Back in college, when "cooking" at home involved two ingredients -- milk and cereal -- the sniff test was all you needed to know about when your food spoiled. If the milk smelled bad, you dumped it (and substituted beer). End of story.
But now that you've expanded your ingredients list to include items from the grocery store's other 18 aisles, things are a bit more complicated. For example: What's the difference between a "sell by" date and a "use by" date? And if I put the meat in the freezer, how long will it last before I have to toss it? (Hint: The answer to this last one is not "forever.")
With help from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), a global group of food scientists and food research organizations, we've put together a quick tutorial to help guide you toward fresher food, and away from the bathroom -- the place where spoiled food tends to make its presence known.
How to Decipher Dates
Sell By: This marks the approximate date when the quality of the food or drink will start to diminish, and so grocery stores must stop selling the product. You can usually consume whatever it is for a few more days—provided it looks and smells normal. But it may not be as tasty or nutrient-rich as it should be, explains Kantha Shelke, Ph.D., chief science officer of a Chicago-based food research firm and a spokesperson for IFT.
Best If Used By / Best Before
This has little to do with food safety, and everything to do with quality and flavor, Shelke says. You'll often see this type of date on condiments like mustard, mayonnaise, and peanut butter. You can still eat these products past the date marked on the package, but their taste or consistency may be a little off.
Expires On: Usually found on baby food, medicine, health products, and any items regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, Shelke explains. Once this date has passed, toss it.
Use By: This is essentially the same as an expiration date, though not regulated by the federal government. If you're past this date, throw it out.
The Best Temp for Your Fridge
Temperature makes all the difference when it comes to preserving your food. If either the freezer or the fridge's main compartment is too warm, harmful bacteria will form on food, says an IFT report. Make sure your refrigerator temp remains between 33 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and your freezer is set at 0 degrees. Any warmer, and you're asking for trouble, Shelke says. You'll need a thermometer for this, but any hardware store likely sells one in the $5 range.
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