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Spring Cleaning? Don’t Forget Food Cupboards

The other day I flipped on the TV and came upon a show about hoarding behaviour. A camera crew captured footage of someone climbing over a mountain of boxes, clothing and trash to get around his home. The piles were so high that his head nearly touched the ceiling.

The next time I opened my cupboard, I thought about that episode. I don’t like to waste food, but was I “hoarding” food that was lower in quality or potentially unsafe? I tossed a couple of things that were well past their prime. Let’s take an imaginary trip through a cupboard. We’ll shrink a food inspector down to doll size so he can climb around in a cupboard. Our imaginary inspector, Ben, will accompany Sandy, a homeowner, through her cupboard.

“Ben, these dates are really confusing! I write my date of purchase on the cans and packages of foods, but I don’t understand what the manufacturers’ dates mean. Some food packages say ‘use by’ and other foods say ‘sell by.’ This baby formula has an expiration date. What does this mean?” Sandy asked.

“The sell-by date is meant for the store. The use-by date is a quality date. It’s the last date recommended for use of the product while it is at peak quality. The food may be safe to eat, but the texture and even the nutritional value may decline through time. You should not feed your baby any formula past its expiration date,” Ben replied.

“How long do canned fruit and canned vegetables maintain their quality?” Sandy asked.

“Well, I see you’ve had this tin of oranges for 3-1/2 years. Acidic foods, such as commercially canned fruits and vegetables, are of best quality when used within 18 months. Low-acid foods, such as commercially canned vegetables and tuna, have a storage life of two to five years. Your oranges are past their prime and may have some flavour and texture changes,” he said.

“How about my home-canned salsa from last summer,” Sandy asked.

“To have a safe home-canned product, you need to begin with a safe recipe and follow it. We find too many people who experiment with home canning and that’s not safe. Homecanned goods are at their best quality if used in a year but are safe longer than that,” he said.

“How long are baking powder and cake mixes OK?” Sandy asked.

“For best quality, store baking powder for up to six months in an unopened container or for three months after opening. Cake and brownie mixes are of best quality when stored for about a year on your shelf,” Ben said.

“After grocery shopping, rotate your stock so you don’t lose track of what you have. Put your oldest food in the front so you use it first.”

– Julie Garden-Robinson, PhD, L. R. D., is a North Dakota State

University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist

and associate professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

About the author

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Julie Garden-Robinson is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the department of health, nutrition and exercise sciences.

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