Getting groceries has been a challenging experience for many during the coronavirus pandemic. Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control that recommend you stay six feet away from those outside of your home can be hard to adhere to at your local grocery store. But if you're ordering groceries online, you'll find that increased demand for delivery in many locations makes it difficult to secure a slot.
"Now that food is harder to get, it's more important than ever to use everything we buy and make use of what we already have in our pantries," says Scott Nash, the founder and CEO of Mom's Organic Market, a grocery store chain. "Especially since a lot of people are tight on cash right now."
Nearly four years ago, Nash spent an entire year exclusively eating expired foods and blogging about it. After his experiment he made it his mission to prove that expiration dates don't actually indicate that food has spoiled. "You can ignore expiration dates on most foods. Besides meat and produce, expiration dates generally don't have anything to do with food safety," he says.
Nash has also worked in the grocery business for over 30 years, which has helped him cultivate methods for preserving food products for as long as possible.
Below, Nash shares which food expiration dates you should actually pay attention to and how to grocery shop strategically. He also offers strategies for utilizing everything you buy during the pandemic so you don't let food go to waste.
There's no federal regulation that says manufacturers have to include expiration dates on packaging, with the exception of infant formula. Manufacturers use their discretion to pick the "best by," "sell by," and "use by" dates printed on their products. The chosen date is often a reflection of when the food company recommends using the product for peak quality rather than an indication of how safe it is to eat beyond that date.
Many items in your pantry have a expiration date you can ignore, Nash says. Even if a product is years past the printed date, it's not necessarily bad. To tell if the food you have at home is still good, "trust your eyes and your nose," he suggests.
Here's how to tell if some common pantry items are safe to eat or are merely past their prime, according to Nash.
- Grains like rice, oats, and pasta. "Most grains rarely go bad," Nash says. If something has gone bad, you'll usually be able to tell by the smell. "Smelling is a great way to measure the freshness of grains. If it smells rancid, don't eat it." There are exceptions, though, Nash says. "For example, pasta will last longer than flour. Pasta is a dried grain, whereas flour is ground up. ... I've never found pasta that has gone bad. But smell it. It should be good for years. Flour on the other hand can spoil." You'll know that flour or rice has gone bad if it has a bad odor or is discolored, he says.
- Jars, cans, or glass containers of food. "Anything in a jar, can, or glass bottle, is going to last for decades unless it's broken or open, of course. Take mustard. That has vinegar, which is a preservative. For dressings or anything in a jar, if it has a top seal that's pushing out, or if the liquid starts seeping out, don't buy it or use it. If you see a bulge in the can, or if it's broken or dented, that usually means it's gone bad."
- Snacks. Chips and nuts smell or taste stale when they're no longer fresh. Take corn chips: "People kind of know when that stuff has passed its peak, because they smell funky."
Unlike pantry food, meat, dairy, and produce have expiration dates that you probably shouldn't ignore. So, if something in your fridge is about to expire, cook it to help it last longer, Nash says: "I like to call it resetting the expiration date."
"Once something is open, like a jar of sauce, or meat, the clock is ticking. ... It's going to go bad. If you cook things that are on the cusp of spoiling and put them in a container in the fridge, it gives you a few extra days to eat them," he says.
Here are some ways Nash says he prolongs the life of his food.
- Throw it in quiche. "A quiche or a crepe is a great way to use leftovers. Get started with five eggs, throw in a bunch of stuff that you have leftover like olives, tomatoes, onions, or even leftover grilled chicken, and pour it into a pie shell and add some cheese, and bake it at 400 degrees for 30 minutes. That's pretty much all you have to do."
- Cut away mold. "If your cheese is moldy, cut away at the mold. If you're still wary, use the cheese in something you're going to cook, since heat will help get rid of the bacteria."
- Sauté fruits and veggies. "Let's say I have a bunch of apples that are about to go bad. I'll add a little butter and cinnamon and cook them down for a half an hour and now I'll have days to eat those apples. ... If I have peppers that are starting to go, I'll dice them up and saute them with some olive oil and put them back in the fridge and I'll be able to use them a week later."
- Use acid. "If avocados are going to go bad, I'll cut them up, put them in a container, and squeeze some lemon or lime on them and I'll get a few more days to eat them because the acid keeps them fresh."
- Put meat in a sauce. If you have ground beef or chicken meat that's about to expire: "Cook it up with some tomato sauce and throw it back in the fridge. That will help it stay good for a few extra days since the acid in the tomatoes will help preserve it."
Since you'll have to limit your trips to the grocery store and be as efficient as possible while there to adhere to social distancing guidelines, be strategic, Nash says. "You have to be a planner. Get a lot of stuff at once and only come in when you're really out of everything."
Planning out your meals and organizing your shopping list by aisle can help make your trips to the store more efficient, which will not only help you stay safe but can help others as well. "You have to get what you need without putting other people's lives in harm's way and make use of what you have at home," Nash says.
One of the silver linings of being quarantined is the opportunity to get creative in the kitchen, Nash says. "Restaurants are closed, so people are cooking new things that they haven't cooked in a long time. They're really having to discover new recipes and cook their own meals."
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