Just a few words here about expiration dates, kitchen safety, and what’s really important versus what’s corporate CYA. Generally, food is quite safe in this country. But in the last few years, we’ve had outbreaks of food-borne illnesses that have killed people, so you need to pay attention.
Basically, all of this is common sense, but some of it is stuff your Auntie Jane has to tell again, just to make sure.
First and foremost, WASH YOUR HANDS! You don’t need to constantly use alcohol gel out in the world, but in the kitchen, hand washing is important. Especially before and after touching raw meat and the surfaces that the meat has touched. The way that animals are raised in this country now, with antibiotics in their feed, makes them a factory for resistant organisms. So remember to wash your hands if you don’t want to get violently ill. But it’s not just meat. Fruits and veggies have spread illnesses. So wash everything, and especially your hands!
Next, you need a fire extinguisher. They are not cheap, but when you need one, you need it NOW, and compared to losing all you stuff or your life, whatever they cost it is not enough, so if you don’t have one, get one.
So, now let’s talk about expiration dates on food and over-the-counter medicines.
On meat and fish, your nose is your guide to freshness with these foods. You can smell when they are “off,” and you should pitch them in the outside trash if you open a package and it smells even a little bit wrong. (The store will give you a refund without you taking the smelly fish back to them, they will believe you.) I try to use fish and meat the day I buy it, and if not, at least by the next day. Meat keeps better than fish, and ham, which is “cured,” or preserved by smoking and/or with salt, lasts the longest.
Always read the “sell by” date on meat and fish, and buy the package with the furthest “sell by” date you can find. Then use or freeze that meat within a few days of that date. Don’t freeze fish. It doesn’t freeze well at home. With beef, you can’t go by looking at it to tell if it’s fresh. Supermarkets keep air out of the packages and put nitrogen in the display cases to keep the beef nice and pink, so you think it’s fresher than it really is. Just look at ground beef the next time you buy some. It will be pretty and pink on the very outside, and all brown on the inside. Just go by the “sell by” date on the package and don’t let your eyes fool you into buying bad beef.
Moving out of the meat and fish realm, I feel differently about expiration dates. I think that they are put on a lot of things to avoid lawsuits, not to tell you when food or medications have actually gone bad. By which I mean, they are artificially early, making you throw out a lot of good food and medication when you don’t have to.
For instance, yogurt. It’s basically spoiled milk already because it’s made with bacteria, so what’s going to make it spoil? Unless there’s thick green mold growing on the top, which only happens if you’ve already opened it, yogurt will keep for several months unopened in the fridge. If there’s watery stuff on top, just stir it in, there’s nothing wrong with that. (And if you absolutely need some plain yogurt for a recipe, and there’s only a little mold, you can spoon that off. The green stuff is only penicillin, so it’s not going to hurt you. Am I grossing you out? Come on. Don’t be so prissy!)
Eggs will keep for two months in the fridge. Ignore the date on the carton. If you are whipping egg whites, you want super fresh eggs to get the highest rising whites, but otherwise, don’t worry. If you are concerned that your eggs might not be good anymore, crack one open and give it a sniff. A bad egg smells REALLY bad. Now, I’m not saying eat eggs of any age raw or under cooked. You need to cook your eggs. I prefer to buy my eggs from a local egg ranch at the farmer’s market so I know they’re fresh, rather than at the super market where they’re trucked in from hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away, and where the risk of infection with Salmonella is higher. But, if you’re not lucky enough to get eggs from a local source, just be sure to cook your eggs well to kill any bacteria the eggs may harbor.
Canned goods are good for eons unless the can is swollen, in which case pitch it carefully so it doesn’t explode. In this day and age, you shouldn’t see a swollen can unless it’s been damaged somehow. I, personally, have never seen a bad can of food. If someone has made homemade canned peaches or something like that, and given it to you as a gift. Look carefully at the top to make sure it hasn’t puffed up. Problems these days are much more likely with home canning.
With fresh fruits and vegetables, you’ll know when they go bad, because they get wilted, or slimy, or soft or just nasty looking. Wilted celery and parsley (as long as it’s not slimy) can be chopped up and put into soup, because the taste is still there. Do try to use fresh produce as fast as possible to preserve taste and nutrition. I have a compost pile out back where I put my less-than-wonderful produce and the worms out there are in heaven.
I leave tomatoes on the counter because, while they last a bit longer in the fridge, they lose flavor in there as well. And modern tomatoes are tasteless enough without robbing them of what little they have. Strawberries also lose flavor in the refrigerator. I try to cut them up and use them almost immediately. If I’m going to refrigerate them, I wash them and individually dry the berries and put them in a plastic bag with a paper towel inside the bag.
Over the counter medications like acetaminophen (generic for Tylenol) can safely go a year or two beyond the expiration date. I used to know a nurse who worked with a charity that specialized in gathering out-dated drugs from pharmaceutical firms and hospitals to take to developing nations where they were life-savers. Five years is a little much, but I’ll take cough syrup that has slid three years past its date (so I’m not very good at cleaning out my medicine cabinet!) if I’m feeling miserable and don’t want to go out, and I’m still here to tell the tale. Just use your common sense. If the drug was out-dated yesterday, it’s fine to take it today.
By the way, don’t throw medications down the toilet, they eventually get into the water that we drink. Take them to your local hospital for proper disposal.
Back to hand washing. While it’s important, as I said, to wash your hands and your counters and cutting boards while you’re cooking, especially when dealing with raw meat, I think Americans have become positively crazy about germs.
There is no avoiding microorganisms. They are everywhere, and many of them are good for you and necessary for life. There is nothing wrong with getting a bit dirty now and then. If you aren’t exposed to an array of microorganisms, you can’t build up a good immune system. So relax and stop carrying around all those wipes and all that alcohol hand cleaner. You look silly! Soap and water is just fine.
And please don’t demand an antibiotic if the doctor says it’s probably a viral infection. It won’t help, and it could well hurt in the long run. You and your children will survive — this is not the eighteenth century.
That’s it. I’ve gotten down off my soap box for now. Relax, have fun.