For one day last month – Earth Day – we contemplated waste everywhere, and the impact on our planet. We should have Earth Month instead.
Food waste in the U.S. is astronomical. We have abundant foods, resources and people to produce them compared to most other countries, yet the tonnage that goes to the garbage is staggering.
Moreso is the energy used to produce the food that’s then discarded. It is more, as estimated in an article by NewScientist Magazine, than the energy extracted annually from oil and gas reserves in the U.S. and offshore our coasts.
Food waste impact is huge – on our wallets, in the disparity of those who haven’t got food and those who throw it out, and on the Earth that gives us this bounty.
Dumpster divers are happy
One study by the University of Arizona, funded by the USDA, found that U.S. households throw away 14 percent of their new food purchases – unused! That’s a lot of edible food and money into the dumpsters.
We can’t solve the whole planet’s problems individually, but we can make a difference by doing smart things in our home kitchens: recycle what we can (including giving away good food we don’t want to food banks), using up leftovers (a large part of what’s thrown away is cooked foods), and reusing scraps (anybody can toss banana peels into their flowerbeds or save carrot peels and onion layers for a vegetable stock). And we can teach or encourage others to do it, too.
Carton dates to blame
The figure that astounds many of us cooks, however, is how much good, edible, unopened food is thrown out because people are afraid of or confused by use-by, sell-by dates on cartons.
These are dates stamped on cartons, and in a Julian calendar code on the ends of cans, or their labels. On many foods, these are required by the USDA and not created because the manufacturer is being nice (soda and beer aren’t required to have these, but they do). But here’s the rub: They’re very conservative (read that: companies covering their assets – which consumers are only too willing to sue to obtain).
Use-by, sell-by dates are flexible
Most consumers are surprised to learn that you can eat eggs, for example, up to five weeks beyond their “use-by” date stamped on their cartons as long as they’re uncracked, and you’ve stored them properly (in the refrigerator).
Some are non-believers and adhere to this date no matter what, however.
Cory Reed of Jupiter will “never, ever, ever” use expired foods.”I schleeve at that!” she says.
Tom Peeling, a Lantana resident, throws out any dairy food that’s even a day beyond its expiration date.”I won’t get near milk or other dairy products that have a date on them that is past,” he said.
It’s completely the opposite with his wife, Becky, however. “I keep telling him that the date is the sell-by date and that the food is still good unless it looks or smells bad,” she said. “I did recently throw out a carton of sour cream that was dated 2010, which I found in the back of the shelf in the refrigerator. I never opened it, but figured it was too old for me.”
Marie-Josee Burns of Hypoluxo is another who tosses by the carton date. “I’m a huge date-checker,” she said. “Anything that needs to be refrigerated, I will never use past the expiration date. I’ve heard the temp in there fluctuates too much, due to the door opening and closing. The freezer, on the other hand, I use the ‘visual test.’ I won’t buy anything outdated, but if it’s in my freezer past its due date, I just look at it – you can tell when something has freezer burn.”
Some use the sniff or visual test and remain cautious. Meridith Ward Sundbye in Holly Hill, Fla., sniffs. “It depends on how far it is past the expiration date. A few days, yes. A few weeks, no.”
Keeping food properly cold or frozen
All the guides for keeping foods talk about refrigerating or freezing foods. Refrgerated foods need to be kept at 42 degrees or below. Know that putting hot foods in the fridge causes the temperature inside to rise – so cool foods to room temp first. Frozen foods need to be at 32 degrees or below. If kept at 0 degrees, food will last indefinitely, but most of us don’t need to keep a freezer quite that cold, or hold food that long. Frozen foods do suffer from freezer burn and quality suffers, but you don’t get sick from properly frozen food. Thawing it improperly (NEVER ON A COUNTER OVERNIGHT!) is what leads to food poisoning. Thaw foods in the refrigerator or in a cold water bath when you’re in a hurry and cooking them immediately once they’re thawed.
Even dairy is OK after date
It’s not just packaged foods that last. Yogurt’s good up to 10 days after its sell-by date; and it’s still at its peak after a week from that date.
What’s going to happen to an uncooked, uncracked refrigerated egg after five weeks? Air seeps into the porous shell and the yolk begins to lose structure. The fried egg that is picture perfect when fresh will be spread out, thin, and the yolk won’t be as fat. But they will taste OK – and they won’t be spoiled. Uncracked is key here – check eggs for cracks at the store before you buy.
Milk lasts up to a week, sometimes more, refrigerated – after its sell-by date. This is one where the sniff and or visual test really does work.
Blue cheese is good for a week in the fridge, but up to 3 months, frozen.
Brick cheese – cheddar, etc. – is good for 2 to 3 weeks or 2 months in the freezer.
Raw chicken isn’t something to mess with – keep it only 2 days in the refrigerator, well wrapped so no juices drip or contaminate other foods. Freeze raw chicken, well wrapped, for 9 months. If it’s beyond its date, don’t freeze it – toss it.
Cooked commercial chicken such as chicken cutlets will last 5 days in the refrigerator; 6 months in the freezer. Keep tightly sealed.
Cooked and prepared foods
Have a roast beef or pot roast leftover? You’ve got 3 to 4 days before it’s time to go. Better idea: cook leftover roast and veggies in a soup, and freeze the soup – for months. Or just freeze the cooked roast – for 3 months. Wrap it very well to prevent drying; it’s even better frozen in beef broth or a gravy.
Tunafish salad stays good 3 to 5 days in the fridge.
Learn more: Go to the USDA web site, and browse, or hit the web site for consumers called Stilltasty.com – which gives the shelf life for all sorts of foods and drink.