chill, so we sell fresh eggs to weekly customers, and eat those we've stored during lower supply times. We have had no problems whatever with these eggs. One proviso, though: backyard eggs and store bought eggs --even organic ones-- are a different beast. For one thing, eggs are laid with a protective seal/covering, but commercial operations wash it off. I've read that backyard eggs are anywhere from one to eight months fresher than those you purchase at the grocer.

I'm mindful of fresh meat; if I cannot use an item within a couple days of bringing the pkg home, it goes into the freezer. Same with flour. Any commercially canned goods we may have on-hand is used with greater concern for the salt, fat and sugar content (not to mention BPA) than the expiration date. :o)

As ever, a stimulating and interesting post. Thank you!

Steve said...

My situation is somewhat unique. I have absolutely no sense of smell, so I can't use the sniff test. I live alone, and I only eat out about once a week. I'm like chacha1 in that I generally only buy enough groceries to last me a week. With no sense of smell (anosmia), I'm not a food connaisseur or gormet cook, but I'm very conscious about eating healthy foods, I avoid processed foods, and only eat meat about once a week. I agree with Daniel when he says you can eat healthy and cheaply, and I'm not overweight (even though I once was). I hate to waste anything, and I can't recall the last time I threw out any food.

Anonymous said...

Ha, I have some small cans of pineapple juice dated 2006. I'm debating.

chacha1 said...

Hey Anon, are those the little 6 oz cans? They are great for tenderizing meat if you're doing anything with a spicy treatment.

Or ... Add tons of flavor to poached salmon. Boil down for a sauce on chicken. Add to a pork-shoulder pot roast.

Laura said...

I'm with those who look for mold/discoloration and then ultimately go by smell. I too have eaten eggs that were WEEKS past the expiration (though mine were kept refrigerated).

For any packaged goods (including pasta, rice, etc), I don't look at expiration dates - I just use them unless I notice something looks off.

Curious about frozen meat - do I have to be careful about that? My thinking is as long as I freeze it while it's still fresh, it should be fine (aside from potential freezerburn) anytime. But is that true? I have some stuff in my freezer that is EXTREMELY old and I need to get around to cooking it soon! I just find that with all the travel I do for work (I'm gone 4-5 days/week), it's easiest for me to freeze all my proteins so I don't have to go crazy shopping when I get home.

klarperdee said...

I agree with the post that recommends buying food and eating it before it goes bad. Fresh food tastes better than food that's been sitting for years and years.
Once foods are opened, air and exposure to bacteria does cause the quality to diminish. Over time, harmful bacteria that you can't see,smell or taste begins to multiply. And this bacteria can be harmful to your health. So doing the sniff test is not a good criteria for when to toss food out. It's true that many foods can be eaten past the "best by" date, however the "expiration date" is
completely different. Do not eat foods that have passed their "expiration date". These foods are no longer safe to eat! For more information relating to this subject, you can find recommended storage times of brand name products and generic foods at www.bestifusedby.com

Charmian@Christie's Corner said...

I go by look and smell before I toss. My dairy products usually run out long before the expiry date, and veggies usually tell you themselves.

Having a smallish fridge reduces food waste, as does having a large freezer in the basement. If I don't think I'll use something before it goes off, I usually wrap it up and toss it in the deep freeze. This has saved more rice and chicken than I care to admit. Lettuce still prove problematic, so we tend to buy our greens every couple of days or so.

Owlhaven said...

I waste very little either, partly because I serve leftovers at least twice a week for lunch, and because our chickens will eat almost anything that is questionable for the people, so that's where the forgotten leftovers go.
Mary, mom to 10

Unknown said...

In college I scrambled some eggs that were like 2 months past their date, and they tasted funny, so I threw them out. I didn't get sick from it though.
I can't emphasize enough how amazing these produce bags are: http://www.amazon.com/Forever-Green-As-Seen-TV/dp/B001F70T7Q
They are awesome for produce - stuff lasts for weeks that really shouldn't. They are a little steep on Amazon, but I've found them at Big Lots for 3 bucks and they are also frequently on http://dailycheckout.com/ for just the $6 shipping price.
I use them several times before I throw them out (unless something actually does mold in them - the bread bags aren't as good as the yellow produce bags).