Have I Been Wasting Money?


My family needs all of the grocery savings that we can get.  And, I fear know that we have been wasting some money!

Our reality is that we have growing children – their appetites seem to grow by the day.  Our grocery bill is getting larger each week and our budget is feeling the pain.  My husband says that he is now on a forced diet.  A diet imposed upon him by the fact that our children are now eating a wider variety of foods and larger portions.  Our children are eating and eating and eating.  I now fully understand why my parents frequently said – “our children are eating us out of house and home.”

We clip coupons, eat out less, among other ways to try and save some cash.  But, I know that we have wasted money over the years by throwing food items out before we really needed to.  It seems that we have simply been uninformed and stricken with fear due to those stamped on dates.  Until now.

I vow that I am going to be more knowledgeable and waste less of our grocery money.

Food-Product Dating Made Easy

Understanding how food-product dating works might not be a subject you’ve lost any sleep over. But, if you’re a typical consumer, it has probably been a source of confusion that’s resulted in some perfectly good food being thrown in the garbage or poured down the drain.

Many consumers incorrectly assume that a date stamped on a product’s package is an expiration date. They automatically throw it out once that date arrives, thinking the food is unsafe to use. This is not true.

Does federal law require product dating?

Except for infant formula and some baby food, product dating is not required by federal regulations. Even so, you will typically find what’s called an “open date” (use of a calendar date as opposed to a code) on perishable foods such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products. This dating is done voluntarily by the manufacturer. It is intended to help the store determine how long to display the product for sale, and to help the consumer know the time limit to purchase or use the product at its best quality. It is not a safety date.

Types of dates and what they mean

If a calendar date is shown on a product, federal regulations do require that a phrase explaining its meaning be printed immediately adjacent to the date. These phrases are “sell-by,” “use-by” and “best if used by (or before).”

  • A “Sell-By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy the product before this date.
  • A “Best if Used By (or Before)” date is a recommendation for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
  • A “Use-By” date is the last date recommended for use of the product while at peak quality. This date is determined by the manufacturer based on analysis of the product throughout its shelf life.

Most asked about items

The items that cause most concern among commissary shoppers are exactly those perishable items listed above – dairy products, eggs, meat and poultry. So, let’s take a look at each product or category of products separately.

Milk: A “sell-by” date is normally stamped on every carton. Make sure you purchase the milk before this date. Take it straight home and refrigerate immediately at 40 degrees or lower. Don’t leave it in the trunk of your car while you squeeze in a few more errands on the way home, and don’t let it linger on the counter or table during a meal. Pour the servings you need and return the carton to the refrigerator promptly.

Under optimum conditions, milk should remain fresh up to five days or longer beyond the “sell-by” date.

Yogurt: Most yogurts will be stamped with either a “sell-by” or a “best if used-by” date. Store yogurt in the same manner as fresh milk (refrigerated at 40 degrees or lower) and use by the “best if used-by” date for highest quality.

After that date you might see some separation of fluid in the product, which will affect its appearance, but this factor alone is not an indicator of spoilage. It may be perfectly fine once it is stirred. Trust your own sense of taste and smell, plus your personal knowledge of how well it has been cared for since coming to live at your house when deciding to use it or toss it.

Yogurt stored under optimum conditions can be expected to be of good quality and freshness seven to ten days beyond the “sell-by” date.

Eggs: Egg cartons will normally be stamped with a “sell-by” date. At home, refrigerate the eggs in their original carton. It is designed to keep the porous shells from absorbing odors from other foods, and to protect the eggs from breaking.

Eggs have a very long shelf life. Properly refrigerated, they can be expected to maintain reasonable quality for three to five weeks beyond the “sell-by” date.

Meat and Poultry: Vacuum packed meats sold in all DeCA commissaries require both Date of Pack and Sell By Date.

Commissaries carry both a “sell-by” and a “use-by” date. Purchase these meats before the “sell-by” date, keep them refrigerated properly and either use or freeze by the “use-by” date.

Tray-packed fresh meats and poultry, including turkey, plus fresh rabbit and duck are normally stamped with a “use-by” date. Recommendations for handling and storage of vacuum packed meats also apply to these products.

Once a perishable product such as meat or poultry is frozen, these dates become irrelevant because, according to USDA experts, foods kept frozen continuously (at 0 degrees or below) can be safe indefinitely.

Infant formula and baby food: Federal regulations require a “use-by” date on the product label of infant formula and the varieties of baby food under FDA inspection. If consumed by that date, the formula or food must contain not less than the quantity of each nutrient as described on the product label. Additionally, infant formula must maintain a sufficient quality to pass through an ordinary bottle nipple. If stored too long, formula can separate and clog the nipple.

Dating of baby food is for quality as well as for nutrient retention. Do not buy or use baby formula or baby food after its “use-by” date.

Practice safe-food handling at home

Your commissary maintains rigid quality assurance and sanitation standards to make sure the foods you are offered are fresh, wholesome and safe. After making your selections, though, it’s up to you to care for them properly until consumed. To answer the “Is this stuff still good?” question with confidence, practice these four rules at your house.

  • Purchase fresh-dated products before the “sell-by” date.
  • Refrigerate perishable products promptly, and use or freeze meat and poultry products before the “use-by” date.
  • Remember that product dating is a guide for quality, rather than safety.
  • Also, remember these rules do not apply to infant formula and baby food, which should not be used after the “use-by” date.

By Kay Blakley, DeCA Home Economist

How do you and your family save money on groceries?  Have economy changes had an impact on what you spend on groceries and/or the way you shop for groceries?

About the Author

Love My Tanker

I am an Active Duty Army Wife. I have enjoyed living in the US and overseas. I have volunteered in many realms over the years with various FRGs, Sew Much Comfort and a Wounded Warrior Equine Therapy program. I consider myself lucky to have been a part of the SpouseBUZZ family since 2006.

I homeschool my children and continue to love volunteering when time allows. The Army life is a busy life, but a good life!

  • we buy very little, prepackaged foods, other than cereal and tinned tomatoes! We try to eat FRESH. This means we buy only what we will eat in the next few days. Lettuce is the worst – I always end up throwing some of it away.. the slime monster.
    We make a menu! that’s saved us a lot – because we don’t buy anything that’s unnecessary. We can’t buy in bulk anymore, no room in this apt.

  • SeabeeSeniorWife

    LMT – Thanks for all the info. I found out about the egg thing about a year ago and it has really helped with how often I was wasting perfectly good eggs. I do get online coupons, which helps for many items.
    Our biggest waste is fresh fruit. If anyone has any tips on how to make bananas last longer, it seems like they turn mushy in three days some times. I like to buy canteloupe and peaches when they are on sale but it seems like they too go bad in just a few days. I’ve actually started to not buy many of these fruits and stick with apples and oranges just because they last longer.
    Good luck with that growing family. I come from a family of 2 boys and 2 girls and we literally were using 2 gallons of milk a day when we were in our teen years. We had an extra fridge that just held milk and when my mom went shopping, she always needed two carts and one only had milk and potatoes in it. Thank goodness milk wasn’t priced so high way back then:)

  • SeabeeSeniorWife: You can put bananas in the fridge once they’ve reached your preferred level of ripeness to get a few extra days out of them. The peels /will/ turn brown in the cold, which can be off-putting, but the fruit inside will stay fine for a lot longer.

  • annie

    Thanks for the info. I am always checking to yougurt dates and am frustrated when I throw away food. When bananas are overripe and no one will eat them, I put them in the freezer to make banana bread at a more convienient time!

  • annie

    Thanks for the info. I am always checking to yougurt dates and am frustrated when I throw away food. When bananas are overripe and no one will eat them, I put them in the freezer to make banana bread at a more convienient time!

  • Thanks for the tips! I’m always looking for ways to trim the grocery budget, and you’ve helped.

  • em

    I make a weekly grocery list and in boxes down the right side of the paper I put the dinner menu for each night: meat, starch, vegie. Before I actually leave the house to shop, I go through all my coupons, sort according to the store layout and off I go. I usually save about $15 a week and I don’t have a lot of throw outs at the end of the week. I also have a menu plan for the week and it has saved me from the temptation of fast food many many times!

  • Thanks for this! I forwarded this on to my FRG because I think this is very useful! We can all tighten our belts and stop wasting food!

  • My grocery bill has doubled because of changes in the economy and gas prices. Even though I do not drive, the cost of getting groceries to market has gone up. Plus I live downtown in a major city.
    So…I love to cook and therefore each very little prepackaged food. I use coupons, buy what’s on sale and cook around that. Making menu’s beforehand helps. As well I spend all of one day a week cooking my meals for the next 10 days.
    I’m only cooking for one, but it does also help if the whole family eats the same meal. I have friends with kids who make 4 different things because this one doesn’t like broccoli, and that one doesn’t like chicken.

  • annie

    Thanks for the info. I am always checking to yougurt dates and am frustrated when I throw away food. When bananas are overripe and no one will eat them, I put them in the freezer to make banana bread at a more convienient time!

  • Thanks for the tips! I’m always looking for ways to trim the grocery budget, and you’ve helped.

  • My food budget was getting completely out of hand, even without fast food or going out to eat. My kids, ages 7,5 and 2 are all going through growth spurts or something so dairy products never reach the sell-by date in my house.
    The Debbie Myers Green Bags have been tremendous savers in my house. Bananas last a week without going rotten, and lettuce lasts until the very last leaf now. They’re reusable as well, I HIGHLY suggest these bags.
    I’ve begun shopping at a local ethnic market weekly because the produce is amazing and ultra-cheap. (10 cents celery, 10 bananas for a buck, lettuce for a quarter, etc.)
    I make a menu for a week and try to use leftovers from one day in a meal for the next. Roast chicken turns into fajitas the next, pot roast leftovers turn into BBQ beef sandwiches, etc..
    I don’t use coupons because I find that generic or off-brand items are still cheaper.

  • Aside from canned items, I buy almost no premade products and bake all my breads at home. I am now spending $50-60 a week on groceries (even though I live nowhere near a commissary) thanks to this blog: grocerycartchallenge.blogspot.com . The woman who runs this site provides wonderful tips and tricks that are major money savers.

  • Jen

    We have a family of 6, our kids range in age from 7 to almost 14, and they all have healthy appetites. While our grocery bill has gone up some, it hasn’t gone up a lot. I make a menu each week and a grocery list from that. I buy absolutely what is on my list, we eat very little junk food, no boxed food/convenience food. I don’t clip coupons – whatever coupons I use are right there next to the product on the shelf. My cart is usually made up of produce, some canned tomatoes and low sodium chicken broth, cereal and oatmeal, dairy, bread, frozen vegetables and meat. I can feed our family of 6 for around $150 a week – and that includes laundry/cleaning supplies and cat litter. We live in Hawaii – otherwise, it’d be a lot lower!

  • kirsten

    I echo the above about making a menu based on what’s on hand/shopping sales/clearance/repurposing leftovers.
    We belong to a CSA and I’ve gotten very creative on what to do with heaps of unusual-to-me veggies:
    thank goodness for my freezer! When my husband told me he was deploying I told him I was buying a freezer on the way home from the airport unless he wanted any say in it. (I’d wanted one for a while and he didn’t think we had room). Now I can save summer produce in the form of spaghetti sauce, pick local berries and freeze them for smoothies, and freeze school-lunch-sized portions of leftovers for quick thawing on busy mornings.
    My friend’s column is in the midst of an excellent series of how to save money on groceries, please check it out http://kitchenparade.com/2008/07/how-to-save-mone

  • Laura, a Military Mo

    SeabeeSeniorWife, another thing you can do with bananas is put them in the freezer to be used later in banana cake, bread or pancakes. Take out of the freezer, defrost, cut off one end and squeeze out like toothpaste, it’s already mushy and really does make the BEST Banana Bread ever.

  • Shannon

    Hi, I just wanted to pass along a few of the things that really help our family of 6 (4 of whom are children with hollow legs! ;b ) save big on our grocery bill. I have several tips so I may post them in several posts so as not to be confusing. We live in the south, and several members of our extended family hunt. We have the deer processed and freeze it. I know some people have an aversion to the thought of eating deer, but really it does not taste all that much different from beef, it is much leaner than beef! You can use deer meat in any recipe where you would normally use beef. We put up 3 deer in our freezer last winter, I spent 35.00 per deer for processing giving me a total cost of 105.00 for enough meat-roughly about 230 lbs-to last the entire year. When processed, each deer yielded burger, steaks, roast, cube steaks, stew meat, tenderloin-roast and medallions. As DH and DS are ‘meat-oriented’ lol this works out rather well and I have estimated that we save roughly 1000.00 to 1500.00 a year instead of buying beef! If you have friends that hunt or fish talk to them, some people are such avid hunters that they may be willing to hunt a deer just for you. Fresh caught fish can be frozen and used later. We eat poultry as well, and as I haven’t found a good source for it yet, I just buy it in bulk family packs when it is on sale and freeze it in meal sized packages.

  • Shannon

    Next tip, A garden is very handy, and most kids will enjoy helping to tend it. You can have a small garden no matter where you live. If you live in the city with a small or no yard, you can still garden even in your house! Just put the plants in containers on your porch, balcony, deck or where ever you may find room. You can grow lettuce indoors year round, green or red leaf lettuce is very easy to grow and produces edible leaves rather quickly. We love the local farmer’s markets, roadside stands and flea markets, you can find great deals there and many times the produce available is of a much better quality and cheaper price than the big chain grocers. The summer is a good time to visit a U-Pick-It farm, many of these will have fruits and vegetables really cheap when you pick it yourself. (e.g. blueberries $8.00 a GALLON! Strawberries $8-10 a gal or flat-These freeze well when you wash them, let them air dry and place them on a cookie sheet in the freezer until frozen then transfer to freezer bags, my kids love frozen berries as a snack-especially on a hot day. )Young children often love picking the berries, and yes, eating a few while they do it, too, J I know many people are pressed for time, but I assure you, it really does not take much time to put up food for preserving, and young children can help out with most things and will usually enjoy a task that makes them feel useful. With my older kids I have found it gives me more time to bond and communicate with them. (DH is deployed I am a full-time college student as well as full time mom to 4 kids and half their friends as well, it seems.) This also teaches all of the kids good habits and skills for their future. I average about 40-50 a week on the grocery bill, mainly dry and dairy goods, cleaning supplies and other necessities like TP, pet food, etc. (gotta love those coupons!) I figure, since we eat much healthier, the kids learn good skills, has worked so well at opening up the doors of communication with my kids AND it is enabling us to save extra for our new house, it is well worth the time.

  • Shannon

    Another tip, We buy very little junk food, our policy is if we want junk food, we make our own. Cakes, cookies, fruit pies, snack cakes, etc. Banana, pumpkin, apple, zucchini bread is great for quick snacks, we have several baking pans I found that make single serving size loaves. I make a huge batch and freeze individually in sandwich bags for snacks. The kids pack a lunch for school-so they will just put a frozen one in their lunch box and by lunchtime it has thawed enough to eat while also keeping the rest of their lunch cold and fresh. If I make pancakes for the kids there is always leftovers, place a sheet of waxed paper between each pancake so they wont stick, and freeze-great micro-waved for quick in a hurry breakfasts. When we make soups or stews, if there are any leftovers, I put them in glad or Ziploc type single serve containers and freeze them. Great for in a hurry dinners, especially when one kid wants chili, two kids want chicken noodle, and the other wants potato soup, pop in microwave to heat up, serve directly in container, salad on the side!

  • bev olecki

    But the one question about meat cut at the deli counter — when you get coldcuts home and put them in the fridge, how long can you keep them safely? My husband bought sliced hame on 10/2. Can we still eat it today 10/8? It doesn’t smell, but I don’t know what a good rule of thumb timeline is on coldcuts. Someone help!

  • sylvia

    Great post! I saved this for future reference. I always get confused about those dates so now I can print it and show it to my husband.
    I will definitely, now be more weary of dates and what I need to use immediately.
    One thing I continuously try to do is buy meats that I can freeze in the air tight thingamajigger and buy frozen veggies or veggies in a can if possible or the fresh ones if I know I will make it within a few days. Things that I can freeze for a while are the best though. just defrost that day or day before so I know that it will be on the menu.

  • Betsy

    Hi! I’m a civilian who is constantly clipping coupons and has far more than I can use at times. I also understand military families can use coupons up to 6 months past expiration date. I would love to share these with you guys but want to be sure that military families are receiving them. Could someone tell me how this can be accomplished and or if the expiration information is true…this could even develop into a church project.
    THanks for your sacrifices and thanks for your help here!
    You are all heros!

  • Diane

    Only Commissaries overseas will accept coupons that are up to 6 months past expiration date. I have a call into our base Commissary to see if she has an address or phone # that you can contact to send them. I’ll post what I find out.

  • A big part of saving on food is knowing how to cook, how to stretch those leftovers and turn them into cassoroles, or packing them in lunches! I recommend going to the library or a used book store and buying cook books to help you plan menus and come up with a shopping plan. This way you’ll know what to buy and why you’re buying it!
    Get to know a good butcher –he can tell you ways to save money and often tell you what’s coming up in terms of special buys they’re getting in.
    Also, learn to shop for your vegetables on a bi-weekly basis. Don’t stock up on fresh veggies if you know they’re going to go bad. Just do what they do in other countries –hit the market on the way home…but don’t buy anything else.
    Steer away from processed foods.. ie most of the stuff you buy at Costco or Sam’s. They’re high in fat and salt, and there’s a hidden cost: The amount of money and time spent later on dealing with gallstones, obesity, high blood pressure and depression gained from years of eating a bad diet adds to the price of those processed foods. Stick with your menu planning and those fresh ingredients won’t go to waste.
    Lastly, teach your kids to cook. Teens are perfectly capable of putting together a mac and cheese from scratch, a spaghetti ala olio, a meatloaf sandwich, an omlette or even a bowl of yogurt sprinkled with granola. Instill good eating habits in them, and believe me –your costs will go way down.

  • Diane

    Here are the names and phone #’s for the Commissaries overseas if you are interested in clipping coupons to send them. I suggest calling and speaking with the store manager prior to sending them.
    808-449-1363 Hickam AFB,
    505-782-5437 Osan Korea,
    315-226-4365 Misawa,
    671-339-8787 Guam,
    808-257-1460 Kaneohe Bay

  • Amy

    Hickam and Kaneohe do not accept past date coupons. Most of the commissaries in Europe do though. Here’s a link for the store locator. There are emails for the store/managers. http://www.commissaries.com/store_locator.cfm

  • THANKS FOR THE INFORMATION!!! What about coupons that are current? Is there anyone or anyplace I can send them. Do the commissaries distribute them to the individual troups…forgive my ignorance just trying to help those who are sacrificing so much.