Be "Shelf-Life" Smart and Save

By Beth Scholer, CC, CDM, CFP

Waste Not Want Not

Have you ever thought about how much money is wasted by tossing perfectly good food? According to the USDA and EPA, Americans throw out more than $165 billion worth of perfectly safe food each year. Much of that food is wasted because is sits in our pantries or refrigerator shelves for too long-or so we think.

When does good food really “go bad”

According to the FDA, yogurt is still safe to eat up to 10 days past its “ sell-by” date. After that time, the number of beneficial bacteria will start to decease, possibly reducing the nutrient value but not causing it to become unsafe. The same goes for milk, eggs, fruits and vegetables and many canned or dry goods. At the end of the manufacturers date, the quality may begin to deterorate-not the safety.

Combat Food-borne Illness

Most cases of food poisoning are not caused by "old food" that is past its "use-by" date. Foodborne illnesses are usually due to improper hand-washing, keeping food at the wrong temperature, insufficient washing of foods and cross-contamination.

Be “Shelf-Life” Smart

Storing food ingredients correctly is one of the simplest ways to maintain a food’s shelf life, prevent foodborne illness and reduce waste. The shelf life of a food product is the length of time that the food will retain its nutrients and is safe from microbial growth or spoilage. To get the maximum shelf life from food, it is important to handle and store it correctly.

Keep Perishable Food Out of the Temperature Danger Zone

It is also very important to minimize the time that cold food spends in the danger zone the temperature range between 40˚-140˚F. Bacteria grow most quickly in this temperature range and can grow to numbers that can cause illness or cause the food to spoil before it has reached the end of its shelf life. Even leaving the milk out on the counter for 15 minutes while eating breakfast will prompt the growth of bacteria-and spoilage!

Refrigerated Foods

A home refrigerator’s temperature should be kept at or below 40°F. An appliance thermometer or food thermometer can be used to check the temperature of the refrigerator. Foods should be cooled and covered before storing. Always refrigerate perishable foods within two hours, but the sooner the better!

Frozen Foods

Frozen foods should be kept at a temperature of 0˚F or below. When a food is kept frozen, it is safe from microorganisms because they cannot multiply at frozen temperatures. When the food is thawed, the bacteria will again become active and continue to grow, so the food must still be handled and cooked safely.

The quality of a frozen food will also deteriorate over time because of enzyme reactions, which speed up the deterioration of food from oxygen and can lead to off flavors and colors. Food can also become freezer burned.

Freezer burn occurs when air dries out the surface of frozen food. It causes gray or brown coloration to the surface of the food. The food is still safe to eat, but it is usually thrown out as it is believed to be spoiled. Freezer burn can be reduced by wrapping the food in air-tight packaging. It important to use frozen food in a reasonable amount of time for best quality.

Dry Goods

Dry goods include canned goods, boxed food, pasta, rice, baking ingredients and others that don’t require storage in a refrigerator or freezer. Dry goods should be stored at room temperature (65- 75°F and moderate humidity). All containers should be tightly closed and labeled. These items should not be kept on a floor, as rodents may contaminate them.

Date Codes and Food Packaging

Many food products will have a date code on the packaging. There is no universal system for dating food, so different wording may be used for different types of products and situations. Keep in mind that once these dates have passed, the food hasn’t spoiled or become unsafe to eat and can still be used.

A Sell–By date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. It should be purchased by the date and used within 1-2 days. It can also be frozen before the date expires.

A Best if Used By (Before) date is recommended for best flavor or quality. It is typically found on bakery products that will become stale and lose quality but still be safe to consume.

A Use-By date is the last date recommended for the use of the product for best quality. The food manufacturer has determined the date.

There are many resources available about the length of time food can be stored. Check out the FDA’s Refrigerator and Freezer Storage Chart for common foods. So think twice before pitching that partial bottle of salad dress or the past-date pasta salad, it probably still good.

Chef Beth Scholer is certified by the American Culinary Federation and Association of Nutrition and Foodservice Professionals. She is a food scientist, culinary instructor, author and founder of Caregivers Kitchen. She can be reached at


FDA. FDA Basics. Did you know that a store can sell food past the expiration date? FDA. 28 Sept. 2015. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.

Natural Resources Defense Council. FOOD FACTS: Your Scraps Add Up. NRDC. March 2013. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.

Scholer ,B. (2015) Culinary Skills for Caregivers. Lakewood, CA: Avid Readers Publishing Group.

USDA. Food Safety Inspection Service. Food Product Dating. Sept. 2011. Web. 12 June 2013.

USDA. Food Safety Inspection Service. How Temperatures Affect Food. May 2011. Web. 12 June 2013.

Photo Credits:
Aneta Laszcz/