Home Food 101 Am I Throwing Away My Food Too Soon?

Am I Throwing Away My Food Too Soon?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

One of the biggest struggles with clean eating is embracing things that are actually perishable. They wilt. They rot. And if you are already frustrated by your ability – or inability, for that matter – to cook the stuff you actually bought… you’ll probably be mad as hell looking in your fridge… and then your garbage… and then your wallet.

But never fear! Caught this in the NYTimes (y’all know I love the Times):

“Nearly two-thirds of Americans needlessly discard a quarter-gallon of milk each month,” said Ethel Tiersky, the editor of ShelfLifeAdvice.com. “Most people think those dates are telling you that after that, the food isn’t safe,” said Ms. Tiersky, a retired English teacher and self-described “food safety fanatic” who monitors the industry with the help of a blue-ribbon panel of professors. “They’re not. They’re about quality. ‘Past this point, the quality of the food is not at its best.’ ”Virtually nothing in your refrigerator jeopardizes your health, Ms. Tiersky added.

“The pathogens that cause food to look bad, smell bad or taste bad are not the ones that make you sick,” she said.

The real story is even shadier, I’m afraid. Much of the confusion on this issue comes from the tangle of terms applied to food (“sell by,” “use by,” best before”) and their dubious origins. With the exception of baby formula, the federal government (Agriculture Department, Food and Drug Administration, etc.) plays no role in regulating such terms or dates. At least 20 states administer regulations locally, but mostly for dairy products and usually to control how long products can be kept in stores, not how long they should be kept in your refrigerator.

The vast bulk of the dates that appear on the margins of dried, canned or packaged products were put there by manufacturers, who alone determine their decision-making process without revealing their standards. In other words, whom do you want to trust to tell you how long your food is good for? General Mills or general sense? Chef Boyardee or Chef Mom and Dad?

“We have five senses that were given to us that are the best tools for finding out whether food has gone bad,” said Bridget Lancaster, a host of “America’s Test Kitchen” on PBS. “We’ve all opened a carton of milk that has three days to go and it smells bad. Conversely, we’ve all opened one where the date’s three days past and it’s still fine. My dad used to say that a weatherman has only a 50-50 chance of getting the weather right. I feel the same way with food.”

Ms. Lancaster said that to avoid squabbling with her husband, a professional chef who’s a stickler for expiration dates, she uses a “first in, first out” philosophy that many stores employ. When all else fails, she falls back on her personal motto of cooking: somebody will eat it.

“Food is to be eaten and enjoyed,” she said. “You’re not supposed to be a slave for your cooking. You’re not supposed to be stressing over what’s for dinner. There’s probably stuff in your fridge, at any moment, that you can whip into a meal. And better to use it than throw it out. It breaks my heart to throw out food.”

A second look at this quote:

Virtually nothing in your refrigerator jeopardizes your health, Ms. Tiersky added. “The pathogens that cause food to look bad, smell bad or taste bad are not the ones that make you sick,” she said.

So, now that we’ve covered processed food, the question is… what do we do about fruits and vegetables?

The first place I stopped was the USDA’s website:


Fruits and vegetables, FIRM
(such as cabbage, bell peppers, carrots, etc.)
Use. Cut off at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot (keep the knife out of the mold itself so it will not cross-contaminate other parts of the produce). Small mold spots can be cut off FIRM fruits and vegetables with low moisture content. It’s difficult for mold to penetrate dense foods.
Fruits and vegetables, SOFT
(such as cucumbers, peaches, tomatoes, etc.)
Discard SOFT fruits and vegetables with high moisture content can be contaminated below the surface.

Soft fruits and veggies – like cucumbers and mushrooms – have to go, but firm ones like carrots and apples… you can cut around any moldy parts.

But since I don’t always trust the USDA… I went somewhere else, too. The FDA says:

Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Produce that looks rotten should be discarded.

And one more for good measure – an excerpt from an interview with Johnathan Bloom, author of American Wsteland:

Q: Fresh fruits and vegetables seem to spoil as soon as we buy them. Any advice?

A: Fresh produce tends to be quite delicate and easily bruised. Fruits and vegetables are also sensitive to temperature shifts. And then you throw in the beautiful, uniform appearance most stores require, and it’s a wonder that any fruits and vegetables make the cut. We can do a better job storing our produce. Mostly, that means keeping items in our fridge’s crisper. Also, we need to make friends with our paring knives. One bad spot or leaf shouldn’t doom produce to the trash.

What do you do?

You may also like


Fearce Diva March 8, 2011 - 11:52 AM

If it looks really bad I throw it away.

I absolutely hate wasting food! I like buying bags of potatoes and apples but as soon as I do I go weeks without eating any then I get sad when I feel like I have to throw them out. So I started just buying what I need for the week.

But sometimes, I cant resist a bag of apples or when my local store has potatoes on sale for 99cents/bag I cant resist. I just make sure to use them!

BlackBerry Molasses March 8, 2011 - 2:10 PM

First, hi Fierce Diva. This is str8nochaser.

Secondly. We freeze a lot of stuff we buy fresh. After a big produce haul, I cut up and freeze fruits and veggies that I know can take it. Its a little bit of a science… you can’t throw a bag of baby carrots in the freezer and expect them to come back to life. The expansion of water in the fruits and veggies bends the fiber and can make them mushy after thawing.
But yeah, we like to freeze things.

We also only buy what we know we can eat in 2 weeks.

Green Afro Diva March 13, 2011 - 1:06 PM

I freeze a lot of my food too. I come fron a background where food was not ever wasted because my family was poor. I’d suggest using freezer bags and dating your produce. The best ones to freeze are apples(with some lemon) string beans, and peas.

Kjen March 8, 2011 - 11:53 AM

Hmm, I’ve been ambivalent about spoilage for a while now. I seemed to swing from one extreme to the next.
I cut out a lot of my anxiety by buying the least amount of fresh produce a week I think that I need. I’ve also started to divide what veggies I will need for a few meals a week and freezing the rest. I’ve avoided a fair amount of spoilage this way, plus I was able to build up a nice stock of veggies that I can just take out whenever I need them. I try to make sure to always take stock of my freezer once in a while. I’ve also learned the hard that the freezer is not a fountain of youth. Food will spoil while in the freezer as well.

Michalet Corbett-Clark March 8, 2011 - 12:08 PM

I’m a firm believer of cutting around or pulling off (leafy things) parts that I won’t eat. If fruits and veggies have been forgotten and they can be saved then they get trimmed and frozen. Think of smoothies, daiquiris, breads or soup bases. Because I shop in a grocery that has live food (not radiated) if ginger, garlic, or potatoes start to shrink I put them in water then plant them in a pot. Spinach and baby shanghai cabbage comes with the roots so they go into water as well and sometimes in the container garden. I’ve saved the tops of beets and grown beet greens for salads. Frozen black bananas make the best banana bread. I’m cheap like you Erika so I stretch my food dollar as far as possible.

Sarah March 8, 2011 - 12:30 PM

That last quote is so correct: the paring knife is your friend. I cut off the tops of celery if it starts to look wilty–same thing with carrots, or bad spots on apples, etc.

One of the other things that’s helped me is to know *how* to store various fruits and vegetables so that they will last longer: apples and potatoes in the fridge; winter squash in cool, dark places (those suckers last forever!); tomatoes on the counter (never the fridge, or else they get mealy); nuts and seeds in the freezer; mangoes on the counter until they get ripe, then throw them in the fridge to halt the ripening, etc. My best friend on this has been the back section of my trusty, falling-apart Better Homes and Garden cookbook (with the red checked cover!).

Shante March 8, 2011 - 12:44 PM

I am also a first in first out believer. I can’t drink milk more than a day past the date but that is all in my head. I don’t trust cans past their date depending on what the product is. If it is beans it has to go but if it is bread crumbs it can stay.

One of the best things you can do is find out what foods can be frozen and won’t lose their integrity. To help me save money I will freeze my spinach for my green smoothies so I don’t have to worry about it going bad and once my bananas get really soft I’ll throw them into the freeze for smoothies or even banana bread. I have ricotta, sour cream, cheddar cheese, meats, bread and veggies in there.

JoAnna March 8, 2011 - 1:29 PM

I’m eating more berries lately and buy only 2 containers at a time. That’s enough for 3-4 days, until I take another trip to the grocery store. Same with salad stuff, other fruit, and veggies. I only buy what I know I’ll eat in 3-4 days, or I buy frozen produce. Sometimes, my church will get food from Gleaners or Forgotten Harvest, and I’ll pick out a bag of very ripe tomatoes (or other produce) to cut up and freeze. All else fails, a pot of vegetable soup or stew is great for using up wilted veggies.

DaniBel March 8, 2011 - 5:24 PM

I throw stuff away. I have to. I live with my mother who is retired and she leaves things in the fridge forever. I get worried about her eating something bad, especially deli meat that’s been sitting around forever. So once a week I go through the fridge and throw out anything past its date. I went to culinary school and took numerous food safety classes so I’m very anal about bacteria, time and temperature control and using ingredients as soon as possible.

Erika Nicole Kendall March 8, 2011 - 5:48 PM

I had this convo with a dear friend who has also had culinary training as well and I think that the ideas passed on to those of us with experience in the hospitality industry are very different from that which we’re talking about here, in application in a household where we’re a bunch of el cheapos (well, at least me for that matter.)

I mean, we’re kinda pitting quality up against cost in regards to things already in your house… not in a professional kitchen with a budget specifically set for these things. Ginormous difference.

Michelle March 8, 2011 - 8:02 PM

Aside from going to the store for things that I need at that moment when i plan out my meals I plan around the food spoilage believe it or not. I know banana’s don’t last long. I buy two or three at a time. By day 4 they are brown and spoiled. Apples Granny Smith tend to last a little longer. When I look at the sale section. I buy a lot of those veggies, blanch them and then freeze as well. Seems to be working for now. I buy Tomatoes and blanch them for when I make my Pasta Sauces…sometimes they are mushy and that is fine because its going in to a stew or something. I really had to learn my lesson the hard way buying a ton of food at one time. I would be throwing away So much fruit thinking i could eat it for the week. I even started buying smaller portions of pre-cut fruit. My store has containers small and large of pre cut pineapple, strawberries, all that stuff. I use to laugh at people buying them thinking they were too lazy to cut a pineapple. Sometimes its just convenient and it makes sense if you don’t think you can eat a whole pineapple in a week.

NeeNee August 29, 2011 - 7:14 PM

I’ve found it helpful to buy green bananas in bunches of 5 or 6. If you don’t eat them right away they will last for a while because they were unripe to begin with.

Lee April 5, 2011 - 3:25 PM

I’ve really started utilizing my freezer for fresh produce–my husband does the grocery shopping every two weeks, and he really goes to town on the produce! I hate seeing stuff wasted, and I find writing out a tentative menu with fresh ingredients listed helps me to remember to use things up, and also keeps me from feeling that “What on earth am I gonna cook tonight” feeling when I get in from work.

Also, I compost. Get a bin, and your stuff that goes bad goes right in. I don’t feel bad about throwing out okra if I’m putting it in the bin and it’s turning into rich compost for my yard and garden.

Milaxx April 5, 2011 - 5:40 PM

I want to do a small garden this summer. I was looking at the refuse from juicing thinking that would be good for compost.

Milaxx April 5, 2011 - 5:38 PM

I have been unemployed for over a year. You think shopping on a budget is hard, try shopping on the meager amount UE provides.

I do a few things;

1.) Separate veg & fruit I plan to juice or make smoothie from the fruit & veg I will eat in salads or cook. We eat with our eyes and I am less likely to eat the ugly fruit.

2)If there is a sale on veg that can be blanched or roasted, I buy it, cook it and separate into freezer bags. This is a good way to save at the grocer on those “quick sale” produce items.

Last summer/fall I joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) for 6 weeks. For $15 per week (8 week trial run at WF) I had so much produce I was actually giving food away. It was a pain to go pick the food up each week and I spent 3 hours every Sunday night cooking and freezing, but I still have a few items left from that. It was a great savings for me and also supported local farmers.

Dae June 2, 2011 - 12:07 AM

The produce we throw out goes directly to the compost bin.

Baranda Sawyers June 19, 2011 - 9:57 AM

If fresh foods are still good, yet their consistency from being to soft or floppy won’t work for my family’s tastes I either include them in the homemade dog food I prepare twice a week or make a stock for soup and freeze leftovers. For fruit if it starts to go before I can use I cut them up and freeze them for use in smoothies desserts later. I’m also known to just go ahead and cook multiple meals at a time if think something may turn quickly. Just means later in the week I don’t have to cook.

Garden August 29, 2011 - 11:11 PM

As someone with a very sensitive stomach (even to spoiled milk) I tend to be more cautious.

What about strawberries? They get moldy so fast. Best to toss it all, cut around? I’m too afraid to eat it once there’s mold on it. I am smarter now and buy just a few items at once so I finish them before they go bad.

Kelekona October 24, 2011 - 3:32 AM

Once I notice mold in a package of strawberries, I pick through them to see what I can save. Mushy is trash, surface mold is cut-away, the fine ones are washed thoroughly.

Then I dice them up, add a little sugar, and slowly cook them until they are strawberry syrup.

chanela September 9, 2012 - 2:55 AM

i absolutely hate wasting food! we do it so much at my job it’s ridiculous. perfectly good food has to be thrown out if there is any left over after we close, even if it was fresh. we aren’t allowed to take the food home either.

for me, my enemy is rice! i put my rice in an airtight container but it STILL gets these little skinny moth looking things in there. i kept throwing my rice away everytime (even the day after) until i went online and tried to find out how to prevent those flies from getting in rice, then i found out that it was inevitable and the eggs were in the rice when the rice was picked and packaged…. so instead of throwing it out, even with all the bugs and maggot looking things, they said to just always rinse the rice and you should be fine…. even though rinsing takes out all the nutrients : (

Kelekona September 9, 2012 - 1:06 PM

Chanela: the pest eggs in rice can be killed by freezing. People who stockpile rice for the zombie apocalypse use any combination of freezing, adding food-grade Diatomaceous_earth, or storing it with an oxygen absorber partly so the eggs have to suffer a vacuum.

Samiam December 20, 2012 - 11:27 AM

Chanela: Wow. I’ve never had that issue, but I switched to brown rice years ago and it lives in an airtight container in the frig .. next to the barley. I read somewhere that the oils in the unprocessed grains can go rancid and the frig/freezer was best method of storage.

I tend to eat barley (quick cook or pearled) instead of rice/pasta. It’s way better for you and helps “bulk up” stews & soups for super cheap. 1/4c uncooked makes like a FULL cup serving cooked. That stuff is AWESOME … except the pearled/normal kind takes 45m to make. Slow cooker is your friend, or (thank god for Quaker Oats) there is a “Quick cook” type that only takes 10m. yeah, it’s boxed but the time savings is worth it.

Lynnel January 22, 2013 - 7:33 AM

Do not store vegggies and fruit together or in the main part in your fridge. They both give off gases and when together it will spoil faster.

Comments are closed.