Natl. Retail FedI once had a patient who was very thrifty, and her thriftiness extended to a commitment to never, under any circumstances, if she could help it, throw food in the garbage. I recall her stories of her concocting delicious-smelling meals from old cottage cheese, soggy vegetables, and even meat that seemed beyond its prime. She’d proudly serve these dishes to her husband and child, who were used to this and tucked into the meals without batting an eyelash.

“If you cook it long enough, it kills all the bacteria!” she said to me gaily when I raised an eyebrow about it. And to her credit, no one ever got sick—at least not that I know of.

Quite opposite her culinary resourcefulness is the startling fact that Americans throw away 40 percent of their food. This comes from a recent Reuters report that revealed this kind of wastefulness costs the average household $2,275 per year. That’s $165 billion worth of food shuttled directly to the landfill annually.

Most of the waste comes from grocery stores that trash unsold fruits and vegetables. Huge restaurant portion sizes that go half uneaten is another major reason why the amount of food wasted in the United States is enough to feed more than 150 million people per year.

Maybe the folks who think that the United States should cut back on the food stamp program should consider how we might make use of all this extra food. That’s what Doug Rauch, ex-president of Trader Joe’s, plans to do with his new restaurant, The Daily Table. The restaurant and grocery store will offer inexpensive groceries and meals made from expired food.

Now, hold on there. I know what you’re thinking. Am I suggesting that people should eat expired food? At first blush, this seems like a bad idea, but let me clarify a few things about what expiration dates really mean—or, more specifically, how little use they are in deciding whether a food should be kept or thrown away.

Labels reading “best before,” “use by,” and “sell by” are widely misunderstood. “Sell by” is about retail stock control. It’s a suggested date by which a shelf-stable food (something in a can, jar or box) should be sold in order to be at its best when consumed. “Best before” and “use by” are terms food manufacturers get to interpret as they like. There’s no real science behind the dates. So Rauch’s idea is brilliant and not unsafe for the consumers who will take advantage of perfectly good food at a discount.

On the other hand, a perishable food that has been opened and exposed to oxygen is only going to be good for a few days after opening. So that can of peaches with the “best before” date a month away will definitely need to be thrown away if you opened it a week and a half ago.

At Ageology, we don’t generally recommend making so-called “shelf-stable food” a staple of your diet. Fresh vegetables, meats and fruits in moderation are far better. But you can reduce food waste by whipping up a soup or a casserole with veggies whose days are numbered. Buy meat in small quantities and keep unused portions frozen (but never re-freeze). Split restaurant meals or take leftovers home. When you have a bunch of random ingredients in your fridge that might expire soon, try Googling the ingredients plus the word “recipe.” One of the wonders of the Internet is that someone, somewhere, has probably created a recipe that will use most of what you might otherwise have thrown away.

I don’t recommend you go to the lengths my patient did to use all the food she bought. Never eat soft foods (bread, soft cheeses, yogurt) that have grown any mold, because the mold spores can move through the food. Mold produces mycotoxins that can raise the risk of some cancers. However, I do think it’s important to make a conscious effort to purchase groceries you know you will eat and not have to throw away. When you waste food, you’re not just throwing away veggies or meat or fruit; you’re throwing away your money. Don’t be frightened by expiration dates, but don’t push it too far past the limit.


Photo credit: National Retail Federation Organization