Spring is synonymous with freshness, which is probably why the idea of spring cleaning came about. If you are doing a spring cleaning, do not forget your cupboards and refrigerator/freezer. This is a great opportunity to take inventory of your stock, throw out the expired, use up the excess, and free up some space, as fresh opportunities (local produce) become available. Not only does a thorough cleaning of cupboards and cold storage look great, but you can also clean up potentially bacteria-ridden spills and crumbs that attract pantry pests.
Be sure you are storing food properly. Before you begin cleaning, check the temperature in your cold storage and make necessary adjustments. Your refrigerator temperature should be between 33 and 39 degrees (above freezing, but below 40 degrees). The freezer should be zero degrees.
Start at the top, checking dates and removing leftovers or other old products, wiping shelves in between. I would recommend sanitizing the shelves since many foods stored in the refrigerator, such as raw meat, contain harmful bacteria, and this is a good opportunity to eradicate unseen dangers. Trying to keep your refrigerator and freezer uncluttered helps to maintain a clean and safe cold-storage space, so if you are doing this "big clean" only once or twice a year, be liberal with discarding unused food. Try to use items that have been in your freezer for a while, or consider discarding them. Food stored in a freezer continues to be safe for some time but will begin to decline in quality after six months, so make a list of what you have, and plan on using it soon.
When cleaning out your refrigerator, check dates on bottles of things that last for a while, dressings, mustards, etc. I am often surprised to find outdated products that have been in my household a relatively short time but were close to their use-by date when I purchased them. Tossing half-full bottles of dressing is a good reminder to check those dates prior to purchase to avoid wasting money in the future.
As often as possible, check the sell-by or use-by dates on packaging. Though many foods may continue to be safe to eat after a sell-by date, a use-by date should be heeded. Furthermore, these dates indicate a timeline for quality as well as safety, so items past these dates may carry increased risk of food-borne illness or just taste bad; either way, they are probably not worth eating.
Baby food and formula must always be discarded by their expiration date. For most dry goods (flour, cereal, rice), six months is a good timeline for use. Canned items should be used within a year of purchase.
Though the use-by date may be far off, if the food has not been used in the last six months, ask yourself, 'Will I use it soon?' If the answer is not likely or you have other boxes of the same food, consider donating it to a food shelf prior to the expiration date. If it is past the expiration date, throw it out.
This is a great opportunity not only to make room in your cupboards, but also to make note of the foods you are storing excess amounts of. You may not have planned to have a dozen boxes of spaghetti, and once you become aware of that, you can use what you have and wait to purchase more.
In addition, be sure to wipe down the cupboards to get rid of crumbs, which attract pests. If you find evidence of bugs where you store food (it is common, do not feel bad), contact your local extension office for free information regarding the safest and most effective method of eradication.
When it comes to food safety, the motto to live by is "when in doubt, throw it out." It is not worth the risk of food-borne illness to save a few dollars. If the quality has declined, it is likely the food will be wasted once prepared anyway, since no one really wants to eat bad-tasting food. For more complete guidelines on food storage, check the foodsafety.gov website for storage charts or contact your local cooperative extension office.
Jordy Kivett is a nutrition educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. For more information, contact her at 561-7450.