Ignore some sell-by dates and more expert tips for making groceries last during coronavirus


Going to the grocery store these days can be a somewhat stressful experience. Along with the obvious health risks, stores are putting purchase limits on groceries, including food, and reducing their hours of operation. It's also been increasingly difficult to find delivery slots on Instacart of Amazon Fresh. So what you put in your basket for each order has become much more important. 

If you want to minimize the number of trips you make to the grocery store or orders you make online, and the amount you have to spend on food, it's important to make sure you get the most out of your groceries. One way to do that is to understand expiration dates. 

"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," Scott Nash, the founder and CEO of grocery chain Mom's Organic Market, recently told Grow. Nearly four years ago, Nash spent a year exclusively eating expired foods, chronicling the experience on his blog. His conclusion: Most expiration dates don't actually mean food has spoiled.

"You can ignore expiration dates on most foods," he says. "Besides meat and produce, expiration dates generally don't have anything to do with food safety." 

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, Elizabeth Balkan, the food waste director of the Natural Resources Defense Council told Grow. "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.

Make a 'use first shelf'

While it's always a smart money move to use your groceries before they expire, it's especially important right now as shelter-in-place guideline persist. 

"I have a designated shelf called a 'use first shelf' and I say, 'We need to eat this before we move on to that,'" University of Washington epidemiology professor Anne-Marie Gloster told Grow. This ensures you use the food you already have and nothing goes to waste at a time when ingredients might be scarce. 

Be smart about what you put in your cart

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, consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch told Grow. 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.

However, eggs can stay good for up to five weeks if kept in the fridge, according to the USDA. Summer squash can last one to two months at room temperature, and onions can last two months in the fridge, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources

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. 

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.

I have a designated shelf called a 'use first shelf' and I say, 'We need to eat this before we move on to that.'
Anne-Marie Gloster
University of Washington epidemiology professor

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.

Fully cooked meals also freeze well, Carolyn McClanahan, a former physician and the director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners in Jacksonville, Florida, told Grow

"One thing I like to do is prepare meals in advance," McClanahan says. "I'll cook a big pan of lasagna and freeze half of it. It makes you live healthier and it ends up being cheaper." 

This will help you use ingredients before they expire, saving you money and another trip to the store. And, if you get sick, she says, you have a ready-made meal you can simply pop into the oven. You can do this with a few dishes and rotate out what you freeze, based on what you want to eat that day.

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.

More from Grow: