Use it or Lose It: Cutting Down on Food Waste


By Julie Ann

Recently I got pretty excited when I used the last egg in the carton before the expiration date stamped on the side.  As a single woman, I often find it difficult to finish things before they expire.  I can’t tell you how much food I’ve thrown away because I just can’t consume it before it goes bad.  In fact, my egg-citement was mitigated by having poured some milk down the drain just a few hours earlier.  Maybe you can relate.  According to studies, the average American throws out about $38 worth of food each month.  That’s nearly $500 per year (which adds up to a staggering $165 billion overall!).  You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to know that much waste is insane!  So what can you do to ensure that all the food you purchase is used?  Here are a few tips for reducing expired food waste and understanding just how expiration dates work.

Be intentional about food planning:  I typically go to the grocery store on the weekend and buy the food that I will need for the following week.   If I plan to make a dish like lasagna from which I can eat leftovers for four or five days (which, by the way, I do not like to do!), then there is no sense in buying groceries for other meals that won’t be consumed in a reasonable time frame.

Buy the smallest quantity/size possible of time-sensitive foods:  This goes against the rationale that buying in a larger quantity or size saves you money, which is typically the case.  However, if the item is going to expire before you can use it, then there is no long-term savings.  Still look for bulk savings on items like laundry detergent, toilet paper, cleaning supplies and even edibles like dry cereal, grits, oats and more, which have a long shelf life.

Multi-Purpose Food:  Buy foods that can be used in various dishes. For example, I will cook a pound of ground beef, then use it for spaghetti, tacos, a casserole, etc.  This gives me variety and I can use all my meat before it goes bad.

Freeze:  Freezing foods such as meats, soups, breads and certain vegetables is also a great way to preserve them until you can eat them.  USDA provides an excellent fact sheet on freezing that will answer all your questions about freezer burn, freezing in the store packaging, why fruit turns mushy in the freezer and more!

Even with the most careful planning, you are still likely to run into some expired food.  So when you look at the date on the product, how do you know whether you can still use it? First of all, can I pull the curtain back on the wizard and just say that Americans are much more sensitive to expiration dates and product freshness than the rest of the world. I suspect that a factor in setting these expiration dates is marketing and creating demand for the product. If you have travelled much, you’ve probably been amazed at seeing things like milk in a box (that lasts a long, long time), fish, pork and chicken being sold raw and without refrigeration at markets where they hang all day before someone buys them and carts them home in the hot sun, and molding products like cheese and vegetables that get a new lease on life with a good hack job. In sum, food remains safely edible in surprising conditions! Your frugal parents or grandparents can probably teach you a thing or two about salvaging what you think is ready to toss. It’s worth having that conversation with them. For everyone else, there’s the great and powerful expiration date.

Sell by Date:   This date indicates the last day in which the store can sell the product.   It indicates the last day of peak quality, but you can typically still consume the product for some time after.

Best if Used By (or Before) Date:   This date tells you when to use the product for the best flavor or quality.  This doesn’t indicate when the store must pull the product from its shelf or when the product is no longer safe to eat.

Use by Date:  This is the last day which the product is recommended for use.  Products that are past this date should probably be discarded.

Obviously, these rules will vary based on the product.  You can get away with consuming a box of Mac ’n Cheese well beyond the sell by date, but probably can’t get away with drinking a cold glass of milk much past the Use by Date.  If you are in doubt, run an internet search or visit the product’s Web site.  And obviously, anything that doesn’t smell or look quite right should be trashed right away.  It’s still better to lose a few bucks than to suffer through food poisoning!

Also, when shopping, be sure to check for the dates and buy the product with the furthest expiration date.  You may have to reach for the product way in the back, but it will be worth your trouble to get that extra mileage.

With a little intentionality at the grocery store and careful planning, you can easily avoid the food waste trap and save a bundle each year.

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