This is why expiration dates don’t matter as much as you think

I used to take expiration dates very seriously. I froze my ground beef before the “Use By” date and if my milk’s “Best If Used By” date was yesterday, I’d toss it. The boxed stuffing mix that expired last month? In the garbage. But after researching the different types of “expiration” labels, I learned that food actually lasts longer than I thought. In fact, here are nine foods that will never expire.

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Should you wash your turkey before cooking it?

Whether it’s a Thanksgiving turkey or a weeknight piece of pork, rinsing poultry, meat or eggs before cooking them is likely to do more harm than good. Besides the fact that any bacteria you think you’re washing away should be killed off when cooked, “you’re increasing your chances for cross-contamination,” since the meat’s juices can land in your sink or on your countertop and mingle with other foods, Steinberg says.

Should you wash pre-washed produce?

Giving your spinach or snap peas another scrub-down isn’t being safe, it’s being sorry for potentially exposing the greens to harmful bacteria in the sink or on your countertop – and for wasting your time. "If bacteria managed to survive the chlorinated wash in the processing plant, it will likely survive the additional rinsing at home," says Steinberg, who recommends buying non-bagged produce if you’re going to wash it anyway. Just be sure to rinse it under running water – not soap, detergent, bleach or commercial washes, suggests Foodsafety.gov, which is run by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Can you wash potatoes in the dishwasher?

Speaking of detergent, Steinberg has been surprised by how many people think washing potatoes in the dishwasher is a cute hack rather than a bad idea. “The dishwasher wasn’t designed to wash food; it was designed to wash dishes,” she says. “And whether or not there’s soap in there that cycle, you have residual chemicals that have gone through that machine.” And don’t even try arguing that eating dishwasher-cleaned potatoes is the same as eating off a dishwasher-cleaned plate: Your potatoes, unlike your dishes, are sponges for risky agents, Steinberg says.

Do you need to wash watermelon?

Among the foods you actually do need to wash – but may assume get a pass – are fruits with rinds like watermelon, cantaloupe and oranges. “Wash all produce because whatever’s on the outside will be transferred to the inside” when you slice into it, Steinberg says. Even food with peels like bananas should ideally be washed since your hands can transfer bacteria on the peel to your mouth. To wash sturdy fruits and vegetables thoroughly (cucumbers count, too!), use a clean produce brush, Foodsafety.gov suggests.

How often do you need to wash your hands when cooking?

In the case of hand-washing while cooking, more is better. Foodsafety.gov recommends doing so for 20 seconds with plain soap and warm water before, during and after preparing food, and especially after handling uncooked eggs, raw meat, seafood or poultry. And don’t forget to remove your jewelry before cooking, adds Monica Amsterdam, director of nutrition at the Medical and Wellness Center of New Jersey. “Jewelry can hold and harbor microorganisms contaminating the food that we’re eating,” she says, as can touch-screen devices. “If you have to use your electronic device while cooking, make sure to disinfect it first,” Amsterdam says.

What's a recipe's 'rest time'?

Recipes that have rest times – or how long the dish should rest off the heat before digging in – have them for a reason: “to allow the product to cook thoroughly,” says Janell Goodwin, a technical information specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Take that goal a step further, she suggests, by using a food thermometer to see if your meal has reached what the USDA considers safe. “The most underutilized utensil that is really the secret of cooking is the food thermometer,” Steinberg says, since you're also likely to overcook foods if you rely solely on, say, the juices' color.

Is the 5-second rule legit?

If you drop that steamy, buttery croissant on the ground, resist the temptation to grab it and pretend like nothing happened, Goodwin says. New research supports her: In a recent study, researchers found that all kinds of foods can become contaminated with harmful bacteria after less than one second on the floor, although the longer they’re grounded and the wetter the food, the riskier it seems. If your dog or cat licks your food, consider it untouchable, too, Goodwin adds. “Our pets, although we love them dearly, can carry harmful bacteria in their mouths that aren't necessarily harmful to them, but can be harmful to us,” she says.

Can you cool food in the refrigerator?

Your guests are hungry and you’ve got a hot pot of chili to appease them – key word being “hot.” How can you serve it quickly without burning their tongues? While you can put hot food in the fridge, Steinberg says, it’s important to do it in smaller portions so that the food cools uniformly and as quickly as possible. “Improper cooling,” she adds, “is a big way that people get foodborne illness.” If you want to store, not serve, hot food, follow the same protocol or put it in shallow containers or an ice bath, while stirring every 10 minutes or so, Steinberg suggests.

How long is food safe on the counter?

Good food, drink and conversation can make it easy to forget just how long ago you abandoned that casserole on the counter. But if it’s been close to or over two hours, don’t try to salvage it, experts say. “Throw it out; it should never be reheated” at that point, Steinberg says, since a couple of hours at room temperature is plenty of time to accumulate bacteria that won’t be killed off. Hot or cold foods shouldn’t be transported at room temperature for more than two hours either, she adds. “Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.”

How long can I keep leftovers?

Nothing beats a thick sandwich stuffed with leftovers from yesterday’s Thanksgiving feast. A lot beats a thick sandwich stuffed with leftovers from last week’s Thanksgiving feast. “Never [eat leftovers] beyond seven days,” says Steinberg, who recommends an even more conservative three or four day limit for meats and poultry. Remaining food, however, doesn’t have to go to waste: Almost all food can be frozen indefinitely, Goodwin says. “Freezing … prevents the growth of microorganisms that cause both food spoilage and foodborne illness,” she says. Check out the USDA’s app to look up the recommended storage times for thousands of foods.

How many times can you reheat something?

Every time you reheat, say, mashed potatoes, you’re sending them into what Steinberg calls “the temperature danger zone” – that range between 40 and 140 degrees F that’s prime for harmful bacteria growth. While one zap through the microwave is safe so long as your food's cooked to 165 degrees F, thoroughly stirred and reheated in an explicitly “microwave-safe” container, reheating and re-refrigerating the same batch day in and out just multiplies the food’s visits through the danger zone, Steinberg says. Instead, only reheat what you know you can eat. “You get one try,” she says.

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According to the United States Department of Agriculture, food expiration dates refer to food quality, not food safety. Federal regulations do not require that expiration dates be put on meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, cans, and boxed foods (baby formula is the only product that requires an expiration date). They are added as a helpful guide to consumers and retailers. Here are the three most common labels:

  • Best If Used By—This date suggests when a product will be at peak quality. It will still be safe to consume after that date, but the flavor and texture quality will start to go down.
  • Use By—This date is usually found on more perishable items, like meat. It’s still OK to consume the product for a short period after the date, but don’t wait too long.
  • Sell By—This date tells retailers when the product should be off the shelves. Sales are one way grocery stores try to get older inventory into consumers’ carts, and it’s usually pretty effective.

“Use by” dates are a great guide for people like you and me, but it comes at a price. A USDA report states that Americans waste about 30 percent of food every year. Part of that is because we follow expiration dates too closely and end up throwing out perfectly good food. It’s such a shame. Luckily, we can change.

RELATED: How to store fruit 

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How to store every single type of fruit
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How to store every single type of fruit

Apples

How to Store: As soon as you bring them home, stash ‘em in the fridge. They should be good for up to three weeks.

If You’ve Eaten Some: Cover the remaining half (or slices) in tightly pressed plastic wrap and stick the apple back in the fridge. This will help prevent browning, which is caused by oxidation.

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Pears

How to Store: You should refrigerate them for a shelf life of about five days.

If You’ve Eaten Some: Same deal as apples, cover the slices with plastic wrap.

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Avocados

How to Store: Pop them in the fridge as soon as they’re ripe. That way, they’ll keep for about three days. (If they’re not ripe, store them on the counter.)

If You’ve Eaten Some: Brush lemon juice on the uneaten half to prevent it from browning, the press plastic wrap against the surface before putting it in the fridge.

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Bananas

How to Store: These can sit on your countertop and should stay fresh for about five days.

If You’ve Eaten Some: Ideally, the uneaten half is still in the peel. If it is, just wrap the exposed end with plastic wrap and pop it in the fridge.

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Grapes

How to Store: Stick them in a bowl (or ventilated bag, like the one they come in) in the fridge and they should stay fresh for up to a week.

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Raspberries

How to Store: To maximize their shelf life, you should remove the bad ones from the carton first, then lay them out on a paper towel-lined plate in your fridge. This way, they should keep for three to four days.

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Blackberries

How to Store: Ditto the raspberries.

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Tomatoes

How to Store: You can store these guys in the fridge, just let them come up to room temperature before you eat them. (They should stay fresh for about a week.)

If You’ve Eaten Some: It’s best to store them in the fridge with the cut side down on a paper towel inside Tupperware.

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Melons

How to Store: Keep it in the fridge and it should last for a week or more.

If You’ve Eaten Some: Keep any sliced up leftovers in a plastic dish covered with plastic wrap.

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Mangoes

How to Store: Fridge storage is best to keep them fresh for about four days.

If You’ve Eaten Some: It’s fine to keep chopped up mangoes in a plastic bag in the fridge.

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Blueberries

How to Store: Get rid of any overripe berries, then keep them in their original plastic container inside the fridge. (They should last a full week.)

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Cherries

How to Store: Stick them in a bowl and keep them inside the fridge for a three-day shelf life.

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Oranges

How to Store: Just set them in a bowl on your countertop and they should stay fresh for a week or more.

If You’ve Eaten Some: Keep any uneaten slices in a plastic baggie.

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Grapefruit

How to Store: Just like oranges, this can also rest on your countertop for about a week for maximum freshness.

If You’ve Eaten Some: Store leftovers (plus, whatever juice you can save) in a plastic container.

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Kiwi

How to Store: Tuck them in the fridge and they should last three to four days.

If You’ve Eaten Some: Just wrap it tightly in plastic wrap or aluminum foil.

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Peaches

How to Store: If they’re ripe, pop them in the fridge and they should keep for five days.

If You’ve Eaten Some: Ideally, you can slice it up and keep any leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge.

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Pineapple

How to Store: If it’s whole, keep it on the countertop and it will keep for five days. But if it’s sliced, you should keep it in the fridge.

If You’ve Eaten Some: Cover it in plastic wrap.

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Strawberries

How to Store: Just like blueberries, you should get rid of any gross-looking berries first, then store them in perforated container (like the one they came in). 

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Use your best judgment to determine whether or not food should be tossed. Instead of looking at the date, look at the actual food. Does the color look right? Is the odor funky? Has the texture changed? Knowing what food is supposed to look, smell, and feel like is a life skill we all should know. It will stop you from eating food that’s gone bad and prevent you from tossing food too early. These are the 11 foods you’re definitely throwing out too soon.

The post This Is Why Expiration Dates Don’t Matter as Much as You Think appeared first on Reader's Digest.

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