Breaking the codes: Knowing your food is safe

Published 4:28 pm Saturday, March 17, 2012

Now that spring is officially here, I have found myself wanting to do a little spring cleaning — in the kitchen, that is.

If you are like me, you may have found a couple of outdated items (or so it says on the container) but is it safe to still consume the food? Now is the perfect time to decode those dates on your packaging to know what they really mean and if the food is still safe for you and your family. Here are the codes you need to know:

1. Best-by or best before: Found on shelf-stable or freezer items, for example boxed cereal, canned tomatoes or frozen hash browns. This code is voluntarily provided by the manufacturer and it tells you how long the product will remain at optimal quality when it’s stored unopened. It is not a safety date.

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2. Sell-by: Found on perishable products like milk, cheese, meat and yogurt.

This date is a guide on how long a store can display a product.

You should buy before the date expires but you can still store it at home, depending on the product, anywhere from two to 10 days beyond the sell-by date. Meat, for example, carries recommendations that you freeze or use the meat within 48 hours after purchasing. Milk is OK to drink for up to a week beyond the sell-by date.

3. Expires on: Found on infant formula, baby foods and over-the-counter medicines. You should always use the product before this date for safety reasons.

4. Packing codes: Found on many products for manufacturers’ use to track products and manage inventory. It is not used as a date for consumer use.

There is a special code used on eggs that requires a little fun with math. There is a packing code on each carton of eggs. You will find it as a three-digit code on the side of the carton. Pack dates are given in numerical order based on the day of year.

This Julian code, as it’s known, will indicate 001 if eggs were packed on Jan. 1 — and the number 365 will indicate the eggs were packed on December 31.

Eggs remain fresh four to five weeks beyond the packing date.

And spring cleaning doesn’t have to be a “mom only” project; get the family involved in checking out the pantry shelves. Kids may gain a sense of ownership and pride, and it teaches them future skills as an adult.

Not only may you find some outdated items, but you may get an overall perspective of what types of foods are hiding on the shelves which inspires you to be a little more creative in the kitchen.

See if your kids can do the math to figure out the date of packing on the eggs in this recipe (they’ll love the recipe too).

Tex-mex frittata

Serves 6

All you need

•2 tbsp canola oil

•1 (32 ounce) package frozen Hy-Vee O’Brien potatoes

•6 large eggs, beaten

•1⁄4 cup water

•1 tsp oregano

•1⁄2 tsp salt

•1⁄4 tsp ground black pepper

•1⁄2 cup shredded reduced-fat Colby Jack cheese

•1 cup black bean and corn salsa

All you do

1. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add frozen potatoes, arrange in a single layer and cook for 5 minutes. Stir well and cook, without stirring, for an additional 5 minutes. Transfer to an 8-inch square baking dish sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.

2. Whisk together eggs, water, oregano, salt and pepper. Pour over potato mixture. Sprinkle with cheese.

3. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until edges are golden. Allow to stand for 5 minutes before topping with salsa.

Nutrition facts per serving: 270 calories, 12g fat, 3.5g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 220mg cholesterol, 560mg sodium, 28g carbohydrate, 4g fiber, 5g sugar, 12g protein.

Daily values: 15% vitamin A, 20% vitamin C, 10% calcium, 6% iron.