Don’t throw it out until you’ve smelled it.

I didn’t get to the supermarket for a few days after my arrival in Anchorage. Until then, I used the milk and oatmeal my hostess already had. When I mentioned that I’d be replacing what I used, she looked surprised.

“Uh, that’s really old milk. I meant to warn you off it,” she said.

It had tasted fine to me. That is to say, it tasted about as good as nonfat milk ever tastes – like the water they used to wash a cow. All that mattered to me is that it loosened up the oats in the bowl.

I nearly changed my tune when I checked the “sell by” date: April 5. It was then May 6. I was drinking milk a month past its prime.

Right about now your stomach may be curdling. The milk hadn’t, though. Linda B. bought it to fix a specific dish for Easter and then left the rest on the top shelf for the next month. It never left the fridge so it apparently didn’t have a chance to spoil.

I think we throw food away way too easily in this country.


Not good enough

In the past few months I’ve been making a serious effort to clear out the freezer and cupboards. Since I date the food I freeze, I know that the ground beef had been cooked 11 months previously and that the whole fryer was about a year old. I made bread pudding using shredded coconut that I know is at least four years old. I stewed some rhubarb that was going on five years old.

They all turned out just fine. If the ground beef had been dry I sure couldn’t tell after it was made into chili. The chicken produced copious pan juices. The rhubarb may (or may not) have been freezer-burned, but stewed and mixed with my homemade yogurt the flavor was as sweet-tangy as I’d remembered from previous summers.

This is not to say that we should let our food get old. My goal is to create a better (i.e., written) system so that the rhubarb doesn’t crouch down behind bags of frozen wild blackberries. But as a nation we turn up our noses a little too easily at anything we think of as substandard.

One MSN Money reader talked of a roommate who threw milk away on its sell-by date. He didn’t pour a little in a cup to sniff it for sourness, but automatically tossed it out.

I’ve also heard of people who throw away leftovers after two days in the fridge. Seriously? Cooked food won’t go bad in two days unless the fridge is unplugged.

Why not freeze things if you aren’t going to eat them? Why waste them?


Meanwhile, back in Anchorage…

I put the apples and oranges I’d bought into the bottom drawer of the fridge. (At no point did I compare them.) A couple of days later I sliced into a Sunkist and found it was partially frozen. The apples were, too. Since I knew they’d probably be mushy when thawed, I cut them up and cooked them into applesauce.

After Linda hosted her writers’ group we grazed for days on the leftovers. Almost a week later there was still a little roasted chicken left, so I turned it into what I can only describe as mock curry. It’d never pass muster in Madras, but I’m rather fond of the dish. But it was a little too thick, so I took Linda up on her offer to use anything in the cupboard. Before I opened the can of chicken broth I decided to check the “best by” date.

You guessed it: Old. Really old. As in “March 2002.”

The can wasn’t bulging and there was no suspicious odor. I stirred it into the curry and ate the one-pot-glop results off and on for a week. And I didn’t die. Not even a little bit.

Incidentally, what’s known as an “expiration date” doesn’t mean much of anything. They’re not even required by federal law except on infant formula and certain types of baby foods. When you’re talking dry or canned goods, the date means the end of peak flavor. “It’s just a quality issue,” a USDA spokeswoman told me. (For more information, see this USDA fact sheet.)


The way you look at food

I do have some standards. When mold grew on the last few slices of bread I gave it a Christian burial. The previous day it had been merely stale, whereupon I turned it into French toast. I should have frozen the rest before it got moldy. Next time I will.

A former co-worker who grew up in various Alaska villages would have cut off the moldy part and eaten the rest. That’s too much even for cast-iron-stomach me. Then again, he talks about eating eggs that “came over with Baranof.” He and his family also ate WWII powdered eggs up until the early 1960s. It’s a toss-up as to which oeufs were more dismal.

The point is they were food and the family ate it. When you’re a village kid, you don’t ever waste food.

That makes me a village kid, I guess, although the rural area where I grew up was referred to as a “township.” I was raised by a mother whose family lived much of the year on garden produce, dry beans, biscuits and white gravy and by a father whose family ate whatever his mom could grow and his dad could shoot. (As a kid my dad swore when he grew up he would never willingly eat another rabbit. He never has.)

My three siblings and I ate whatever was put in front of us – and quickly, too, because if you cleaned your plate you had a shot at getting some of the last little bit of potatoes left in the bowl.

Would we have dreamed of saying, “Eeewww, that meat loaf is three days old – I won’t eat it”? Oh, hell, no. (Not that meat loaf would last for three days with four kids around.)

Would anyone I knew have thought that milk too close to its sell-by date should be thrown out? Nope. In fact, we might have hoped it was close to its sell-by date, because it might be discounted. The freshness of bread was a moot point because ours came a dozen loaves at a time from the bakery outlet.

A couple of weeks before I left Seattle I found milk for 99 cents a gallon at the Asian market near my house. Its sell-by date was the next day. I turned it into two delicious batches of yogurt. And I still didn’t die.

I’m not saying that everyone has to eat the way I do. But I’m suggesting that you reconsider the way you look at “old” food, or at least at the buy-and-use practices that let food get old in the first place.

For example: If your fridge is full of mouldering take-out containers perhaps you could concentrate on finishing leftovers before bringing more food home? You could even learn basic cooking so you don’t spend so much money on food that you don’t even finish.

Or if you make a big pot of chili and get tired of it in two days, for heaven’s sake freeze it in small portions. Instant lunches! Or here’s an idea: Cook a smaller pot next time.

How many hours did you have to work to earn the ingredients? How much energy, fertilizer, pesticide and water did it take to produce and preserve the tomatoes, meat, beans and spices? When “old” food goes down the disposal those resources disappear, too.

Like your grandma said, people are starving in Africa. They’re also starving in the United States. It’s unlikely that either group would check a sell-by date before eating. But it’s pretty likely that the close-dated milk is still good.

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  1. Um, spoiled milk makes great pancakes…

    • admin

      @Nicoleandmaggie: I rarely have spoiled milk at home thanks to my propensity for making yogurt, but if I do I will make pancakes. Thanks!

    • I remember my mother buying cream. This was the days before dinosaurs disappeared from the Earth. The milk was pretty inexpensive because the cows were in New Jersey and we lived next door in New York. So she would buy cream and churn it with a cake mixer. This would produce what we now call skim milk of some type with little specks of butter in it and of course a large yummy lump of butter. Then she would leave the milk out overnight or leave it in the oven, which was heated by the gas pilot alone. Sort of warmish, not hot. I think on the next day, or 24 hours later, the milk had thickened and soured, not rotted and we had buttermilk. That was the origin of buttermilk. It was the liquid left over when cream was churned into butter. So now when you buy buttermilk, don’t even think about this. Because there is no longer inexpensive cream and the cows in New Jersey are locked in long metal buildings and attached to all sorts of equipment and fed antibiotics and pesticides. Milk is skimmed of all the cream and homogenized to tasteless cow wash. Where does all the cream go? Certainly not to the stores for good whipping cream or butter churning. And store bought buttermilk has no butter in it, just flecks of artificial yellow color pretending to be butter and some type of thickener pretending to be curds. Ah well…

  2. The sell-by date is not the date by which it can be expected to spoil — far from it. Sell-by is an arbitrary date indicating the number of days a product can be expected to stay on a retailer’s shelf; it takes into account the length of time the consumer is likely to have it sitting in the fridge.

    Most frozen foods should be fine after months in the freezer if they weren’t spoiled at the time they were frozen and if they have gotten frost-burned.

    On the other hand, if you think something may be spoiled, you probably shouldn’t eat it. No matter how much time, energy, fertilizer, pesticide, and water it took to produce the stuff, it’s just not worth getting sick for a principle. When in doubt, throw it out!

    • admin

      @Funny About Money: I agree. When I was about 12 or 13 I cooked a burger from the last of the ground chuck even though I thought it smelled a little bit off…And boy, was I sick. I threw up a dozen times between that evening and the next day’s dawn, and whatever didn’t come out that way left by an alternate exit, if you know what I mean.
      Never again. When I buy meat it goes straight into the freezer unless I know I’m cooking it that day. I also make hamburger patties and freeze them separately now. No more “I’ll just use up this last little bit.”

  3. Cheri

    Hahaha! ‘at no point did I compare them’ Good one! And great advice. I love turning leftovers into something ‘new’. The cookbook ‘More with Less’ has great ideas for using up leftovers.

  4. And on the rare occasion it does actually smells, looks, tastes funny feed it to the chickens! There by converting scrap food into more food. Chickens are the ultimate in food waste prevention.

    • Partially agree here, Dogs or Dollars. I have a small flock of chickens and I frequently feed them kitchen scraps, including leftovers that have somehow bypassed my usually scrupulous attention to using up food. However, I will not feed the chickens anything moldy or spoiled. It may be just hovering on the edge, but nothing that has already crossed that line. Anything in that category goes into the worm bin or compost pile. (And the dog appreciates a few leftovers, too; bits of fat and gristle from a roast, for example, are appreciated as “toppings” on her bowl of kibble!)

      • Jenny

        Yes, the dog is handy to have around for meat trimmings and other odd bits.

      • Is your worm bin made up of Red Wiggler worms ? (also known as California worms) If so, where did you buy them and how much did they cost ? Thanks

    • Chickens have hollow bones. If they eat anything with mold or mildew, it could get in the bones and is always fatal. My chickens shun anything with mold that I accidentally throw in their pen.

  5. Your friend must have good milk mojo. I’ve left milk in my fridge for a month past the sell by date, and you could probably use the curdled liquid as some sort of weapon of war!

    • spiffi

      It depends on the milk fat – nonfat milk will last MUCH longer than the sell-by date – while whole milk will curdle much sooner.

      Love your description of nonfat milk btw!

      • admin

        @Spiffi: It’s always been my experience that nonfat milk lasted longer. Glad to know it’s not my imagination.
        And thanks for the comment about my description. Moo.

    • admin

      @Pamela: Believe me, I was pretty surprised when I checked the date. Again, she never took the milk out after she used it that one time. I read somewhere that milk being left out during meals means it ages faster, i.e., it warms up. My rule is to take it out of the fridge, splash some on the oatmeal (or into the white sauce, or whatever) and then put it right back on the ice. At home I’ve had milk last two weeks past the sell-by suggestion. A month? That’s a new record for me.

  6. Carol

    Good article. We just emptied about a 3d of our freezer over the weekend of blackberries. We got a little carried away with picking over the past couple summers and I couldn’t put “food” in it anymore. Can’t eat that much cobbler, so now the juice is in two 5-gallon carboys bubbling away to become blackberry wine. Please post your bread pudding recipe, I’d love to try using the dehydrated coconut I got at the bread outlet.

    • admin

      @Carol: I’d love to post the recipe but I’m in Alaska and my cookbook isn’t. It’s a recipe from an old Fannie Farmer cookbook I got at a yard sale for a quarter. I expect if you take any basic bread pudding recipe and added coconut, it would work. The reason I like this recipe is that it uses bread cubes rather than slices of buttered bread and it doesn’t require setting the casserole dish in a pan of hot water. Just beaten eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla and a little salt plus coconut and bread cubes. The recipe suggests lowering the sugar from the basic bread pudding recipe (by 1/2 cup, I think) probably because the coconut is sweet.
      Feel free to e-mail me at SurvivingAndThriving (at) live (dot) com and I’ll send you the recipe when I get home at the end of June.
      Incidentally, I found that “old” blackberries still make good jam. At least the ones in Seattle do.

  7. This reminds me of the other day, when I forgot to put a small bag of shrimp in the freezer. It sat out for 2 days and the smell was, shall we say, POTENT! It went straight into the trash bag and out the door.

  8. Excellent advice, Donna! I have a friend that refuses to eat any leftovers that have been in her fridge for more than 3 days. I find that truly weird.

    I use the freezer a lot I have some items lurking in there like you mentioned: rhubarb and berries frozen a couple years ago, meat that’s been there for a year, etc. I need to really use this up, too. In fact, I think I’ll pull something out and throw it in the slower cooker for dinner tonight; thanks for the nudge!

    • admin

      @Linda: I love my slow cooker.

    • Norma Walker

      Some “experts” like Dr. Oz recommend not eating leftovers after the third day. This was on his after Thanksgiving program.

    • Around here it has to actually crawl out of the refrigerator and run away before I will think that maybe I should not eat it. But I am a vegan and mostly, I am careful about soy products. Bought a half gallon of soy milk some years ago. I will never forget that. I left it in the fridge for almost a week because I was away from home but the fridge was on and my mother was home in her apartment next door so I know the electricity was working all that time. Came home, saw the container and it look a bit swollen but didn’t have time to deal with it. Next day it looked PREGNANT. I was unscrewing the cap to smell and see if it could be salvaged when the entire container exploded. Blam! Soy milk all over the place. The cats hid under the furniture for the rest of the day. I cleaned up the mess. The soy milk was in a large lump and the lump had exploded. Well, that one was definitely past it’s Sell By date.

  9. I love your idea of stewing the not so good/old apples for eating with yogurt. I also stew hard tasteless pears that you can buy very cheaply here but which make a lovely sauce. I do that all of the time now. Also I have used spoiled milk to mix with eggs and bread for french toast.

  10. SherryH

    I try hard not to throw out food, though I’ve been a bit slack lately. Someone I know once mentioned going through her pantry stockpile and throwing out all the boxes and cans that were past the “sell by” date. I could’ve cried. If I’d lived closer, I’d have offered to come haul all of it away. We’d eat it. A can on your shelf June 1st is probably no different than that same can on May 31st, no matter what date’s printed on it.

    I forget the exact statistic, but a while ago I read that Americans throw out something like 1/3 of the food we buy. Unbelievable. How is that even possible? (I’m doing some poking around – it looks as though the percentage of food waste may be even higher, like around 40%, but may include food that is discarded by growers and stores and not just the groceries people bring into their homes. Still… wow. We could do better.)

    And our family will use milk, regardless of the date, until it curdles up and goes off. Hey – am I the only one with a bread bag full of heels in the freezer, waiting to be made into dressing or bread pudding?

    Donna, I love these nitty-gritty, down to the details posts on frugality. They always give me something to think about!

    • admin

      @SherryH: I have a bag of bread cubes in the freezer. They’ll be my next bread pudding. Tamar Adler’s wonderful “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace” has a lot to say about bread and old bread, including a good recipe for ribollita (aka “bread soup”). Haven’t tried it yet, but I probably will eventually.
      I would have taken those “old” cans of food, too. Sadly, food banks can’t. Ask the guy with nothing to eat if he’d risk a can of vegetable soup with an April 2012 sell-by date. Having seen people eat from Dumpsters, I’m pretty sure what the answer would be.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

    • Nonnie 83

      I had so many bread bags with heels, extra buns (we never need eight hamburger or hot dog buns), etc. that I had to throw some out…at least they went into yard waste, rather than in the garbage.

      Unfortunately, my family has a limited taste for bread pudding, and almost no taste for stuffing.

  11. Even cheaper than getting bread by the dozen: making your own. We were gifted a bread machine a couple of years ago and haven’t bought bread since. Haven’t thrown any away, either, because it makes cute little loaves that we can eat in a couple of days. DH convinced me to let him get the 50 lb bag of bread flour at Costco a couple of months ago. He also found a food-grade plastic bucket to store it in, so now we can have bread for forever, basically.

    And I find that milk that’s _almost_ off still works in coffee, too…

    • You can make Beer Bread in your regular oven. You only need 2 and 2/3 cups of flour and 12 ounces freshly opened beer. Mix with a spatula until incorporated and turn into a baking tin. Bake at 375 degrees for 50-55 minutes until the sides pull away from the tin or toothpick comes out clean. The taste of yeast bread without kneading or raising !

  12. christy

    My parents have moved across the country, leaving me to go through the house, clean, have a garage sale and send them any profits from it, I just sold my house and will be paying my parents rent, in order though to make the house livable I have had to do some cleaning that my parents have not bothered to do for YEARS (like 40)

    I just cleaned out my parents cupboards. My mother had spices from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s, so yes, I did throw out old food. I hate wasting stuff but there was a ridiculous amount, some old cans had rust on them! There pantry wasn’t better, I found stuff from the early 90’s. I know it is ok to use canned goods past their date but I can only forgive so many years and I am not going to eat some things my mom likes anyway. (the boxes of brown sugar were like bricks and there must have been fifty boxes of tapioca!) I myself rotate my cupboard, use a black marker and write the date on top of the can, also what I paid for the item. Once a month I have cupboard day where I look for items to use up in a stew, casserole etc. Their freezer wasn’t much better, bags of meat were not marked! It only showed me that yes people waste money on food, sometimes have too much money invested in it and it goes bad. There was probably $3000 (or more) in old food, money that for my parents would have been better spent.

    My sister and I will be having a garage sale, my parents had way too much stuff, never used, used little or used but sellable. Almost everything will be under $3, I will have boxes and boxes of FREE items, mismatched measuring cups, plastic lids, shoe polish completely random items that make me want to scream “WHY!?”

    I like having fewer things myself, less waste, less money lying around in “stuff”. I have a small freezer, I keep it stocked but rotate and use the stuff, just not keep eating off the top as I put more stuff in.

    I suggest everyone clean there house at least once a year like they were moving, purge people purge!

    • admin

      @Christy: I wouldn’t eat from cans that are rusty, and spices from the 1970s probably taste like Cheerios. Certainly some old food should be thrown out.
      Good luck with the yard sale.

      • carol the long winded

        The frozen meat was probably fine. I remember abt reading abt some archeologists that foundca mastodon frozen in ice and they made themselves a steak from it. If something frozen by nature 1000 years ago can be consumed safely….but no one wld recommend eating from rusty cans.

    • Maybe those boxes and cans of old food could be given to Hollywood/food museums/prop stores, to be used as props in movies and tv shows ? I think maybe e-bay has something like that, you could sell all of the stuff there for cheap cheap cheap or give it away for free to be used as props. Make sure you say it’s NOT for eating !

  13. I just put Hershey’s Quick powder in sour milk. It tasted good, not a bit of sour taste!

  14. Lorrain Reed

    Great description on the taste of nonfat milk!! I use my milk until it starts to smell bad too. A couple of weeks ago my son came to visit and went to eat a bowl of cereal and had a fit because it was 3 weeks past the expiration date. I told him that it had tasted fine when I had had my cereal that morning.

  15. Suzanne in VA

    So timely, my roommate is a date checker (because he has learned I am not so much) and I am always telling him that the date just means give it a smell first!

  16. cherie

    I waste as little as practical here but one thing I’m always amazed at is the leftover thing. My freezer is my friend, and the leftover meatloaf no one is in the mood for in the next couple of days becomes a wonderful meal a few weeks later, the last two enchiladas freeze beautifully and can be nuked for lunch – ditto the last burger etc. I don’t understand why more people don’t do that! to me it’s a bonus, because it’s one less meal, at least for someone, that I don’t have to cook!

  17. lostAnnfound

    My two teens are kind of picky about leftovers, but my husband & I are definitely not. One day a week is leftover night. I tell the girls if they’re hungry they can either have what’s “on the menu” or make a PB&J sandwich for dinner. Either way, food is rarely wasted here.

    • admin

      @lostAnnfound: Good for you! Years ago when I had a little cross-stitch sampler that said, “Two menu choices: Take it or leave it.” Your kids will be fed, and the fridge will be emptied.

  18. WWII Kid

    We have a communal fridge at my office and once a month or so the office administrator gets a bug up her butt and goes through the fridge and throws everything out. Apparently, an empty fridge runs better than a full one. I’m not talking about moldy or curdled food or forgotten snacks. I’m talking about people’s lunch for that day. I’ve tried explaining to her (and others) that the “Sell By” date is not the day the food automatically self-destructs. I’m ever so tempted to do a George Costanza and take home the half a container of butter that’s “hovering” near the top of the trash can.

    Funny thing is, all of the hyper-vigilant food daters in my circle are in the upper brackets financially. Does that tell us something?

    • Deborah

      Good observation, WWII Kid. Have you also noticed that those hyper-vigilant food daters also tend to be germ-a-phobes? AND they catch every bug that comes around? I think there’s a correlation. Our bodies are designed (whether by evolution or the Divine) to live in less-than-pristine environs. I’m not advocating wallowing in filth or eating obviously rotten food, but I think letting our immune system deal with everyday impurities keeps it strong.

      • Donna Freedman

        @Deborah: Interesting observation. I don’t get sick very often. Except for the gall-bladder surgery earlier this year, I have had to visit a doctor maybe twice in the past three years. (That’s not counting the annual physical.)
        Is it because I work at home and therefore encounter fewer cooties? Maybe. On the other hand, I do go out and about regularly and take the bus vs. driving, which might technically expose me to more germs and viruses than someone who commutes by car.
        Could also be the hybrid vigor that comes with being a mutt, nationality-wise, I suppose.

        • WWII Kid

          Over the weekend I became more aware of my foods’ labels – I noticed 99% of them said “Best By”. So, I take that to mean I can eat it anytime I want, it’s just “Best” before that date. A way for the manufacturers to force us to buy new?

          Also, I checked out a prescription I take regularly – it comes in the drug company’s bottle with my pharmacy’s label over it. The pharmacy says “Use By”, and under that label is the company’s expiration date which is SIX months from the use by date!

    • Julie

      Actually you can tell your co-worker that a full fridge keeps food older and costs less to run than en empty one.

    • People who waste have never been hungry, believe me. BTW: I was a WW11 born kid….May, 1945.

  19. Great post, Donna! I know I tend to push the envelope when it comes to using up stuff. And we’ve survived! I check the dates, and sometimes I check stilltasty.com, and sometimes I just do the sniff check and hedge my bets. I’m trying to do a better job of using things up so I don’t have to make any judgment calls!

  20. M E 2

    I’d like to know where anyone is getting milk that smells/tastes fine 3+ weeks PAST the date stamped on it. Has never happened/will never happen.

  21. M E 2

    to me, that is. Not that it hasn’t happened to anyone else. I am just amazed.

    • Donna Freedman

      @ME2: It might be that those others (like me) never leave the milk out on the counter or the table. We pour what we need and put it right back in the fridge. Each time a milk warms up even a little it’s that much closer to spoiling.

      • Diana B

        I always buy the same milk and sometimes it lasts 2 weeks after it’s “expiration” date and sometimes it starts smelling funny before. I never leave my milk on the counter like Donna, but some are just dated a little off from others. I remember watching a little news skit once where the companies said that there’s not really much of a science to the dating, it’s just a wild guess based on the average test scenario.

      • Diana B

        I should add also that you don’t know what conditions those products have seen just getting from the manufacturer to the store which may also determine how fast it spoils. If your milk’s shipping to the store in a truck with a faulty refrigeration system, I’d imagine it would probably spoil faster!

  22. “I put the apples and oranges I’d bought into the bottom drawer of the fridge. (At no point did I compare them.)”-This one really made me laugh!
    I’m glad that you didn’t die from anything that you have eaten-I like you and would be very sad. I would also miss your wit.

  23. rosarugosa

    Donna: This was one of your finest! I’m forwarding to DH who gets creeped out by anything 5 minutes past the sell-by date. Although I know he will just say “you can certainly eat rotten food if you want.” I don’t think I could do the oldish milk though, because I don’t really like milk (just the occasional splash on my store-brand cheerios) so it smells bad to me even when it’s brand new. But with old canned/boxed/frozen items, count me in! I suspect sell-by dates are overly conservative so that people will throw away good food and buy more, just another marketing scheme.
    I also think you should have compared the oranges to the apples, just for the helluvit 🙂

  24. I just adore your writing. So informational yet humerous:) I heard that when you first open milk if you put salt in it it preserves it longer as well. Plus if you put it in the back and keep it real cold it lasts longer. Not sure on amounts Id have to check Google or Pinterest lol. I once left apples in the fridge towards the back on the bottom & was AMAZED to find that they were still crisp after a YEAR! But 4 yrs I dont even live in a place that long usually lol. It would bug my OCD tendencies. But the apples didn’t for some reason. I bought them & just wasn’t in the mood to eat them for a year.

  25. TwoBitFarmer

    I just discovered your blog and LOVE it. I am so glad to know I am not alone in my true love of getting every last use out of foods and resources. I love it when I can extract 4 or 5 meals out of a turkey or a ham or roast. One thing I’ve started doing this year is saving pan drippings or even the water after boiling fresh vegies and placing them in plastic bags to freeze for later soup stock.

    • Donna Freedman

      @TwoBitFarmer: I’ve got “mongrel drippings” in the freezer, too. The vegetable cooking water gets saved separately. Both are good for soups, as you well know.
      I’ve also got a couple of jars of whey at any given time, from the yogurt-making. I strain it so the product will be more of a Greek-yogurt consistency. If I had pigs or chickens I’d feed it to them; as it is, I wind up throwing some of it away because I produce it much faster than I can use it.

  26. Nonnie 83

    Amen, amen! Like you, I have a cast-iron stomach – got it from my mother. We didn’t waste food in the house I grew up in either. You ate what was put in front of you, and you didn’t complain. I have a co-worker worries over every slight blemish on her fruit, and if her leftovers are okay two days later. Really? OMG. I told her that if her soup or meat was bad, she’d know after taking a bite. That said, I couldn’t convince my husband to eat the ketchup that said best by May 2006. He did have a point that it was no longer ketchup-colored, but more the color of barbecue sauce. If I ate ketchup (at all!), we might still have it.

    That said, I did just clean some cupboards and throw out some Nutella that had a best by date of October 2004, and some malted milk with a best by date of 2006. The latter was rock hard, and I know we’ll never eat the former (although I checked, and it tasted fine). Like you, I am trying to clean the cupboards.

    • carol the long winded

      I have crohns so do not have a cast iron stomach and if never gotten sick from eating canned or frozenfood past the sell by date.

  27. PawPrint53

    While I agree with the title, I’m reminded of the father of my son’s girlfriend. He has lost his sense of smell. I think sell by dates would be useful because he can’t smell any off odors. In his case, I think it would be better to just pitch anything with an old date rather than chance it. Not very frugal, but then again that might save him some medical costs.

  28. YEah, I’ve read the Consumer Reports that says eggs can be good for 3-6 weeks after their sell by date, etc. etc. But milk? Must have been skim, because I know the whole and 2% milk I buy for my kids starts to go bad BEFORE the sell by date!

  29. Julie

    I love this article Donna. These types of articles are what you do best…taking us to task on ridiculous behaviour. We are such a spoiled, wasteful culture in so many regards. And as Amy Dacyzyn would say, “Americans are selectively squeemish” and much of our squeemishness is not based in fact.

  30. Linda

    Years & years ago my DH’s cousin worked in a grocery store meat dept. Every so often they went through all the lunch meats & took the ones at or just past the “sell by” date & piled them into grocery carts to go to the dumpster. He would “rescue” them and dole them out to all the relatives who were smart enough to know it wouldn’t kill them—not even a little bit. 🙂 The packages were all sealed & we just all froze it and ate from it for months. Of course, now the rules have changed and there’s a person assigned to make sure stuff like that actually goes into the dumpster and gets wasted. Such a shame, but of course, we must be protected from ourselves.

    • Kittymama

      We don’t need saving from ourselves so much as stores need protection from sue-happy idiots who first discovered they could sue a store for “letting” them make off with food being thrown away that made them sick.

  31. Now I'm hungry

    Your writing brought back memories. I was a village kid, raised on a “mill village” in the South in the 60’s. We ate a lot of beans and biscuits, and my favorite was my mother’s stewed potatoes, yum. One of the strictest rules we had was that you did not ever complain about the food – at home or anywhere else. You ate what you had. We didn’t starve and today I get kidded because they say I’ll eat anything. Love your writing.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Now I’m Hungry: I never complained about food either, even when I had to choke it down. Once while camping with my best friend’s family her dad decided to fix the two of us some scrambled eggs. He put oil in the frying pan (lots of oil) and heated it until it was hot (very hot). The beaten eggs immediately separated into small, startled globules. The finished dish could best be described as little egg marbles. Absolutely horrible. I ate every bite and said, “Thank you, Mr. Marshall” when breakfast was finished.
      Today I’ll eat just about anything. I even tried agutak, aka “Eskimo ice cream,” a mixture of Crisco, berries, sugar and flakes of whitefish beaten together. It looks exactly like throw-up. But you know what? It tastes pretty good, and I would never have known that if my mama hadn’t taught me that there is no bad food, only rude guests. Of course, she never ate little egg marbles.
      Thanks for your kind words, and for reading Surviving and Thriving.

    • Hi, how do you make stewed potatoes ? Sounds yummy. Thanks

  32. becca

    I’m a PhD now studying Listeria, so I feel compelled to weigh in.

    Food safety OK:
    *mushy apples, potatoes with eyes, stale bread, ect.
    *older food, including meat, that was prepared safely and stayed completely frozen (depends partially on whether your freezer is ‘frost free’- food will keep for much longer in a frosty [i.e. not auto-defrosting] freezer, or better yet, a deep chest freezer that isn’t opened very often. I’ve heard up to a year is just fine for those)
    *most food that is far past it’s sell-by that going to be cooked very well (e.g. thrown into a soup and boiled for an hour- re-adding water as needed). We do this a lot in my house.

    *leftovers thrown into glass containers and nuked to be very hot (you can always get a thermometer if you want to know the temperature); make sure to mix it a couple of times. I prefer glass over plastic for this, but I’m a lot less worried about BPA than pathogens, so I try not to skimp on heating stuff.

    Food safety risks:
    *consuming milk or soft cheese that is a month past it’s sell-by date. Listeria smells bad if it’s at high concentrations, but it takes very low amounts to make those vulnerable populations sick. You would not know if it was contaminated. Of course, it would have to be a post-pasteurization contamination to be a problem, but that has happened.

    *I haven’t seen tests, but I’d be suspicious of salting milk to make it last longer. Listeria is pretty salt tolerant, whereas a lot of the ones that make milk smell strongly sour are not… so you’d make them milk *seem* safe by giving the listeria a competitive edge. *shudder*

    *Raw milk, at least if you are under 5, older than 70, or pregnant (I might make exceptions for people who live on dairy farms and are getting it <1 hour from the extremely healthy cow. Still, it creeped me out as a kid on my cousins dairy farm and they fed me raw milk).

    *home-canned stuff worries me a bit; make sure whoever is doing it knows a lot about botulism.

    MOST of the food we loose to spoilage are problems with 'product quality' rather than 'pathogenic growth' (e.g. most of those hideous fungi on breads aren't about to poison you. I tear off the mold and eat the bread all the time).

    When in doubt, check the foodsafety.gov guidelines, or throw it out. Be more cautious when feeding kids and the elderly. I won't feed my kid sour milk. Of course, my kid, we now go through milk so fast it doesn't come up!

    Diana- There is a huge science to determining sell-by and use-by dates. It's just that there are a LOT of variables. For milk, I've read that the worst failure point in the supply chain is usually store-to-consumer's fridge. A consumer who picks up milk last, carries it with ice in an insulated bag, shops close to home, and puts it away promptly, is a very different scenario from someone who has to bike an hour to the store in July and doesn't know to take any of those precautions.

  33. I loved this post!

    I do believe that we get rid of food too easily.
    Smelling the container before throeing food is a good strategy, I do it all the time and saves me money every time.

    Also, I have a lit of foods that can be freeze for long periods of time, so it seems that something will not be consumed right away, it will then be put on the freezer.

    Saludos desde México.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Isela: Gracias para sus saludos y comentario. Me gustan mucho. 🙂

  34. Love this post, Donna— the husband and I have been married for over 30 years and still cannot agree on some things— this is one of them! He will not touch leftovers in the fridge longer than a day or so, and anything in the freezer more than a month he would toss in the trash if he had his way….which you and I both know is a huge waste of money and all those resources.

  35. I grew up with hand me downs, if it fit I was happy! I’ve never forgotten those days and can’t understand why people put so much faith in a date. I wouldn’t endanger anyone, but a little common sense and smelling things before you toss them out is a waste. If you’re not sure, ask for someone else to smell whatever you’re thinking of tossing out. We’ve become spoiled and anyone of us could suddenly be put in a position of having to make choices or go without due to situations beyond our control.

    • Grace Justice

      @Dan: Ditto on the hand me downs. If it passes the sniff test, hasn’t turned green, nor has anything crawling on it, there’s a strong possibility that I’ll eat it. LOL

  36. How long would you trust a frozen turkey? I’ve had one in the bottom of my chest freezer for years. Hate to waste it, but want to be safe.

    • Donna Freedman

      I expect it’s a bit dried-out by now, but I’d thaw it, cut it up and boil it for stock if nothing else. Boiled, the meat might be OK for turkey salad; add enough mayo and just about anything is edible.

  37. Eggs: If I am going to make a lot of deviled eggs for a gathering, I usually buy the eggs a week or so before I have to prepare them.
    Because they are so much easier to peel the shells off then eggs
    bought a day or two from the store.

  38. Kittymama

    I use a mini fridge. Not much space for food, so perishables are rotated often. Not much space for things to hide, and get forgotten, either!

    My current one doesn’t have a freezer, sadly!


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