We all know that life gets in the way sometimes and it becomes difficult to eat whole foods at every meal or snack, so unfortunately, we resort to prepackaged products. While these do last longer than your perishable fruits and veggies, they still have a window of opportunity before spoiling and becoming potential causes of illness.
Last week we talked about storing fruits and veggies to maximize their freshness in part 1 of 'When In Doubt, Throw It Out!' Now we move on to storing packaged foods.
In general, consider fat content. For example, the germ retained in dry brown rice contains healthy fats that can become rancid if not stored properly. In addition, the oils found in nuts and seeds will oxidize when exposed to air and heat, rendering the food harmful. If you don’t use it up fast, consider placing in your refrigerator.
Bread – Give it a squeeze. If you feel some tenderness, there will still be moisture inside. Make sure it is free of mold. If it's on one slice, it may be on other slices as well. You could reach back to find a clear slice, but only if absolutely necessary. Use the sell by date as a guide. If you buy more than you can use at one time then consider freezing it. When refrigerated, bread tends to become stale faster, but the cold prevents mold growth. If your bread has a stale taste, pop in the oven or toaster to refresh.
Canned foods – First check the package integrity for dents, holes, puffing, or rust. Discard if any of these are present. Once a can is opened, do not store it in the can; move leftovers to another storage container, preferably glass to avoid any toxins from leaching into the food. Unopened cans can last for about a year or more if properly stored.
Boxed and bagged foods – Again, check package integrity. Notice the sell-by, best-by, or use-by dates and use these as a guide. Once opened be sure to seal properly to prevent moisture and spoilage.
Spices – Store spice containers in a cool, dry place for several months (6-12), but note that over time they will lose strength. Use your nose as a guide.
Most of these foods have already had a long journey before making it to your kitchen. Who knows if proper food handling techniques or temperatures were used prior to your purchase. The temperature range 41-140 degrees Fahrenheit, also known as the “danger zone,” is where most bacteria thrive, so it is best to keep refrigerated items below this range and not sitting out for more than two hours.
Dairy and dairy alternatives – Check the date and keep the product cold. Most guarantee safety of the product 7 – 10 days past the designated date, although dairy tends to spoil much faster. Ultrahigh temperature pasteurized cartons (the ones that are found on the shelves, not in the refrigerator section) last longer and don’t need to be refrigerated until opened. What most people don’t know is that even if the sell by date is not for months and months away – once you open it, you should use it within 7-10 days and keep cold.
Plastic vs. paper containers – which is best? Plastic tends to develop a flavor change if left exposed to light. Some people compare it to burnt cabbage. In addition, the light-sensitive B vitamin riboflavin is reduced. A few foods that come in this type of package include yogurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream. These may remain safe 7-10 days past the designated date. You may find that liquid separates and this is normal; just stir it back in.
Cheese – Mold ripened cheese, such as blue, brie, camembert, and gorgonzola are the only exceptions where the mold is actually beneficial. For hard cheeses, mold should be cut off (cut deep ¼ - ½ an inch past the mold). Look for dates on pre-grated and packaged cheeses and use within 5-10 days. Keep an eye out for mold. Sometimes there’s a white powder that helps keep the shreds from sticking that may be confused with mold growth.
Leftovers – Eat within 3-5 days from when they were first made. Use proper cooling and storing methods to lengthen shelf life. When reheating, make sure to heat it all the way through and at least to 160 degrees depending on the food item.
Produce – If buying pre-packaged greens or veggies, eat by the date on the bag. If you see moisture, a “slimy” texture, or limp leaves, or if it smells off, then discard. Brown soft spots on citrus represent mold that may have penetrated the entire fruit. Mushy strawberries are usually due to dehydration or densely packed berries that have been squished. Overall, avoid fruits with cuts or bruises as bacteria can get inside.
What Do the Labels Mean?
Product dating is not a federal requirement except for infant formula, although some states require it.
Sell-By Dates – This label tells the store how long to display a food item for sale. Definitely buy the product before this date for maximum time in your kitchen.
Best-By Dates – “Best if Used By” or “Best By” dates are mere suggestions for best flavor or quality. It is not a food safety issue.
Use-By – This is the last date that one cold eat or use the product while at its peak quality. Manufacturers are the ones who determine this date. Even if the date expires, if kept safe and stored in proper conditions, it may still be edible.