How To Minimize Grocery Trips and Spending During Lockdown

Grocery shopping these days can be a highly anxious experience for many. There can be health risks and many stores are setting a purchase limit in response to dwindling supplies of basic staples.

You know, that can of baked beans that you’re not sure how it got in there but has always been in the back of your pantry and never sounded appetizing until now? Yes, that can. You check and see it is expired. Oh no! You waited too long and now you will need to throw away this perfectly good food…or do you?

Understanding expiration dates and which foods you need to trust them and which foods you are okay to treat as a suggestion can be very important in stretching your food dollar during this pandemic. Waste not, want not.

If you don’t believe me, check out this blog written by the CEO of grocery store chain Mom’s Organic Market, Scott Nash. He spent an entire year eating expired food, and concluded that most expiration dates do not mean the food is spoiled. That would be akin to the CEO of Apple telling us it is totally ok to be using the iPhone 4 without ever upgrading. His advice and conclusion are directly opposing traditional business tactics of buy, buy, buy, and I really respect his commitment to minimizing food waste and ensuring consumers reap the full benefit of his products. He says, “As someone who has spent 30+ years in the grocery business, I believe the main culprit—is to overhaul our Food Product Dating system and guidelines. You wouldn’t believe the number of items that are returned by customers or thrown away because of a rather arbitrary date.”

So if many of us blindly follow them, where do these dates actually come from? Expiration dates became commonplace in the 70’s, but there are no federal regulations that create consistency among manufacturers or even require them to be on packaging (except infant formula.) The lack of consistency is why you see a mix of “best by”, “sell by”, and “use by” on your groceries.

The USDA labels these kinds of expiration dates:

– Use by: This is the “last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.”

– Sell by: This is “how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.”

– Best by: This is when a product will be of “best flavor or quality.”

The crazy part is none of these dates indicate anything about food safety. Instead of throwing out your purchases you made, save money in this cash strapped time by making use of your food following these tips.

Pay Attention To What Goes In Your Cart

There are definitely some foods that spoil more quickly than others. Culprits like bread and fresh produce tend to have a short shelf life. The nutritional difference between fresh and frozen or canned vegetables is minimal, and in some cases flash freezing and preservation can actually release more nutrients. Those fruits and vegetables will last longer and tend to be more inexpensive than quickly spoiled produce.

You may think eggs spoil quickly as they are unprocessed food in the same vein as bread and produce, however, eggs can stay good for up to five weeks in the fridge, per USDA guidelinesFoods like squash and onions can also last one to two months when stored at room temperature or in the fridge.

Order Your Pantry By “First Use”

Make sure to take stock of what is already in your pantry before shopping to minimize overlap. If you come home and find you accidentally duplicated an item, it is good practice to put the older item in front of the newer one so you ensure you use it first. This helps you sort through the food you have already and minimize wasting money and food.

Use Your Freezer To Prolong Freshness

We already know produce goes off fast and can be expensive, especially when out-of-season. The smart tip to be able to enjoy fresh, summer peaches in the snow is to freeze them.

When freezing fruits, cut off any inedible skin and leaves, wash fully, and dry them. Vegetables can be washed, stemmed, and placed directly in the freezer, however, blanching them (boiling in water for a short time) can help slow enzyme release that causes loss of flavor and texture while frozen. As mentioned previously, purchasing already frozen produce can help save your wallet and create long-lasting groceries.

Meats and home-cooked foods can also be frozen to consume later. The USDA ensures most meats stay good frozen for an entire year.

Home-cooked meals also freeze well. Many people prepare meals in advance and freeze them for easy dinners. Foods that work well for this tend to be saucy meals like lasagna, curries, soups, and casseroles. Preparing and storing large meals can help you save money and another trip to the store by ensuring you use the ingredients you bought. Bonus, it’s also great for lazy nights!

When In Doubt, Run A Smell Or Taste Test

Sometimes complicated topics can be easily simplified. In the case of food expiration and food safety, good old fashioned smell and taste tests work very well. If a food tastes and smells fine then it’s okay to eat.

You can often consume things like eggs, yogurt, and milk past their date. As long as nothing seems off then the food is perfectly safe.

It is also fine to eat many non-perishables far past their sell date like canned beans, canned vegetables, boxed muffins, etc.

Expiration dates generally indicate food quality rather than food safety. If you are focusing on your expenses, food can be an easy place to tighten up when you are educated about expiration dates and when to ignore them. If you are still wary of eating food past its date, trust your senses to tell you if something is amiss. Remember that can of baked beans in the back of your pantry we talked about? Betcha it still tastes great!