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Understanding Food Labels And Leftovers

May 01, 2013

Keep these simple reference points in mind when reading food labels and sifting through stored leftovers. These tips should serve as basic guidelines for food storage and handling, and are not derived from official FDA or USDA regulations/specifications.

Food Label Types

  • "Pull Date" or "Sell By": This is the time by which foods are acceptable for display in a store. These foods (if sold after the date) are still safe to eat, but safe food preparation and handling are still applicable. This guideline is used by stores/supermarkets as a logistical reference point for consumables, and doesn't necessarily translate to guidelines for consumption/storage in the home.

  • "Best if used by": At the date given, the food item has reached the official freshness threshhold, by which the quality or flavor (after the given date) will decrease at a certain rate. Keep caution when preparing these foods (if being used after this date), as their shelf life decreases with each passing day. Make note of how many days/weeks have passed since the "best used by" date, and evaluate these for spoilage and contamination.

  • "Expiration Date": This is the finite deadline for milk and other perishables (not including eggs). Typically these expiration dates are backed by scientific research, and are usually accurate (milk in particular). Immediately discard any foods that have breached this threshold, and make note of other items/products that are due to expire.

  • "Pack Date": The date in which the food was processed or packaged. Keep in mind that the logistics (delivery etc) affect these dates, such that a "packed item" may reach shelves days after processing or packaging, but is nevertheless fit for consumption (these items are typically non-perishable)


Quick Leftover Tips 

  • Refrigerate/Freeze foods in shallow (less than 4 inches deep) containers up to two hours after cooking. Air space around the edges of the container is one strategy that enables quicker cooling and circulation of cold air within the container.

  • Label all storages with the suggested expiration date (or any information that can be taken from the existing label). This will prevent others from eating leftovers that have passed their expiration date. Keep a succinct chart of storage times for refrigeration/freezer items, and mark the leftovers with the date of storage, the date of potential (or definitive) expiration, and be sure to discard when in doubt.

  • Reheat leftovers to approximately 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Soups and liquids should be reheated to a continuous boil.

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