Storing Food and Expiration Dates
I have been storing food to help the economy (mine). However, I'm concerned about the expiration dates. I'm not sure how long they can be kept and still be safe. I have even found food in stores that is beyond the expiration date. I'd hate to pay all that money and find that I can not use it. It would be defeating my purpose. Any suggestions?
Storing Food: First In, First Used
The best way to cash in on bargains and stocking up is to properly store food. The easiest rule to remember is "first in, first used." That means you are always using the oldest items first, which should keep you within expiration dates. Canned goods, dry pasta mixes, baking goods, paper products and similar items can be stored in a pantry or shelf. Meat, dairy, bread, etc. should be frozen until used. Most meat is good even after the expiration date, as long as it is frozen and still appears "pink" or fresh.
It is easy to throw your items in the freezer or pantry when you get back from the store, then grab the nearest item for supper. But if you consistently rotate your stock so that you are using the oldest items first, you should not have to worry about expiration dates.
Guidelines for Storing Food
I once did a bit of volunteer work at a food bank where they often received donations of expired food. Their rule was that anything in a can would still be good for three months past the expiration date, and anything dry in a box would be good for six months after it had expired. This only applied to "shelf-stable" sorts of foods. Things that have to be kept in the refrigerator or have already been opened will require more caution about the expiration dates.
Advice about Storing Food from a Food Safety Agent
This reader can access her local County Extension office for help with storing food safely.
- Use by dates are usually on perishables and need to be used by that date. Think lunchmeat.
- Sell by dates are usually on milk, eggs, etc. and are good past that date until they spoil (i.e. sour milk).
- Best if used by dates only affect quality. Most can be used well past that date. Crackers may be stale but can easily be revived in the oven. Spices or flavorings may clump together like in rice mixes or instant oatmeal, But they will unclump when heated.
However, do not buy dented or swollen cans. Even a small hole you cannot see can introduce harmful bacteria like botulism.
Area Nutrition & Food Safety Agent
Tips for Storing Food
If you read the labels, most dry goods have a "Best if Used By" as an expiration date. My stepdaughter thought this was in fact an expiration date, but it truly isn't for dry goods. It merely means product is freshest and the manufacturers believe this is the date to use the product by.
Dry baking goods like flours and sugars keep for years if kept in a cool and dry place. To make sure you don't get the nasty flour critters, freeze it for 24 hours first straight in the bag and then seal it in a waterproof and seal tight container. Yeast, baking soda and baking powder also have these "Best if Used By" dates, but I have used items long past that date with no real consequences.
Baking powder and baking soda will not make breads rise as much, but I have been known to add another pinch to recipes to compensate for an item a year or more beyond the expiration date if I'm concerned. Adding vinegar to a bowl with a teaspoon of the baking soda and baking powder will tell you if the powder is still good. If it bubbles well, you are good to go.
I further our household economy as well so I freeze butters, margarines, liquid coffee additives and milks. When I defrost them, I usually give it a week to expire. I just write the new date on the carton and have no real problems. However, you must shake the milks and liquid coffee additives after they are defrosted. Generally, coffee additives last six months. Milk lasts about four months in the freezer before you notice any differences in taste or texture. For eggs that are close to expiration, I remove them from their shell and they go into airtight freezer bags and are stored in the freezer. You need to let them air defrost. Do not use hot water to defrost them (you'll end up with semi-poached eggs). They have worked in literally all of my recipes that I generally use. I try to use eggs within six months of storing them in the freezer.
As for canned goods, they are as a general rule still good so long as the cans do not have rust, are bulging or have any kind of dents, which could make the metals leech into the food items.
If you plan on freezing foods, I highly recommend removing all the air possible to prevent freezer burn or changes in consistency of a product. My vacuum sealer has more than paid for itself in the last two years so I highly recommend them. They are pricey at about $100 for a small model, but every bit worth it if you are not throwing away foods or liquids that you freeze in them. The bags for these sealers are very strong. I have literally washed them out with bleach along with the kitchen rags (minus fabric softener) and air-dried them after they came out of the laundry. I can then reuse the bag once or twice before pitching it in favor of a new one.
Denise M. in Fort Dodge, IA
Three Suggestions for Storing Food
- Write the purchase date on all food items when they enter the house (to help you rotate the items) and always use the oldest stock first.
- According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food can be safe forever from a foodborne-illness standpoint, but if shelf-stable food has been on the shelf for an extended period of time, you might not want to eat it because the quality may not be good. In this case, the "best if used by" date on the label of the product is an indication whether or not the quality of the food is good. Food quality deals with the taste, texture, and nutritional value of food. For example, freezer burn, rancidity, and food spoilage are all quality-related issues. The FDA does not require an expiration date for shelf-stable foods, since the storage time for these foods is a quality issue, not a food safety concern.
- Contact packaged food manufacturers and request that they include expiration dates. I have been doing this for decades, but apparently few others make the same request because so many companies still fail to print an expiration date on their items.
Store Food so Your Stockpile Rotates
To prevent losing your stockpile, you must continually use and replace the food in your stockpile. Always put the newest food in back, and move everything forward on the shelf, so that what you are using from the front of the shelf is the food that has the closest expiration dates. You may also want to take a black marker and write the expiration dates on items as you put them in your stockpile, just so they are easier to see.
Why Do You Stockpile Food?
Most food can safely be stored and used beyond the "best by" date on the label. Canned and packaged goods should be stored in dry, clean, vermin-free areas for best results. Frozen foods should be stored at 0 degrees F or below and used within a few months of purchase. Most cheeses can be stored safely at refrigerator temperatures for several months if they are in sealed packages and not yet opened. After opening, use quickly or freeze the remainder. Some cheeses will change in texture when frozen, but you can freeze cheese that will be used for melting without a problem.
Naturally, you will want to buy goods with the latest possible expiration dates. In addition to canned foods, dried fruits, nuts (if frozen when opened) and grain products tend to keep well.
First, however, I suggest considering why you want to store more than a month or two's worth of food. Personally, I have been trying to cut down on overall food storage, since it takes up space in my home. I tend to forget what I have and don't use it. With a steady income that will keep pace with inflation, I see little reason beyond the desire for variety at my fingertips to store food for long periods of time. With variable income, it might make more sense to stock up for the lean times. Or perhaps it would make sense to save up for the lean times, earning interest on that money, then buying the local grocery stores' loss leaders as the basis for most meals. They tend to run on a cycle that can be predicted.
Barbara in Wallingford, CT