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How to decode expiration dates — and make your groceries last longer

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Americans toss out almost a pound of food per day, according to a 2018 study. But you can curb how much you discard — and in turn, how much you spend on groceries. The trick is to understand expiration dates, so you know when it's actually necessary to fling that milk into the trash can.

Food date labels became the norm in the 1970s, but there's no federal regulation that says manufacturers have to include expiration dates on the packaging. (The lone exception: infant formula.) The language was never streamlined, which is why you see a mix of "best by," "sell by," and "use by" while you're shopping.

Shoppers' lack of education about expiration dates can cause problems, says Elizabeth Balkan, the food waste director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Those who have no intention of being wasteful in their consumption habits end up throwing things away because there is massive confusion," she says.

The USDA defines these three kinds of expiration dates:

  • Use by: This is the "last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality."
  • Sell by: This is "how long to display the product for sale for inventory management."
  • Best by: This is when a product will be of "best flavor or quality."

None of these dates indicate how safe it is to eat the labeled food. So instead of throwing out your purchases on what is essentially an arbitrary date, try these expert-approved tips for making your food last as long as possible so you can save money in the long run.

Those who have no intention of being wasteful in their consumption habits end up throwing things away because there is massive confusion.
Elizabeth Balkan
Food waste director at the NRDC

Be smart about what you put in your cart

Pick the second or third product back instead of the one at the front of the shelf, consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch suggests. "Store clerks will push the products nearing their expiration date to the front," she says.

You can stay safe by educating yourself on which foods tend to go bad quickly. Bread from the bakery section and fresh produce both tend to have a short shelf life, says Woroch. Berries and herbs are among the other foods that go bad, fast, according to Food & Wine magazine — typically, you'll need to use them within just a few days.

Take advantage of your freezer

Produce goes bad quickly, and can be expensive depending on how out-of-season it is. So the smart trick is to freeze it. Agatha Achindu, cofounder of toddler food company Yummy Foods, told Grow earlier this year that her freezer is her "best friend," especially for things like blueberries, which can range from $2 to $8 a pint at different times of the year.

To freeze fruits, you must wash and fully dry them. Be sure to ditch any inedible skin before freezing. Vegetables need to be blanched — that is, boiled in water for a short time — before freezing. This can slow or stop enzymes from causing loss of flavor and texture.

You can also go straight to the frozen aisle. Frozen produce is harvested at peak ripeness, so you not only get more longevity, you can also enjoy more nutrition. Plus, frozen produce is typically cheaper.

Meats and prepared foods can also be frozen and eaten later. On ice, an uncooked whole chicken stays good for one year, according to the USDA. Casseroles, soups, and stews stay good for two to three months.

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Run a smell or taste test

"If it tastes and smells fine, it's perfectly fine to eat," Woroch says. She's had success consuming past-dated eggs, yogurt, boxed pasta, and salad dressing.

Many nonperishables like pancake mix and canned beans can also be eaten weeks after their "best by," "sell by," and "use by" dates, according to Balkan, who points out that expiration dates can also be a way for manufacturers to sell more products.

"We want people to feel empowered to trust their senses and not put too much stock in those date labels," Balkan says.

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