Have I Been Wasting Money?


My family needs all of the grocery savings that we can get.  And, I fear know that we have been wasting some money!

Our reality is that we have growing children - their appetites seem to grow by the day.  Our grocery bill is getting larger each week and our budget is feeling the pain.  My husband says that he is now on a forced diet.  A diet imposed upon him by the fact that our children are now eating a wider variety of foods and larger portions.  Our children are eating and eating and eating.  I now fully understand why my parents frequently said - "our children are eating us out of house and home."

We clip coupons, eat out less, among other ways to try and save some cash.  But, I know that we have wasted money over the years by throwing food items out before we really needed to.  It seems that we have simply been uninformed and stricken with fear due to those stamped on dates.  Until now.

I vow that I am going to be more knowledgeable and waste less of our grocery money.

Food-Product Dating Made Easy

Understanding how food-product dating works might not be a subject you've lost any sleep over. But, if you're a typical consumer, it has probably been a source of confusion that's resulted in some perfectly good food being thrown in the garbage or poured down the drain.

Many consumers incorrectly assume that a date stamped on a product's package is an expiration date. They automatically throw it out once that date arrives, thinking the food is unsafe to use. This is not true.

Does federal law require product dating?

Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not required by federal regulations. Even so, you will typically find what's called an "open date" (use of a calendar date as opposed to a code) on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. This dating is done voluntarily by the manufacturer. It is intended to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale, and to help the consumer know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date.

Types of dates and what they mean

If a calendar date is shown on a product, federal regulations do require that a phrase explaining its meaning be printed immediately adjacent to the date. These phrases are "sell-by," "use-by" and "best if used by (or before)."

  • A "Sell-By" date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before this date.
  • A "Best if Used By (or Before)" date is a recommendation for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A "Use-By" date is the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality. This date is determined by the manufacturer based on analysis of the product throughout its shelf life.
Most asked about items

The items that cause most concern among commissary shoppers are exactly those perishable items listed above - dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry. So, let's take a look at each product or category of products separately.

Milk: A "sell-by" date is normally stamped on every carton. Make sure you purchase the milk before this date. Take it straight home and refrigerate immediately at 40 degrees or lower. Don't leave it in the trunk of your car while you squeeze in a few more errands on the way home, and don't let it linger on the counter or table during a meal. Pour the servings you need and return the carton to the refrigerator promptly.

Under optimum conditions, milk should remain fresh up to five days or longer beyond the "sell-by" date.

Yogurt: Most yogurts will be stamped with either a "sell-by" or a "best if used-by" date. Store yogurt in the same manner as fresh milk (refrigerated at 40 degrees or lower) and use by the "best if used-by" date for highest quality.

After that date you might see some separation of fluid in the product, which will affect its appearance, but this factor alone is not an indicator of spoilage. It may be perfectly fine once it is stirred. Trust your own sense of taste and smell, plus your personal knowledge of how well it has been cared for since coming to live at your house when deciding to use it or toss it.

Yogurt stored under optimum conditions can be expected to be of good quality and freshness seven to ten days beyond the "sell-by" date.

Eggs: Egg cartons will normally be stamped with a "sell-by" date. At home, refrigerate the eggs in their original carton. It is designed to keep the porous shells from absorbing odors from other foods, and to protect the eggs from breaking.

Eggs have a very long shelf life. Properly refrigerated, they can be expected to maintain reasonable quality for three to five weeks beyond the "sell-by" date.

Meat and Poultry: Vacuum packed meats sold in all DeCA commissaries require both Date of Pack and Sell By Date.

Commissaries carry both a "sell-by" and a "use-by" date. Purchase these meats before the "sell-by" date, keep them refrigerated properly and either use or freeze by the "use-by" date.

Tray-packed fresh meats and poultry, including turkey, plus fresh rabbit and duck are normally stamped with a "use-by" date. Recommendations for handling and storage of vacuum packed meats also apply to these products.

Once a perishable product such as meat or poultry is frozen, these dates become irrelevant because, according to USDA experts, foods kept frozen continuously (at 0 degrees or below) can be safe indefinitely.

Infant formula and baby food: Federal regulations require a "use-by" date on the product label of infant formula and the varieties of baby food under FDA inspection. If consumed by that date, the formula or food must contain not less than the quantity of each nutrient as described on the product label. Additionally, infant formula must maintain a sufficient quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple. If stored too long, formula can separate and clog the nipple.

Dating of baby food is for quality as well as for nutrient retention. Do not buy or use baby formula or baby food after its "use-by" date.

Practice safe-food handling at home

Your commissary maintains rigid quality assurance and sanitation standards to make sure the foods you are offered are fresh, wholesome and safe. After making your selections, though, it's up to you to care for them properly until consumed. To answer the "Is this stuff still good?" question with confidence, practice these four rules at your house.

  • Purchase fresh-dated products before the "sell-by" date.
  • Refrigerate perishable products promptly, and use or freeze meat and poultry products before the "use-by" date.
  • Remember that product dating is a guide for quality, rather than safety.
  • Also, remember these rules do not apply to infant formula and baby food, which should not be used after the "use-by" date.
By Kay Blakley, DeCA Home Economist
How do you and your family save money on groceries?  Have economy changes had an impact on what you spend on groceries and/or the way you shop for groceries? Show Full Article

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