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Do You Hang on to Expired Food?

Today I was looking for room in the cupboard and discovered an unopened box of Uncle Sam cereal. (I don't remember buying it.) It said: "best before March '96." I threw it away, but, (here's comes the "sick" part) it wasn't easy. I always think: "What if there's an earthquake and I'm starving to death, I'll really be sorry I threw that cereal away."

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  1. on most items i consider expiration dates and use by dates to be guidelines more than rules. i mean, sour cream just gets more sour.

    quite a few times i'll use something from the back of the pantry and then say to myself "dang, that tasted like crap. it's never tasted like that before." and then i'll check the date only to find it 'expired' 3 years ago.

    3 Replies
    1. re: ScubaSteve

      "sour cream just gets more sour"

      Heh, until it molds! :) But yeah. I usually base it on what it is I'm dealing with. Really old spices probably aren't worth the shelf space because they don't have much flavour left. :) But I keep sour cream unless it has actual mold, I don' t pay attention to the date. Milk, on the other hand, I get really suspicious of, and if it smells the least little bit off to me, even when it's BEFORE the date, I toss it. Can't stand spoiled milk like that. :)

      1. re: Morganna

        I find that organic milk lasts much longer than it's non-organic counterpart, no matter what brand or dairy. I'm not sure why. I would have assumed the opposite was true.

        1. re: AngiePangie

          I can't use regular milk any more anyway. We buy lactose free. I'd hate to think how much lactose free organic milk would cost, if it were even available. ;D So far we're managing to use up the milk before it goes bad, though. My comment above was more from before we had our surgery and became lactose intolerant (just for milk, though, I'm fine with cheese and yogurt, which is great).

    2. my philosophy is: simplify, simplify, simplify.

      1. it's really case-specific. certain foods are fine past a "best by" or "sell by" date, but how far past that date varies based on the types of ingredients & their specific perishabilities (i think i just made up that word), the manner in which the product has been stored, etc.

        it's a good thing you threw out the Uncle Sam cereal - at more than a decade past its "best by" date i PROMISE you that both the wheat and the flaxseeds were rancid.

        1. I visited my ex-husband and our son for the holidays and found food in the pantry that is more than a few years old; they moved into that house 5 years ago. Ironically, when we were dating in 1988, we cleaned out his mother's pantry and found similar treasures.

          1. I'll betcha that cereal had meal worms in it, and that's a deal breaker for me. On the other hand, there are a few items in my fridge right now that are past their expirations dates: milk, spreadable cheese, salad dressing. When I open them I sniff and if it smells fine I eat it!

            1. Depends on what it is. If I find anything with an expiration over a year old, that's trashed. Opened jelly a month past it's expiration? Fine. Milk? If it smells good, it is good. If anything smells even a little off, it's gone.

              1. No, walker. I throw things out if they've expired. Actually, what I try to do with canned or jarred goods, or things like pasta, is check the dates, and if they still have reasonable time left, but it's getting more and more obvious I'm not going to use them, I try to donate them to one of our local food banks. Obviously, that doesn't work for things that have been opened, but, like you, I don't feel good about throwing away food, knowing how many people suffer from hunger. (It's actually not that hard for me to keep on top of it, because I keep making the stupid mistake of grocery shopping too close to lunch or dinner, so everything in the store looks good to me...and then back at home, I've got to survey the inventory and winnow, to find places for the new stuff. Aaggh, will I ever learn? Probably not.)


                3 Replies
                1. re: Steady Habits

                  I know they tell us not to grocery shop on an empty stomach but if I go shopping when full, I don't want to buy much and then am sorry later.

                  I'm sure I have spices that are 10-20 years old. I promise myself I'm going to start throwing all this old stuff away. (I'm good about throwing magazines away. I have friends who get cooking magazines and save stacks for years. I tear out recipes I like and then toss the magazine.)

                  1. re: walker

                    I figure it's okay to keep spices for at least a year. Most don't last that long, because I buy them in smaller quantities on a regular basis, but a few others, that I just don't use too often, I'll keep as long as they haven't lost their taste.

                    I admire your discipline with the magazines! That's my Achilles' heel, more with home magazines than with cooking, although I do have a couple of holiday issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetit that I've hauled through five moves beginning in the Reagan era. ;-)

                    1. re: walker

                      Not too many years ago I found a bunch of spices in my mom's cabinet that were at *least* 20 years old (likely a lot more). No wonder I always had to dump on a ton of the stuff when I was a kid, it was probably close to flavorless :)

                  2. I normally play it by ear, although I certainly think that 12 years past its sell-by-date is pushing it a bit too far! However, because I am quite thrifty and frugal (the thought of throwing things away makes me very uncomfortable) I tend to have a mental picture of what's in the frigde/pantry and when I need to use them by so I force myself t make something with it if it's about to go off and freeze it. Don't beat yourself up for it, though but try and check the expiration dates of your food now and again to remind yourself of what needs using. My mum-in-law keeps a stash of food (or shall I say, processed rubbish in tins) in case of a 'nuclear attack' and when we went over a few weeks ago, we discovered it had all been expired for about 10 years as well so you're not alone!

                    1. If it's unopened and a few years after its 'best by' date, I'll use it if it looks/smells/tastes OK. Same goes for food in the fridge, opened, a few months after the date.

                      Depending on the type of food, I've found even minor losses in quality can be dealt with (trimming mold on hard cheese, making dressing or breadcrumbs from stale bread, and so forth) and no one gets sick. In all cases I rely on my common sense (and my husband's nose--he can smell microbes just `thinking` of turning into mold).

                      I buy a fair amount of 'expired' food from the local surplus & salvage store, and after a few strange experiences I know what's going to be fine and what's just not worth the trouble. Lately I've been trying a new tactic: use up what I have before I have to wonder if it's expired. Easier said than done!

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Kinnexa

                        It's always fun to visit my 88 year old mother and do some archaeological exploration in her cupboards and freezer. Some of those foods I swear I remember from when I was in grade school. Nothing has killed her yet (including the pack-a-day habit). Unless something smells really off, I generally use it. But then again, my sense of smell has diminished since the time I failed to use spray paint in a properly ventillated area.

                        Oh well, whatever doesn't kill us only makes us stronger.

                      2. This has been addressed here and there in other contexts and it seems like some people are ultra-cautious, in which case they are certainlyl tossing perfectly good food. The storage recommendations from FDA and the like are often absurdly conservative. I'm in the other camp: I know it's old and instead of using it, will leave it in the cupboard, as though somehow that makes sense. Unless the can is bulging, I feel like I'm wasteful to throw it out! So it winds up sitting there until it DOES bulge - stupid, I know.

                        On the other hand, I do believe that occasionally eating borderline foods is good for maintaining a healthy immune system. I recently unwrapped a small pork loin that I neglected in the fridge until a week past its use-by date. I expected it to stink and was prepared to throw it out. To my surprise, it was a little slimy but not smelly. I rinsed and dried it. normally I'd have marinated it, then roasted it till the center still had a blush. In this case I was more cautious - cut it into half-inch slices, refrigerated it for a day in a marinade that included the fizzing dregs of a jug of apple cider, then sauteed the slices, afterwards adding the marinade and reducing it to half-volume. The 3 portions it made were just fine and there were no GI consequences. My policy is to be very careful about food other people will eat, but less cautious when it's just me.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: greygarious

                          I did not know that refrigerated canned artichoke hearts could go bad. The can looked fine but when I opened it, everything inside was black, unrecognizable.

                          1. re: walker

                            but someone, somewhere, will think it's a delicacy.

                            1. re: ScubaSteve

                              Yikes! But, you're probably right!

                              I'm pretty uptight about the whole expiration date thing. I throw things away if they're past their date. But, I try to minimize that by going through things regularly and if they're getting close, I try to use them soon.


                          2. re: greygarious

                            We tend to be less cautious than others. I mostly ignore expiration dates on canned things--we just ate a canned ham that expired in 06 and it was fine. In my opinion, if the can looks o.k. and it doesn't spurt when opened and it smells o.k., it probably is o.k. I am fairly vigilant of expiration dates on fresh chicken, and not so much on beef and lamb.

                            We just had some pasta that expired in 05 and it was just fine. Manufacturers are just covering their rears with expiration dates. Most stuff is good for a long time if stored properly.

                          3. Anything less than 10 years old is OK. Some inspection is needed for stuff more than 10 years old.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                              I finally realized what the difference was between the brown juice and the green juice in my refrigerator.

                              Two weeks.

                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                Sam we are of similar philosophy.
                                What does not kill you makes you strong.

                                I am 72 years old raised in hardscrabble poverty without refrigeration and many other amenities. Never had a GI problem.
                                Currently I have friends who get food poisoning (self diagnosed) all the time .
                                I suspect it's psychosomatic....

                                1. re: mr jig

                                  dick, I'm going to be 59 in a week or so and have never really had GI problems either. Have gotten food poisoning that took all night to cycle through a few times in all my travels (last time in Nicaragua) - but never from someone's home or homecooking (where the food is generally protected by love) and never from food that I had stored and prepared. Like you, I grew up in a time in which food didn't expire. You just used common sense to tell you if something did go bad.

                              2. This is an interesting thread. I had no idea people weren't like me who throws anything/everything out past the expiration date.
                                There's a reason for the exp date on spices....they lose their potency.
                                I just read a detailed report on pancake mixes left too long in the pantry....it's really something to think about.
                                No...in my home/kitchen everything's bye bye after the expiration date...

                                12 Replies
                                1. re: latindancer

                                  Once upon a time there was no expiration labeling. We used our common senses: looks okay? smells okay" sounds okay? tastes okay? Dig in. Our wallets are better off for it, and we're none the worse.

                                  1. re: greygarious

                                    I am with you grey - the sniff test, the eye test and the tongue test.

                                    1. re: smartie

                                      remember to sniff out of a glass. the stuff that clings to the outside of the neck will get sour faster and pick up off odors from the fridge.

                                    2. re: greygarious

                                      Well true, however my pocketbook doesn't come into consideration when it comes to eating healthy and intelligently, having had experience with several different gastrointestinal bacterial infections in my lifetime I'm not willing to take the chance.
                                      Therefore....I figure there's a reason for expiration dates and I'm willing to keep my kitchen up to my standards. People who eat at my home know there's no chance of getting sick if I have anything to do with it.

                                      1. re: latindancer


                                        How strict are you when it comes to expiration dates?

                                        For example, let's say the milk carton says "EXP 10/01/2009".

                                        At 12:01 a.m. on 10/02/2009 do you automatically throw it out?

                                        Even though just one minute earlier you would've been more than content to partake of that milk?

                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                          I buy my milk from Broguiere's... it comes in quart glass bottles and the quality's there for me. I don't care to taste the plastic taste from other containers that hold milk.
                                          I'm assuming you're being sarcastic but to play your game, yes, I throw it out although in my home it never comes to that. There's always something to bake or another latte to drink, hot chocolate to make so the milk is always used. I use the food I buy and although I'm a nutbag about expiration dates on food I really don't have the occasion to throw things out...I'm continually baking or cooking and the occasion to throw something away rarely happens.

                                          1. re: latindancer

                                            No, I was not being sarcastic.

                                            Milk was just an example. Let's take something you can't reuse (altough I don't really see the difference between drinking/eating it directly and cooking with it first before eating it, but I digress).

                                            Let's say it's a package of deli meats, or a can of soup. Do you discard it the very minute it is past its listed expiration date?

                                            I mean what about eggs, for example. Do you eat those directly, i.e. raw like Rocky Balboa? Or do you generally use those in baked goods, or cooked as scrambled eggs, frittatas, etc.? Same principle? Throw out immediately upon expiration?

                                            I don't mean to needle you, but I just find it fascinating and a bit perplexing how people can adhere to strictly to what in most case are rather arbitrary expiration (or use-by) dates.

                                            1. re: ipsedixit

                                              I don't think you're needling me at all. I think your questions are valid and thoughtful. This thread has made me think a little about my obsession regarding expiration dates. Trust me....my family thinks I'm a little nutty about this subject and it's prompted a few conversations in my home.
                                              I realize expiration dates serve as a general guideline for products and the food companies, most likely, build in a cushion for these guidelines when they post the expiration date.
                                              My own personal standard when I cook or bake is that I have the highest quality ingredients if I'm going to spend the time and energy doing so.
                                              I think alot of where I'm coming from has to do with how I was raised. My mother was a world class gardener....we only ate produce from her garden and fruit right from the tree. I was raised in a rural setting and most everything we ate or drank came from local growers.
                                              Going to the market, as an adult, is a daily affair for me and I seriously only purchase what I'll need for dinner that day. My pantry is stocked with the staples and I manage them with great care.
                                              I know this sounds a little 'anal and perplexing' but it's just the way I run my kitchen.
                                              I seriously don't throw things away though. I buy what I need and I use it before the expiration date becomes an issue.
                                              Your question about eggs is valid. I purchase eggs by the dozen and I've never had a problem using them before the expiration date....and, no, I
                                              don't eat them raw like Rocky Balboa. Deli meats....I really only purchase as much as I think I'll need for 3 days or so...cans of soup...the expirations dates are quite far in advance and it's never an issue because they're consumed and it's the same with most canned goods.
                                              Maybe I'm a little bit different type of shopper...I'm seriously at the market every day.

                                              1. re: latindancer

                                                Interesting perspective. My parents were children of the Depression and the mindset was that the throwing out of any food was verbotten. I was brought up with that in mind and try to avoid discarding any food if it is edible. I'd love to be able to shop for fresh ingredients on a daily basis, but there is just no way I have the time.

                                                P.S. The only family member (to my knowledge) to get sick on food was my dad, who got ptomaine poisoning in the Army in 1945.

                                                1. re: latindancer

                                                  Thanks for the thoughtful response latindancer.

                                                  Being anal about it really isn't a big deal to me -- hey, we're all a little OCD in our own little ways. I was just curious how someone draws the line.

                                                  I guess if you are always buying fresh and using it quickly; expiration dates are about as meaningful to you as those weird manufacture numbers on the barcodes .... :-)

                                          2. re: latindancer

                                            Different products have different reasons for their expiration dates, and very few of them have anything to do with food safety. Most of them have to do with "this tastes best if you eat it sooner" and some of them are blatant pushes to force more consumption of their products. They count on people like you assuming there's some food safety issue and tossing things out and buying "fresh" when the dates come around. Still others have to do with legal ass-covering because someone got sick once, probably due to improper storage practices, but corporate decided to slap a date on anyway, just to avoid litigation in the future.

                                            Meat, dairy, and eggs are the things where expiration dates provide a guideline for how long you might be able to expect a product to remain safe for consumption. Still, all of those dates are very conservative, and very much impacted by how you store things at home.

                                            For instance, if I buy meat that has a sell by date of tomorrow, then I stick it in the deep freeze, that sell by date is completely negated and has nothing to do with the reality of how long that meat will keep (which, in a deep freeze, is effectively forever). I have meats that have been in my freezer for over a year. They're still perfectly fine, though not as tasty, as meat I bought yesterday and cooked today. If I went by some arbitrary "expiration date" on the meat packages, I'd end up wasting a fortune on food and basically negating the whole point of having a pantry and a freezer.

                                            Dairy you can tell has gone bad, even most people with poor senses of smell can tell it. I never rely on the expiration date for dairy. In my experience, milk often goes bad before the date if it was opened and not used right away. Sour cream never actually goes bad, it just gets moldy after -weeks- of being open in the fridge. If I use it right away, that never happens.

                                            Horseradish? Never goes bad and if stored properly, isn't going to mold, either.

                                            Eggs, you can tell if eggs aren't good for cooking by putting them in water. If they float, don't use them. The date on the package doesn't matter. Just make sure your eggs don't have any cracks in them when you get them home and they're fine.

                                            The point here being that there are lots of reasons for expiration dates on packages, and they very seldom have anything to do with what's good for the consumer, and are about what's good for business. Issues of flavour retention aside, food keeps just fine much longer than most people realize.

                                        2. re: latindancer

                                          I don't need an exp date to tell me when/f my spices have expired. If I blindly followed the exp date I'd be wasting a whole lot of good food, especially with spices that are all stamped with the same shelf life even though so many variables can influence that.

                                        3. I never pay attention to dates and just go by common sense and the look and smell. The sell-by or used-by dates are a late 20th century invention to avoid law suits.

                                          The only exception to this is milk. I pay attention to the date when I buy it and as I'm using it I keep the date in mind but my taste and smell can still override the date in one direction or the other.

                                          2 Replies
                                          1. re: taos

                                            I agree to a certain extent.
                                            There are reasons why there are expiration dates on food items and they're not always for health concerns.
                                            The quality of food items decreases as they age...spices is one example. Spices lose not only their quality but their potency.
                                            I buy fresh produce daily....because I know the quality of fresh lettuce decreases as time goes by. It has nothing to do with health reasons....I prefer the highest quality and it's the way I feel about the food in my pantry and refrigerator and freezer.

                                            1. re: latindancer

                                              Hi All!

                                              I'm pretty much in agreement with latindancer on this. Freshness is important to me and it's one of the main reasons I cook - to give my family fresh and healthy food. And, I also think there's a health factor to freshness that can't necessarily be measured. It may sound wierd, but I believe that fresh food has a 'life' to it that is healthy for us and that goes away over time. So, I pay attention to the expiration dates. I do everything I can to not waste food, so I try to not buy more than I'll use in a reasonable time. But, at the end of the day, the freshness of a food is more important. And, expiration dates are the measure I use to determine that.

                                              Take care!


                                          2. Funny you should mention. I threw out a package of dried apricots this morning that had expired in early 08, and wondered if I was being a little silly, but I knew we'd never eat them if we haven't eaten them by now. I think they had been to Europe and back in a carry on a few years ago. I suspect I'm over cautious about expiration dates, and I have a feeling things last well beyond their sell-by date, maybe not years, but certainly months. I recently opened a Greek yogurt that was several months out of date and it seemed fine. The dates are probably calculated to eliminate any seller liability.

                                            I hate throwing out food so I'm trying to buy only products we really use and also to stay on top of what's hanging around and use it before it gets too old. I have the luxury of a second fridge, and I keep cereal, grains and things of that sort refrigerated. I like having a stash of lentils, split peas and various kinds of rice and I think that helps.

                                            1. I would love to know how companies determine the expiry date.

                                              I read for pharmaceuticals, the expiry date is when the product has lost 10% of its potency, but a study was done by the FDA for the Pentagon (because they have stockpiles of drugs) on 100 drugs and 90 of them were still safe after the expiry date. Some up to 10 years later.

                                              But I read somewhere that there is no regulation as to how the expiry date is determined, only that it must be there for certain products and that the expiry is often only when the product is no longer at its best quality (doesn't necessarily go 'bad' after that date). If that were the case, I certainly wouldn't trust the food companies to be honest about the expiry dates.

                                              I use my senses, including common sense to decide if something is good or not.

                                              1. I go by taste adn visual appearance. Rarely, if ever, would I throw anything unopened away just past the expiration date (which is usually actually a last date of sale, nothing to do with safety).
                                                Think about it, 11:59 PM, product is safe and delicious, 12:01 AM, no good throw it away. Crazy.

                                                1. Regarding dairy, in NY there are 2 expiration dates printed on the same dairy container which are off by 1-3 days, one for NY, and a later one for everyone else.

                                                  I have noticed that milk here (NY,NJ,CT) does go bad faster than the milk I had in SF & Chicago, and is sold closer to its expiration date too (look at complaints on TJ sites, an issue I never experienced west of here). My guess is that there's some issue regarding distribution and refrigeration, with the dairy not kept adequately refrigerated between distributors.

                                                  I have a jar of vegetarian bouillon paste in the refrigerator which I accidentally bought after its "best by" date; its fine. Some dates are for freshness, others for health. Day old bread is eaten by a lot of people, as it's a freshness issue. A lot of things can be frozen indefinitely. Grains and dry goods (including fruits) have less of a spoilage issue (unless they get wet), and more of an infestation issue only if left out. A lot of places sell X dry goods with an expiration date of "one year from today"; tomorrow, next week, and next month, that same batch will have the same expiration. The amount of preservatives in commercial baked goods give them indefinite shelf lives, even if it's recommended that they're not eaten past a certain date.

                                                  1. I find it funny that people will absolutely trust the expiry date that is set by the producer when the producer is the one that benefits by the product being thrown out and replaced. According to an article I read the FDA only requires expiry dates on infant formula and the Ag Dept only requires packing dates on poultry. If it's the producers that are deciding to put expiry dates on, who is to say some of them aren't building in some hefty padding to the dates to sell more.

                                                    1 Reply
                                                    1. re: Sooeygun

                                                      Here's an article with a little more information on that:

                                                      I still believe that if people blindly follow expiration dates they put themselves at risk for throwing out a lot good food and using food that is bad just because it hasn't reached its expiration date yet.

                                                    2. I don't necessarily throw expired food away, but I usually don't eat it if it's too far pass the expiration date. My BF is like a lot of people who have responded and goes by his senses so he will usually eat something long after I've given up on it.

                                                      Currently there is an unopened carton of milk over a month(actually pushing two) old in the fridge that our roommate bought and I guess forgot about it. I'm almost afraid to touch it in fear that it will burst open and I'll be the one stuck cleaning it up.

                                                      1. What if there is an earthquake, and the only food left will sicken you so that your only hope of survival is some kind of antibiotic that won't be available? Geez, if you are that nervous about it, keep an emergency supply of current food.

                                                        2 Replies
                                                        1. re: RGC1982

                                                          We do have an emergency supply, just don't know how long the emergency will last. We finally have a big supply of cat food, too -- that's usually overlooked.

                                                          1. re: RGC1982

                                                            Regarding survivial, anti-radiation pills are simply iodine infused pills (looked up after watching some zombie, end of the world film).

                                                            I wonder what the dose would be for our cat or dog? :)

                                                          2. In reading the posts on this thread, and thinking about my own circumstances, it occurred to me that dealing with outdated food is a more common problem for singles or couples than for families. If you're single, you know you only need the 8-oz, $3.49 jar of hummingbird tongues, but there on the shelf below is the 16-oz jar for only $4.29.....and there you are with an opened jar sitting in your fridge for 3 years ;-D. I don't use much milk, but can't bring myself to buy half-pints or pints for only a little less than a quart carton, so I'm forever sniffing, and either nuking it when it starts to turn, freezing it for baking, or making emergency mashed potatoes! Fortunately, I have dogs who will gladly help out when the cold cuts develop that iridescent sheen.

                                                            1. I scrapped the mold off of some cream cheese yesterday and ate the rest. And even served it to guests... no one got sick.

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: jaykayen

                                                                now That's what i'm Talkin' 'Bout Willis.