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Do food expiration dates really matter?

Maria Mora is a freelance writer and single mom fueled by coffee, questionable time management skills, toaster oven waffles and the color orange. She lives in Florida with her two young sons. If you see her on Twitter, tell her to stop p...

Stretch out your food's shelf life

Stop throwing away food that's perfectly safe to eat. We'll help you determine which foods are safe to eat beyond the date stamp — and which should be tossed on time.

 Do food expiration dates really matter?

Food labeling in the U.S. is a complete mess. Thanks to inconsistent and confusing labeling, Americans throw away huge portions of perfectly edible food. Find out what you can keep beyond its expiration date and what you should make a point of using on time.

Americans are throwing away almost as much food as we eat

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Americans throw away up to 40 percent of the nation's food supply every year. That's $165 billion in food. How is this happening? There are no consistent federal standards for labeling food. When we see a date on a food product, we generally consider it an expiration date. That date could actually be a packing date, a sell-by date, a best-used-by date or a guaranteed-fresh-by date. None of these dates indicate that food has spoiled.

Don't panic over that sell-by date

Take at look at your carton of milk, package of chicken and can of green beans. See the little date? That's probably a sell-by date. It's the grocery store's guideline on when to sell the product. It could be conceivably sold on that date. Does that mean you should throw it away the next day? Absolutely not. It may be an indication that you should eat it pretty soon, but it doesn't mean you need to toss the food the day after the expiration date. With processed foods in particular, these guidelines have major wiggle room.

Trust your nose

The dates printed on food aren't that helpful, but your nose is a surefire way to determine freshness. If your food smells off, has a strange appearance or consistency, go ahead and toss it. While your nose can't smell microbial contamination like listeria, it can definitely tell you if that chicken or milk needs to hit the garbage bin immediately. While most fresh foods have a much shorter shelf life than processed foods, eggs last for approximately a month longer than their sell-by date. Always use a food thermometer in the kitchen to ensure that meat is cooked to a safe temperature.

Learn how to extend your food's shelf life

Embrace the power of your freezer. If you don't anticipate using that package of chicken or pork by its sell-by date, freeze it. According to guidelines by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, steak and chicken can be frozen for as long as as year. With this in mind, there's really no reason to end up throwing away meat. When it comes to individual food items, stop adhering directly to the sell-by date and run a quick search at Still Tasty to find out if that food you were about to toss is still perfectly safe to eat. You don't have much time to wait on refrigerated chicken, but those Pringles might last until the next ice age.

More food safety

Is your salad making you sick?
How to prevent foodborne illness
How to organize your refrigerator

Photo credit: Comstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images
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