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The Truth About Expiration Dates

What makes throwing away unopened food seem so wasteful? Many of us were brought up by Depression-era parents or their offspring who inherited Depression-era thinking. We were in the “clean plate” club. We experienced having to sit in front of a cold plate of food for hours if we didn’t finish dinner. We were told about children starving in Africa.

Still, it is interesting that it is often easier to part with a never-worn sweater than it is a can of expired Mandarin oranges. For one thing, you can donate the sweater, but homeless shelters and other organizations that accept food donations will not accept food past a stamped expiration date. Which means it must be thrown away. Or does it?

According to 2013 report by CNN, expiration dates for food in cans and jars and also things like candy or frozen foods, are set by the manufacturers to be the latest date they believe their food will taste exactly as intended. After that date, the taste, smell or texture will be somewhat—perhaps not even detectably so—less than perfect. For example, a granola bar may lose some of its crunchiness. Within a couple years, most expired food won’t hurt you and is (im)perfectly fine.

When I help a client organize a pantry or food storage area, we tend to keep items that are as much as two or three years past the expiration date and move them to the front of the cupboard so that they are eaten sooner rather than later.

Use your common sense though. If a can is dented or rusted or otherwise looks suspect, or if a seal has been broken on a jar, the item must be thrown away. If you can observe through the glass of the jar that the color of the food is off or that it has broken down (as do pickles and things like artichoke hearts), empty it and recycle the jar. If something smells “off,” toss it rather than take a chance. Oils are an unrefrigerated item that really should be used within a year or less of purchase as they become rancid, which many studies are showing can cause health problems.

Now, just because you can keep something part its expiration date, don’t get all smug and stop there. Ask yourself if this is an item you are really likely to open and eat. For some reason that never fails to amuse me, many people stock up for earthquakes and disasters with foods that they really don’t enjoy. The canned spinach, Spam, canned oysters and other items one might not usually incorporate into their diet are relegated to the survival stash.

If you are going to have a survival stash of canned goods, fill it with foods you really enjoy eating so that you can rotate cans into your active pantry and replace them in your survival stash on occasion. I can guarantee that chances are slim to none that the canned spinach and clams are in rotation.

If you do find that you need to get rid of old food in cans, jars and cardboard containers, empty the food into the trash or run it through the garbage disposal and recycle the container. You will need to rinse out jars and cans before putting them into recycling. Although the food has been “wasted” it is easy enough to prevent the additional sin of not recycling.

The best way to prevent wasting food is to not over-purchase in the first place. Only buy what you and your family will really eat, not some idealized way you think you should be eating. If you find that you have to throw out food on a regular basis or when you clean out the pantry, it’s time to rethink your grocery shopping.