Did you know that roughly one third of food produced in the world is lost or wasted? It seems hard to believe, yet I’m sure you’ve been there, staring at your fridge but feeling like you have nothing to eat. As time passes, you have to throw some of it away (or do you?). Or maybe you really want takeout, so you get rid of that breaded chicken you were so excited to make a few days prior (I’m not proud of this). Perhaps you’re perplexed about the ‘sell by’ and ‘use by’ dates, so you think your food has gone bad and you have to pitch it.
The amount of food wasted annually is a serious issue, so we’re going to review some tips and tricks to help you organize your kitchen while simultaneously easing your food safety worries and minimizing your footprint on the planet. Let’s get started.
Prevent Foodborne Illness
How long should you keep your leftovers? The rule of thumb is three to four days after you’ve made or bought it, as long as it’s properly stored in the fridge. If you don’t think you’ll be able to eat your leftovers in that timeframe, freeze them. Your freezer can be extremely useful in maximizing the shelf life of your foods; you can store breads, meats, vegetables and more in there for much longer than in the fridge!
This narrow time frame is essential because if they’re kept any longer, you run the risk of food poisoning, which is caused by harmful bacteria that often do not change the appearance or smell of your food. If you aren’t sure how long you’ve had the food, it may be best to throw it out.
An important goal to prevent foodborne illness is to minimize the time the food is in the ‘danger zone’ — between 40 and 140 degrees F. This zone is where bacteria grows most abundantly. When you are ready to eat the leftovers, they should be reheated in a microwave or oven to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.
Stock The Pantry
When it comes to buying groceries, you may be surprised to learn that fresh and frozen foods are nutritious options. While you may prefer one over the other, it’s probably best to have a mix of both as the frozen products will have a much longer shelf-life (1-12 months for frozen compared to 3-5 days for fresh!).
Moreover, you may be wondering about canned or dry goods. While canned goods are also a great option (due to their portability and extremely long shelf life), it’s best to opt for low sodium options when possible. Dry goods like cereal, crackers, chips, and oatmeal typically last anywhere from weeks to a month (or more!), so there’s no need to worry about throwing those away prematurely.
Understand the Difference in Dates
A confusing piece of food safety and quality are the “use by” and “sell by” dates, which have inadvertently left lots of people throwing away foods when they might still be good. Do you need to follow them? What’s the difference between the two? Well, these terms are related to quality not food safety. No food, except infant formula, is required to have a use or sell by date, and those that have one have not been regulated by the Federal Law. The USDA outlines these definitions for us:
- A “Best if Used By/Before” indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
- A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management. It is not a safety date.
- A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula as described above.
Additionally, the USDA explains how manufacturers decide these dates within their Food Safety Education information stating “Factors including the length of time and the temperature at which a food is held during distribution and offered for sale, the characteristics of the food, and the type of packaging will affect how long a product will be of optimum quality.” While these dates can be helpful gauging if a food is at its peak quality, it is okay to eat food past these dates as long as they show no sign of spoilage.
When it comes to organizing your kitchen, there’s a lot to know! Hopefully these tips have given you some clarity of how and why it’s important to decrease food waste and increase food safety. Remember, when it comes to leftovers, use the three to four day rule to ensure the risk of harmful bacteria growth is at a minimum. Your pantry and fridge will be most beneficial to you as an organized combination of fresh, frozen, canned and dry foods that are properly held or stored. Keeping food at its proper temperature should help you minimize both your food waste and foodborne illness risk. Finally, understanding the difference between “use by” and “sell by” dates should help ease your worries about whether or not your food has really gone bad. Happy cooking!