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pantry-webRISMEDIA, March 9, 2009-(MCT)-When you stop and think about all the food stored in your kitchen, it’s hard not to get a little panicky. The news is full of food safety horror stories. To make matters worse, just about every package you buy is stamped with dates and times, like time bombs just waiting to explode.

Use by this date. Sell by that date. You can almost hear the ticking.

Yet it seems like such a shame to throw food away.

You get the feeling you’re tossing the products-along with your money-into the wastebasket.

If you’re concerned with what lurks in the depths of your freezer and the recesses of your cupboards-let alone the back of your fridge-this guide is designed to take the mystery out of your meat. And cheese. And so on.

Mistruths in Labeling

It’s a common mistake to think that the dates stamped on food packages are always expiration dates, said Jean Draeger, nutrition educator with the University of Wisconsin Extension in Waukesha County, Wis.

She hears often from callers who, reacting to the date stamped on their granola bars, are ready to throw away the whole box.

“Anything with a date on it, people automatically think safety,” Draeger said. “But the food is still perfectly good.”

The government requires dates on only a few types of food: infant and baby food, and meat and dairy products. Yet sell-by, use-by and best-if-used-before dates are found on thousands of other foods.

Most of the time, the manufacturers determine these dates for themselves. “There is no uniform or universally accepted system used for food dating in the United States,” according to information from the USDA website.

These dates serve a variety of purposes; they are used to track products and to help stores determine how long they can be displayed. They are also the manufacturers’ recommendations for maximum quality.

Or, as Draeger put it wryly:

“It is a manufacturer’s way of saying, ‘Toss and buy some more.'”

Her favorite product with a use-by date on it?

Bottled water.

Survey Your Kitchen

Consider the various zones of your kitchen where you store your food. They’re broken down for you here: cupboards, fridge, freezer and countertop (or bread drawer).

Take a look, zone by zone, and make sure you are practicing safe storage procedures. You might be relieved by what you’ll find.

Sure, the cans are a few years old, for example, but if they’re in good condition, the contents are just fine.

In the fridge, open the containers and give the contents a look and a good sniff test. Watch for mold, sniff for spoilage. You’ll need to throw out any leftovers more than five days old, but your condiments and staples are probably just fine.

“People, especially seniors, are relieved to find out they don’t have to be throwing food out,” Draeger said.

In the Fridge

First of all, make sure your refrigerator is running at 40 degrees or below, because most food-borne bacteria grow slowly at this temperature.

– Produce: Choose only unblemished fruits and vegetables, as bruises are where spoilage starts before traveling through the fruit. Store everything in plastic bags, even in the crisper, Draeger said, as today’s modern, frost-free refrigerators work to draw the moisture out of the air–and consequently also out of the food. Also, don’t wash the produce until just before using.

If your produce is to the point where it’s soft and squishy, it’s best to throw it away. But if your cauliflower is just starting to brown or the broccoli starts to get yellow around the edges, don’t toss them-make a stew instead.

Here’s a tip: Draeger says those plastic “green bags” advertised on television really do work to extend the shelf life of foods, produce in particular. You can find them online at

– Cheese: Mold can grow even under refrigeration, and aging cheese is a good example of that. Most moldy food should be thrown away, but you may be able to save molding hard cheeses, salami and firm produce if you cut out the mold, along with a good portion of the area beneath it (mold grows just beneath the surface of the food).

– Fresh meat: Use within two days of bringing home from the store or freeze it–
don’t forget to mark the date on the wrapper!

– Sandwich meat: Prepackaged deli meats have a long shelf life if they remain unopened. Once they’ve been opened, use them up within five days. The five-day rule also applies to sliced meats purchased from the deli.

– Leftovers: Remember the five-day rule from the paragraph above? Ditto for leftovers. One key to keeping food fresh is to make sure you’ve safely stowed it in the fridge within two hours of coming off the heat: If you eat a casserole at 5, make sure the leftovers are in the fridge by 7 p.m.

Here’s why: The ambient bacteria floating around in the air can land on your food, “and can go from one to one million in a matter of hours,” Draeger said. Minimizing the contact that food has with air is crucial to keeping it safe.

– Condiments: What about those olives dating back to ’00? They’re fine. “Olives, ketchup and even mayo are all so highly acidic they’ll dry out before they spoil,” she said.

In the Freezer

Freezing food does not kill the bacteria present in the food, but the bacteria does not grow at low temperatures. So make sure your freezer is running at 0 degrees.

– Prepared frozen foods: Draeger said that labels on frozen foods often have too short a use-by time on them; many foods can still be eaten long after the date stamped on their packages.

“It’s not a safety issue, it’s a quality issue,” she said. The tenderness, flavor, aroma, juiciness and color might be affected, but they are safe to consume.

– Frozen meats: The quality might break down after six months, but the meat itself is perfectly edible for years.

If you’d like some conventional advice on freezing various types of meat, the “Old Farmer’s Almanac” says that fattier types of meat-salmon and ground pork, only stay in the freezer for one or two months, as the fat can become rancid.

Cuts of beef, on the other hand, may stay in the freezer at optimum freshness for up to nine months.

There’s also a suggestion to avoid freezing cured meats, such as bacon and ham, because the high salt content can encourage rancidity.

Tip: Freezer burn just means the food was damaged because it was exposed to air. Trim this portion away and feel free to use up the rest.

In the Cupboard

Hmm. Are those waxed beans from 2008 or 1998? Label your cans with a marker when you bring them home from the store and eliminate that guesswork.

– Canned goods: They maintain their top quality for two years. If the can is in good condition (no bumps or discoloration)–later than that it might lose flavor, but it won’t harm you.

Swollen or dented cans may be an indication that food spoilage has occurred or is a possibility. When cans swell, it means the presence of gases produced by spoiling foods or microorganisms. Dents, which occur from handling, may affect the seals. Throw out any swollen cans. Avoid purchasing badly dented cans.

– Dry foods: Cereals, flour, sugar, coffee, tea and cocoa will keep almost indefinitely; whole-wheat flour and other whole-grain meals, however, should be frozen or stored in the refrigerator. The oils in these products can go rancid.

Tip: Dry foods that will last almost indefinitely are products where you can buy in bulk and stock up.

One note of advice: If you do find that bugs or weevils have gotten into your stash, it’s not enough to throw the infested package away and wipe down the surfaces of your cupboard. You’ll also need to vacuum out the crevices where the cupboard attaches to the wall, because this is where the eggs are laid.

On the Counter

Most baked goods can stay out of the fridge, with the exception of custard or egg-filled items.

– Baked goods: Bread will dry out in the refrigerator. If you must store in there, put the bread, plastic sleeve and all, into a zipper-close, to prevent dryness. Otherwise it’s fine on the counter or in a bread drawer.

– Spice rack: Yes, you’ve seen the recommendations to throw them out after six months because they’re not as potent as they once were.

But Draeger’s advice is this: Just add more. “Offset the loss of flavor by simply adding more, to taste.” It’s that simple.

Smart Food Storage Tips

Do: Rotate food in the cupboard. Use the oldest cans first, and stow the newest ones in back.

Don’t: Throw away cake mixes after the date on the box has expired. Time can cause the baking powder to neutralize-resulting in a flat cake. Jean Draeger, nutrition educator with the University of Wisconsin Extension in Waukesha County, Wis., suggests using the mix for cookies (add the oil and eggs, but eliminate water).

Don’t: Overbuy at the supermarket-buy only the produce, fresh meat and deli meat you will use within a week.

Do: Jump on deals for dry and canned goods. Don’t be daunted by those 10-for-$10 specials-you don’t really have to buy all 10 cans of tomato sauce to take advantage of such deals.

Do: Improvise. If your veggies are looking tired, make a stew or soup, or chop them finely and hide them in a meatloaf. If the bread’s gone stale, make croutons, bread crumbs, bread pudding or stuffing. You get the idea.

© 2009, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.