Plate-Wise •  12/9/2021

5 ways you can reduce food waste: understanding expiration dates

Written By Wendy Srnic 
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Apples in stages of decay

Research shows American households throw away more than 30% of the food they buy. Read these tips to save money and waste less.

Did you know you can actually contribute to a healthy and sustainable planet, as well as save on your weekly grocery budget, just by understanding expiration dates on food? Here are a few tips on how you can translate your knowledge into planet and budget-friendly savviness.

The first step is to understand what date labels really mean (and don’t mean):

  • Best by date – This date guarantees the time that the product will be at its best flavor and quality. The food is still edible after the date listed; the label is about taste, not safety.
  • Sell by date – This is meant to inform sellers (i.e., grocery stores and supermarkets), when to remove items from shelves. The goal is to ensure consumers purchase the item at optimal quality (and then use it in the upcoming days). For example, milk, according to consumer reports, should last five to seven days past its sell by date if stored properly.
  • Use by date – This is the last date the producer guarantees the best quality of the product (again not a safety date, nor a mandatory label).

So now that you understand what labels mean, here are some tips to use that knowledge to help the planet and your budget:

  • Make a list and buy only what you will use – You know your kitchen best: don’t buy more than you can reasonably consume by those dates. According to the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, the average US household wastes 31.9% of the food its members obtain. You won’t waste it if you don’t buy it.

You won’t waste it if you don’t buy it.”

  • Freeze, dehydrate, or preserve food approaching date labels – If you have purchased it and still haven’t eaten it, look for ways to use it. Most fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat products can easily be preserved at home by freezing or dehydrating (banana chips!)
  • Consider buying marked down produce – If you know you will be able to consume it in the upcoming days, use your savviness to cash in on the savings. Blackberries have a short shelf life in the store, and an even shorter life in our household of six (the absolute favorite fruit!). When they are marked down, I buy in large quantities and they still disappear well before the quality starts fading.
  • Plan your menu to use what you have – Keep an eye on the perishables in your refrigerator and pantry, and plan your menus to use them in order of perishability. 
  • Use your ‘senses’ As you can see from the descriptions, there is no magic date when food is actually deemed ‘unsafe’ to eat. According to consumer reports, “Spoiled food will usually look different in texture and color, smell unpleasant and taste bad before it becomes unsafe to eat.” Use your senses to decide.

Happy (and savvy) eating!

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