Is your fridge crammed with half-empty bottles of condiments and questionable leftovers? Do you have foods so heavily freezer burned they're unrecognizable? Or perhaps your pantry shelves are home to boxes of crackers past their prime or spices that have lost their aroma.
If you're nodding your head, then it's time to survey what's lurking on those shelves. Sounds like a daunting task, but it's one well worth the effort. Spring cleaning your pantry can help you get rid of expired food, save on waste and be more organized.
Set aside an hour or two to go through everything. Then clean, evaluate, throw out and replace if necessary.
Spring cleaning starts by emptying the fridge. Wipe down the shelves with hot soapy water. As you return items, throw out condiments or foods that you don't intend to finish or opened bottles that have been taking up space for months on end. Check best before dates for salad dressings, sauces, mayonnaise and margarine, and pitch anything that's long expired.
"Best before" dates refer to quality, not safety. They tell you how long a product will retain its freshness and flavour. Many refrigerated foods can still be eaten safely soon after their best before dates, provided they've been stored properly and still look, smell and taste fine.
"Packaged on" dates, mandatory for meat, tell you the day the fresh food was packaged in the store. "Use by" and "expiry" dates mean the product should be eaten by the date listed. If these dates on refrigerated food have passed, it's safer to discard them.
If you have multiple jars of the same product open, resist the temptation to combine them in one jar since the best before dates will be different depending on when you bought them and how long they've been opened. Remember, you're not saving any money on Costco-sized bottles of condiments and salad dressings if you don't use them quickly.
Now, what to do about surface mould growing on the forgotten lunch meat or the grape jelly? Foods with high-moisture content - e.g. lunch meats, jams and jellies, yogurt, soft cheese and cooked leftovers - should be tossed. That's because more mould may be growing below the surface of these foods.
Mouldy bread and baked goods, which are porous foods, can also be contaminated below the surface and should be thrown out.
It's difficult for mould to penetrate the surface of low-moisture foods such as hard cheese and firm fruits and vegetables. As long as you cut off at least one inch around and below the mould, these foods can be used. Just be sure to repackage them in fresh wrap.
Check the temperature of your fridge. To keep foods safe when they are being stored, make sure your fridge is set at 4 C (40 F) or colder. And don't crowd contents - air circulation is key for keeping foods cold.
While frozen foods remain safe indefinitely, their quality deteriorates as time passes. Frozen leftovers, casseroles and homemade pasta sauces that are more than three months old should be pitched.
While freezer burn doesn't make foods unsafe to eat, it does affect quality. Those dry grayish-brown leathery spots are caused by air reaching the surface of the food. You can cut those spots away before or after cooking the food. Foods with a bad case of freezer burn, however, probably aren't worth keeping.
Proper packaging can prevent freezer burn. Freeze leftovers in airtight freezer containers. If you're planning to freeze supermarket meat or poultry for more than a month, wrap the package with airtight heavy-duty foil, freezer paper or a freezer resealable plastic bag.
Make sure everything that goes into your freezer is labelled with a date as to when it was purchased. Make sure the temperature of your freezer is set at -18 C (0 F).
Sort through your non-perishable foods and check best before dates on packages of crackers, breakfast cereal, peanut butter and unopened condiments. Open bottles of vegetable oil and give them a whiff. Over time, unsaturated fats go rancid causing them to smell stale.
Whole grains such as oats, brown rice and whole wheat flour deteriorate more quickly than refined grains because of their slightly higher fat content. They'll last longer if stored in the fridge.
Although canned goods have a long shelf life, keep in mind they do lose a little of their nutritional content every year. Storing them past the recommended time can also change quality, colour and taste.
High-acid foods such as tomatoes, fruit and fruit juice can be stored up to 18 months. Canned vegetables and meat, which are less acidic, can be stored for two to five years.
When spring cleaning, rotate your stock. Move older cans to the front so they are used first; place newer products in the back. Any can that's leaking, bulging or cracked should be tossed in the trash.
Label canned goods and packaged foods that don't have a best before date with the date they were purchased. Store canned foods in a cool, dry, dark place and, ideally, use within one year of purchasing.
Next, move on to your spice rack. Most dried herbs last up to three years and spices two to four years, but their potency will diminish with time. Clues to freshness include colour and smell. If their colour has faded and they don't release an aroma when lightly crushed in your hand, they're ready to be replaced. Store your dried herbs and spices in airtight bottles, away from light or heat.
How long can I keep it?
Use the following guide to maintain the best quality and safety of some everyday foods.
Opened food in the fridge
Ketchup: six months
Mayonnaise: two months
Mustard: 12 months
Salad dressing:three months
Barbecue sauce: four months
Jams, jellies: 12 months
Deli meats: three to four days
Cooked leftovers: two to four days
In the freezer
Meat, pieces: eight to 12 months
Meat, ground: two to three months
Bacon: one month
Poultry, pieces:six months
Fatty fish (e.g. salmon):two months
Lean fish (e.g. sole, tilapia): six months
Casseroles: three to four months
Frozen dinners: three to four months
In the pantry
Peanut butter: nine months
Dried pasta: two years
White rice: two years
Brown rice: six to 12 months
Flour, white: six to 12 months
Flour, whole-wheat: one month
Brown sugar: four months
White sugar: two years
Vegetable oil, opened: two to four months
Dried herbs: one to three years
Spices: two to four years
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is lesliebeck.com.