REDUCING FOOD WASTE: Understanding how long preserved foods are “good”

I started Can-Do Real Food after working part of one growing season at a farm and becoming aware for the first time just how much food never even reaches people who want to eat. Farmers regularly pull aside veggies and fruit that are imperfectly shaped or start aging while new produce is being harvested. Consumers want the best looking stuff, of course, so farmers are used to feeding their imperfect items into the compost pile or as additives to chicken or pig food.

While I take responsibility for reducing food waste once it gets to me, I very much understand that the volume that ends up in my compost pile instead of my stomach is a teeny tiny amount of waste compared to other places along the food supply line. However, I still want to reduce that as much as possible. After all, I am also wasting my money to purchase food if I have to throw it away! One way is to be aware of those dates that are stamped or written on all commercially prepared foods and to understand them. Then you can apply the same concept to your own home-preserved items, whether they are frozen, canned, dehydrated, smoked or fermented.

One of the conundrums as a commercial food processor was that I had was to determine WHICH standard to use: “use by” or “best by”. There are NO guidelines from the government other than the mandate I use something!

“Use by” implies that the food is unsafe after that date. I know I stopped my youngest from pouring out a half-empty gallon of milk because the “use by date” had passed. You can imagine the “mean mommy” experience that required him to actually sniff (okay, it smells okay) and TASTE (do I have to? YES!) to teach that there is no magic event that instantly occurs that makes something bad at a specific date.

The mayo I purchased a month or so ago has a Best By date with plenty of time to use in other households but we don’t use mayo much……..

A word here that expiration dates on medication also has some wiggle room but I am not an expert on this. If you wonder if you can take something that “expired” 5 years ago……ask! A pharmacist is a good resource.

Back to food. I preferred to use “best by”. In the first season when I learned to can I put up some carrots. I dated my jar and never reached for it until a couple of years later when I was making soup and thought carrots would be a good addition but had none in the frig. I checked the seal….good. I looked at the contents inside the jar. The color was appropriate and there were no little bubbles of gas in the liquid, so far so good. I opened it….no bad aroma. So far all signs show it is SAFE to eat.

But when I put a fork in to pull a carrot out, it dissolved immediately into an orange cloud. It was certainly past the BEST time to enjoy it.

So, since then I put the date on the lid with what it is. (I am long past trying to convince myself I will remember what that jar of bluish-purple color jam is or which spice mix is in that tomato mix in that jar.) I put new jars behind any older ones of the same recipe when I store on my shelves. That way, the older stuff SHOULD be used first.

And remember, share. Seriously, if you have not eaten that jar of peaches that you put up in 1999, please toss it. If it’s from 2016, open one and if it is okay, plan how to use them. And do not make more until you do!

Our State Fair award-winning instant soup…and here is the one in MY cupboard, showing a best by date of last July. I know that means I prepared the mix in June from the pumpkins’ harvest in the fall of 2018. It is dry and good for at least 5 years or longer. That is one of the joys of dehydrated foods.

So, bottom line: besides the fact that this shows one more advantage that dehydrated foods hold longer safely than canned products, most are SAFE to eat beyond the date on the container, but the texture may be diminished the longer you move from initial processing.

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